Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany
Director:  Peter Weir
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  138 Minutes
Release Date:  April 20, 2004

“Though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home.

This ship…is ENGLAND.”

Film ****

2003 was a year that will probably be forever remembered for two grand, epic films that expanded the canvas of cinema and further opened our minds to the possibilities in the art of filmmaking.  It’s almost a shame they had to come out in the same year.  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was a grand fantasy with an eye on the future, using computer animation and other technologies to create worlds that could never otherwise be glimpsed by the human eye.  It racked up an impressive 11 Oscar nominations, then enjoyed a perfect night by collecting every last one of those statuettes.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was another magnificent epic, but one with an eye on the past.  Yes, modern technology was employed to help bring the vision to life, but it was done seamlessly and quietly, never calling attention to itself.  This was a film that hearkened back to the grand epics of old like Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia…films where gigantic visions were brought painstakingly to life the old fashioned way:  i.e., if you want to bring classic naval battles to life on the screen, you build the damn ships and let them set sail.  It was also impressive with its Oscar nomination tally of 10.  If it hadn’t had to compete with Return of the King, it could have easily ran the gamut as well.  But it had to settle for one win for cinematography.

The point is, really, that there is no comparing the two films.  Each went after a different goal, and each attained it.  Simply said, there is no reason to believe that Master and Commander will be lost in the historical wake of any other film…it stands singularly as an amazing epic of smashing cinematic entertainment in its own right.

Based on the series of novels by Patrick O’Brian and brought to the screen under the always masterful eye of director Peter Weir, Master and Commander is part period piece, part seafaring adventure, part war drama, and full out character study of two remarkable men in an extraordinary situation.  The men are Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe), who commands the British frigate Surprise on the far side of the world, and his chief surgeon and best friend Dr. Stephen Maturin (Bettany).  Aubrey is a seasoned military man:  brash, bold, confident and born for a life at sea.  Maturin is a kind of Renaissance man:  well studied, quiet, intelligent, and a naturalist.

Their situation is this:  they are stationed near South America about as far from home as they can possibly be and still be on the globe.  Their mission is to prevent French warships from reaching the New World and thus establishing outposts of power.  Their chief enemy is a ship called the Acheron.  The French ship surprises the Surprise (no pun intended) in the opening moments, and we see that Aubrey’s frigate is clearly outmatched.  The enemy has more speed, more protection, and longer range guns that can pound the Surprise before she can even get close enough to fire a shot.

Aubrey’s sea savvy helps his ship and men escape their fate that day, but for the remainder of the film, the Surprise and the Acheron play a deadly cat and mouse game in the Pacific.  There is a sense of genuine suspense in play throughout the movie, because we never know when the two ships will cross paths again, nor do we fathom how a seriously outclassed boat like the Surprise can ever hope to catch, much less conquer, the Acheron.

But while the adventure at sea unfolds, there is plenty of drama afoot in the lives and routines of the men on board.  More than any other movie since Das Boot, this is a film that truly conveys the feeling of living and existing in a tight space at sea for long periods of time, with home unimaginably far away and with sudden death always a possibility:  if not the French bringing it, it could be a horrific storm (one of the most spectacular sequences), or the complete lack of weather leaving the windless Surprise dead in the water for days and days (one of the most haunting sequences). 

You could say the structure of the film is that of a tightly woven interseries of smaller tales that make up a greater whole.  The chance for Maturin to explore the Galapagos Islands but making a greater discovery than any new indigenous species is one of them.  The sailor who seems to have the curse of Jonah is another.  Most of all, it’s the drama unfolding within Aubrey:  is his obsession with the Acheron really a matter of duty?  Or is it an Ahab-like hubris that drives him, thus threatening not only his ship but the lives of his men?

Any way you choose to analyze or dissect the many great parts of the movie will lead you to the same inevitable conclusion:  this is grand scale epic filmmaking at its very best; the kind I once wistfully pined for and openly lamented would never really be seen again in this day and age.  It’s a perfect marriage of adventure, drama, and character, and the rare film where the size of the vision doesn’t dwarf the humanity within it, but rather elevates it.  It is a singular masterpiece of filmed entertainment, and one of the new millennium’s finest offerings to date.

Video ****

This production had to be either a cinematographer’s worst nightmare or his dream come true.  The difficulty in shots involving natural light or next to no lighting take the visual palate to extremes.  Luckily, director of photography Russell Boyd was up to the challenge, scoring a well-deserved Oscar for his work.  This anamorphic widescreen presentation from Fox preserves every frame of his superbly constructed work for home video viewing.  No matter how light or how dark, images come across with expressive clarity and integrity.  No details are lost or hazed over.  Every shot is filled with information and nothing gets lost from grain, compression or bleeding.  One of the best offerings of the year in this department.

A word of advice:  please forgo the pan & scan version of this DVD and opt for the widescreen, even if you don’t normally do that.  You might just as well play the disc with your TV set turned off as to let these great visual compositions be hacked up by butchers with joysticks and scissors.

Audio ****

The Oscar nominated sound comes to full fruition with either Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 soundtracks to pick from.  Every noise, from the most subtle wind or quiet coo of a bird to the overwhelming pounding of the cannon renders with vigorous clarity and integrity.  The battles will fill your home theatre with action coming from every direction, while the subwoofer will keep your shelves rattling and make you feel like your taking the fire yourself.  The music and dialogue are clear (save for the occasional strong accents that deliberately sound a little muddy), and the dynamic range is expansive.  Highest marks.

Features ***1/2

This collector’s edition set is generously packaged with a second disc of extras, starting with a terrific made for DVD documentary called “The Hundred Days”…one of the best production chronicles I’ve seen on disc.  You’ll get to hear from Peter Weir and his crew, Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and more as you see the grand vision of the film come to life.

Other featurettes target specific aspects of the production.  “In the Wake of O’Brian” lets Peter Weir tell the story of how the author’s popular novels were adapted for the screen.  There are also closer looks at the film’s visual effects, sound, as well as the HBO “First Look” special on the film.

Rounding out are 6 deleted scenes, three trailers, a stills gallery, a multi-angle presentation of the battle scenes, as well as a 28 page booklet with anecdotes and photos and a fold-out map that follows the journey of the Surprise.  All that’s missing is commentary from Peter Weir, but even without it, there is enough here to keep you busy for awhile.


A colleague of mine recently remarked that Peter Weir is one of those filmmakers that doesn’t turn out a new movie every year or every couple of years…there’s frequently a long wait between projects, but every one is a masterpiece or close to it.  I fully concur, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a shining example.  This ranks easily with the director’s finest work, and this collector’s edition DVDs is one of the year’s best offerings.  Wholeheartedly recommended.