Mandel Maven's Nest: And Then There's Russell Crowe--
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World





Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward and, since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.



Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is shaped by three powerful forces: director Peter Weir, book series author Patrick O'Brian and Russell Crowe, to create an epic, costumed submarine movie on top of the water. (I'll assume that it's due to a work crisis that the Grouch who is a total sub movie freak hasn't wanted to see it yet.)
Weir controls us from the opening sights and sounds, like the original Star Wars, plunging us intimately into the middle of an ongoing tale and interlocking hierarchy of class and role relationships. Cinematographer Russell Boyd worked with Weir on Gallipoli and that's the only one of his films that presages the exciting in-your-face battle scenes (against both human and natural enemies). There are moments of confusion during the height of the battle as to which ship’s deck we’re thrust onto, but rather than damn the editor, I’ll figure it’s a way to bring the audience into the fog of war.
These choices accent the crowdedness of "this wooden world," even as Crowe's captain roams and thus controls from the bottom of the bilge to the top of the mast (and it's a sign of Weir's supreme confidence that he doesn't even bother to repeat that latter, very expensive, pleased-as-punch non-CGI shot of Crowe). The loud sounds of the water and weather elements are constant, frequently drowning out the pre-Tom Clancy techno-nautical speak. We can be relieved that Weir didn’t have smell-o-vision at his disposal as well.
O'Brian re-created this upstairs/downstairs microcosm in his novels, written starting in the 1970's; I've only read the first two so far and am already enthralled at the Jane Austen-like attention to male manners, anchored by the unique musical and intellectual friendship between dashing man of war Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, who is so unlucky physically, socially and financially on land, and his best friend the scientifically-minded Dr. Stephen Maturin, who is oblivious at sea and so crafty on shore.
Weir quietly sticks in references for the novels’ fans to enjoy, such as Maturin’s warning that both sides in the war have spies as a veiled comment on his own role and a glimpse of Aubrey’s letter-writing to his wife Sophie (in the second book they’re just courting). For O’Brian nit-pickers, yes, Aubrey did not need to learn camouflage from Maturin’s studies of natural science. While there's reference to Maturin's Irish origins, Bettany doesn't quite seem the half-Irish/half-Catalan mystery of the novels, despite the demonstration of his facility with languages, though oddly here it's Portuguese. Maturin’s ignorance of military customs –and freedom to challenge the captain in spirited philosophical debates on leadership and politics that are the highlights of the script and resonant of more than Bonaparte vs. England--might be bewildering to non-readers who have to infer that he is a civilian, not a naval officer.
These intellectual discussions, amidst violin-cello duets, are pivotal breathers amidst Crowe’s swashbuckling. While he and Weir chose not to make Aubrey as tubby as in the books, he does effectively take on a rolling main waddle and sports the trademark “Goldilocks” mane (a modified version, as he told Conan last week was “good for rock ‘n’ roll” when he was touring with TOFOG before he cut it all off) to completely take on the larger-than-life character.
But Crowe doesn’t just give us intense leadership (from an actor who spent half a day learning how to use the sextant so that his one line of dialogue on the subject would sound meaningful), but the radiant enthusiasm of command and action. The early 19th century milieu allows for more reaction to the ensemble than in Crimson Tide or Das Boot as we get a large age range, from child officers to wizened sailors, that bring out a wide variety of expressions in Crowe’s captain. Most notable is the avuncular twinkling as the character clearly recalls his own long apprenticeship at sea, which appears to be necessary to master the endless details of ship management of materials, men, and meteorology (from blizzard to broiling drought) and earn his crew’s approval of “true seamanship.” He equally captures the humor of drunken dinners and the contradiction to his claim of stoicism born of “a lifetime spent around wounds” as no match for the doctor’s.
In re-creating close male camaraderie, the casting of the entire crew is terrific, as the camera keeps us familiar with each distinctive face, and only one almost distractingly cute surfer-looking dude, so we are really caught up in their unpredictable fates. I don’t know if it was Weir’s choices or MPAA pressure, but for a violent movie much is left to our imaginations based on the vivid set-up for each confrontation, the wincing on those faces, and the bloody aftermath (but less than in O’Brian’s books where the decks are slippery with blood that needs constant buckets of water to wash off). Max Pirkis’s miniature midshipman is simply a scene stealer, even as he jarringly seemed to be out of Peter Pan where little boys fight pirates.
I’m a bit of a sea chantey aficionado, but I now think I must be more familiar with ones from later whalers and will assume the ones sung here by the crew are probably time and place authentic -- though it is very disappointing that these songs are not on the soundtrack CD. To hear the first song "Spanish Ladies" and the last chantey "Don't Forget Your Old Shipmate" sung in the film, you can get the CD Roast Beef of Olde England: Traditional Sailor Songs from Jack Aubrey's Navy that is all sea shanties, as sung by Jerry Bryant and Starboard Mess.
I was impressed that the appropriate music continues over the credits, with no jarring inclusion of contemporary schmaltz, as we are simply left with ship, captain and crew continuing as the sea goes on forever and the story never ends – or at least to a sequel.(11/24/2003)

