Last month, actor Russell Crowe took offense to a random Twitter user attacking the 2003 Peter Weir film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. You can see both the attack as well as Crowe’s defense of the film in the screenshots below.
I am firmly on “Team Crowe” in this debate. So much so, that I felt compelled to write a few words about the film. I could take the lazy way out and simply repeat what Russell Crowe wrote about the film. And, that would be enough. The film is brilliant. It is “exacting, detail oriented”, and “epic.” Beyond that, the film is very much a movie for adults.
That description has the potential to make people nervous. For some, it implies vulgarity, obscenity, or worse. For Crowe and many others, a movie for adults does not have to be synonymous with the aforementioned indecencies. And, in the case of Master and Commander, it is none of those things.
The film emphatically pushes against the modern blockbuster modus operandi of easy and casual viewing. The story is not spoon-fed to the audience. Characters are not given a handful of defining traits and then set loose upon a simplistic three-act plot. No, the film assumes the audience has the mental capacity to engage, pay attention, and decipher the sometimes-complex vernacular deployed by the filmmakers.
A strength and a weakness
This is the film’s greatest strength, yet it also serves as its biggest obstacle for mass appeal. General audiences tend to avoid films that require too much of them. This is not a knock on crowd-pleasers. When done well, I am a big fan of those types of films. Even so, there is a dearth of films that regard their audience with the utmost respect. Most films that are targeted to adults ramp up the “adult” content in some pointless attempt to artificially boost the maturity level. Movies for “grown-ups” were once commonplace in the film industry but have now become an endangered species, replaced by films loaded with mature content but emotional and intellectual superficiality.
That is why I love Master and Commander so much; it is stuffed-to-bursting with true depth but carries none of the unnecessary baggage of most modern films for adults. It feels effortlessly authentic, though there was clearly an exhaustive amount of effort involved in creating the film. The film thrusts the audience into the naval culture of that time without any dumbing down of the material or concessions to the audience’s intelligence. We are expected to pick up on the traditions, values, customs, and habits of the 197 souls who labor on the HMS Surprise. The daily disciplines of the ship and its occupants are clearly communicated, though never with obtrusive exposition or narrative. We discover the rhythm of the ship and the seamen by visual cues, repeated actions, and clever dialogue.
At its core, though, the film works best because of the characters, primarily the two leads, Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor. The interaction between Aubrey and Maturin is a master class of writing and acting. Their shared history is implied more than spelled out. We are given a sense of their relationship without having to resort to flashbacks or needless explanation. It is organically woven into the texture of the film: their dialogue, their love of music, the way they speak to each other in a tone and style that is reserved only for their friendship. Russell Crowe (Aubrey) and Paul Bettany (Maturin) have never been better. They bring the best out of each other.
There are many other praiseworthy elements of the film we could spend time discussing. The supporting cast adds charm and texture. The directing by master filmmaker, Peter Weir, is award-worthy. The cinematography is second-to-none. And, the music is creative and wholly original. It is no accident Master and Commander was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.
We need films like this
Perhaps some will find it odd that I have devoted this much time to a film that is nearly 20 years old. Fair enough. My defense is simple: the film deserves better. It deserved better when it released and it deserves better now. We need more films like this. We need films that demand more from their audiences. Films that inspire heroism, valor, and loyalty. Films about sacrifice, honor, and friendship.
We need to see more of these stories told because they are useful to us as human beings. A constant diet of “fast food” films is not good for anyone. A diet consisting of films characterized by crass vulgarities is detrimental to our spiritual wellbeing. Our souls require a more substantial and wholesome diet. It does not have to be this particular film, but I implore you to seek out films that do more than simply entertain. Choose wisely, as if your life depends on it. You never know, it might.