The media seem oblivious to Crowe's appeal, and they just don't get why we would go see him in this movie --just like they were with Gladiator -- what focus groups are used to determine his Q ratings?:
See A High-Risk Film on the High Seas by Anne Thompson
in The New York Times, November 13, 2003 (fair use excerpts):
"After a 'cruel' first research preview in a "no man's land outside of Denver,' [director Peter] Weir said, Fox did get skittish. Research showed that 'women don't like the movie,' one Universal executive said. Both Mr. Crowe and Mr. Weir expressed concern about whether the marketing, which has stressed the film's action, would reach the right audience. '[Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Tom] Rothman assures me that their second broadside is aimed to demonstrate the emotional pull of the film,' Mr. Weir said. . .
Rothman acknowledged: 'The marketing is a challenge. We can't show the conventional girl in a bodice. But the emotional values are very satisfying to women. . . The relationship between Maturin and Aubrey is pivotal. 'Issues of loyalty and friendship are very female values,' he said. 'In the end he turns away from getting his prey and saves his friend. That dynamic between them is appealing to women; it's like Butch and Sundance.'
Surprisingly [my emphasis added] the studio's most powerful marketing tool has been Mr. Crowe, who has spent five weeks tirelessly campaigning in Los Angeles, Chicago, Texas, New York and at the world premiere in San Diego [and then circumnavigated the world BTW]. To soften his bad-boy image, the studio booked him for an entire Oprah show, on which he provided a charming taped tour of his Australian cattle ranch and wedding chapel, and revealed his bookish nature."

And from The Wall Street Journal November 12, 2003 (fair use excerpt):
Can 'Master' Command Box-Office Attention? by Bruce Orwall:
"The primary fan base for these volumes of historical fiction is thought to be an older, male-skewing group. . . It remains to be seen whether women moviegoers will respond. Norton's [editor-in-chief Starling] Lawrence jokes that while the books are perceived as 'dead white male amusement,' Mr. O'Brian had a healthy female following that turned out for his public appearances. But in addition to some intense violence, Master and Commander is devoid of female characters, except for one short scene in which a handful of women resupply Captain Aubrey's ship--a brief flicker of femininity that nonetheless is featured in the film's preview trailer. 'It's utterly sexist and backwards to think that women are only interested in movies that have a female protagonist.' Mr. Rothman says. 'Women are interested in great stories.' But the main tool for luring women is Mr. Crowe himself. Fox is betting that his undeniable appeal will override his reputation as an occasional hothead. Just in case, the studio is emphasizing that he is recently married and that his new wife is pregnant."
The Journal followed up in January: "Despite being well received by critics, it was a box-office challenge, relying on an all-male cast and targeted largely at a male, adult audience".

There has been a lot of discussion on the fan BBs as to whether the film can be deemed successful at the box office and if it will be profitable. Fans' concern is about the perceptions of Crowe, the future willingness of studios to pony up the bucks to let him do the level of movie he'd like to do, and if it would justify making a sequel from the many other books in the O'Brian series. From The Journal 1/28/04: "Fox is now banking on posttheatrical revenue to dig the movie out of its financial hole. 'We had hoped for award recognition to help market Master and Commander, said Fox studio co-chairman Tim Rothman. 'I would expect this to help box office and really raise the profile in DVD and ancillary. The road to profit for 9 out of 10 films goes through DVD and ancillary." I certainly would love to see one that dealt with how awkward Aubrey is on land, especially with women and creditors, while the doctor is spying. In lobbying relatives to see the film and in overhearing conversations around the city I hear over and over: "I'm not interested. It's a boys' adventure movie."
So its success does seem to be held back by some marketing errors the studio made that more women and younger folks, let alone minorities, don't think the film is for them: choosing as the main image of the film a dark, grim visage; emphasizing the battle scenes instead of the personal interactions between the captain and the doctor, including the fiddling; foolishly using commercial time for the silly second of exchanged looks with the "native woman" instead of showing the adorable Max the Midshipman; not including shots of the African crew mates.
Why not get Crowe or Weir on Charlie Rose to appeal to more adults? So why aren't they adjusting their marketing now that they see the results? The second week of December, the studio finally produced new print ads with a pleasant-expressioned Crowe and images of ensemble interaction with co-stars Bettany and the adorable Max. Now if they only remove the silly nanosecond of the native woman beckoning in the TV ads they might have more impact. A third ad campaign was unfurled when they re-released the film in January, post-Oscar-noms, to show Crowe full smiling and little shots of Max and Paul. But, hey, if Crowe only gets to make tiny indie movies with interesting directors and adventurous scripts, I'll go see those too!

Fan toramaru94 in Japan reported that the distributor there has gone in the other foolish direction:
"Buena Vista Japan has decided to promote M & C as a story of young boys who were caught in a tragic circumstances during war. It does treat boys as main characters and not Aubrey. When you go to the official Japanese M & C site, you do not get any highlight on Russell, instead you see Max Perkis. I do like Max boy but honestly. . . People who would go and see it are to be disappointed by a gross misrepresentation and can not boost rating or anything in this way surely."

Another fan Kumiko translated the Japanese ads: "Catch line: 'You taught us to be warriors for our loved ones.' (Apparently, "you" means Jack, and "we" means the midshipmen.)
Subtitle: In 1806, as the war between France and England aggravated, many men were being killed in action. In order to reinforce the diminished forces, the ones whom England chose to send to the battlefield as combatants were...
Narration (melancholy boy's voice): 'We did not know how to fight yet. We did not want to die. But we respected and trusted him (Jack). So we decided to follow him. Why are we fighting? Will we be able to go home alive? For our friends, for our family, we will follow him.'"
She also reported that preview tickets were given to a publisher of boys' comic (manga) magazine. updated 1/2/2004

My very distant cousin, Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, December 14, 2003, had an interesting theory about the movie's box office appeal and the zeitgeist of the times in Christmas Will Be Bloody This Year (fair use excerpt):

Anxiety has replaced cockiness as the dominant national take on our postwar war in Iraq. Intentionally or not, three of the four new Christmas war movies play on our current fears rather than reprise the slam-dunk triumphalism of Top Gun. And they do so even though most of them are top-heavy with creative talent (actors, directors, screenwriters) who hail from countries in the coalition of the willing (England, Australia, Japan, even Romania). . . .The only unambiguously gung-ho war movie of the bunch is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which went so far as to patriotically reorient the plot of the Patrick O'Brian novel that gives it its title: what was once a story about a Royal Navy frigate battling an American ship in the war of 1812 now pits the British against our favorite weasels, the French, in 1805. Despite Russell Crowe, the movie has done only half the business of Elf. That may be attributable to its frail narrative pulse, but it may also be because of an American audience's changing view of war.
One of the film's (and the war in Iraq's) loudest boosters, the columnist Charles Krauthammer, had hoped that Master and Commander would rally hawkish audiences back to the fold when it opened last month. "Its depiction of the more ancient notions of duty, honor, patriotism and devotion is reminiscent of what we glimpsed during live coverage of the dash to Baghdad back in April but is now slipping from memory," he wrote. But that memory continues to slip. (Mr. Krauthammer had previously signed on as a consultant to another jingoistic post-9/11 war movie, Showtime's DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, produced by a Bush campaign contributor; it also arrived too late for its "Top Gun" moment and tanked.)
. . . The gore on screen . . . in Master and Commander . . . is far more explicit than anything broadcast to the American public from our actual war in Iraq, where the administration's censorship and television's self-censorship conspire to sanitize the bloodshed as much as possible. That a 2003 American audience can revel in the disembowelments of 19th-century warfare but must be spared the bloodshed of a present-day war, even when encased in coffins, is itself an index of the nation's ambivalence about our continuing mission in Iraq.

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Comments, corrections, additions, questions welcome! Contact Nora Lee at mandelshultz@yahoo.com

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