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#20. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - Analysis

Master and CommanderPerhaps the most prevalent theme of this course, second to that of British history, would be the power of one’s artistic license. When basing a film on historical events a filmmaker can find a wealth of inspiration, from the noblest of actions to the dastardliest of deeds, characters from archival legends serve as hearty cinematic fodder. However, when attempting to bring to life a well-known person from the past, everyone involved has a responsibility to respectfully represent him or her in a manner fitting to his or her reputation and background. This duty to effectively recreate history can easily handicap directors and screenwriters. Forgetting the artistic license all filmmakers keep in their back pocket, some become a slave to details, forfeiting the chance to make a great film by instead focusing on creating a faithful one. Peter Weir’s adaptation of the Patrick O’ Brian novel Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is not based on any real person, and this freedom gave the director the opportunity to produce one of the most historically accurate, and at the same time engaging films ever made.

Master and Commander is an exhilarating nautical escapade set during the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the 19th century. “Lucky” Jack Aubrey is the captain of the HMS Surprise, an aging but serviceable vessel in his Majesty’s fleet.  With orders to track and subdue the French privateer Acheron off the coasts of Brazil, Aubrey and the crew of HMS Surprise must effectively thwart Napoleon’s mission to extend his reach to South America. It is exciting, engaging, and complete fiction. Of course the time and place for which the film is set is accurate, but there was never a Captain Jack Aubrey or an HMS Surprise, and Weir takes advantage of this liberation from legacy to design one of the most praised films ever dealing with the time frame. At the time of its premier, Dr. William S. Dudley, director of the Naval Historical Center in Washington said, “I think it was the best portrayal of life in a warship during the Age of Sail that has been produced in Hollywood. The language, the uniforms, the rigging of the ship, the customs of the Royal Navy of that period, the portrayal of the captain by Russell Crowe, all seemed quite authentic to me.”Master and Commander books

All of these details of which Dudley praises gives the movie its verisimilitude, but was this authenticity a result of the filmmaker not being forced to slavishly concern himself with a character’s real life prestige? To put it another way, would Master and Commander have been as successful, both narratively and historically, if instead of telling the tale of Captain Aubrey the film centered on the adventures of Royal Navy legend Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson? The short answer is “who knows,” but when embracing conjecture it is possible to theorize that the exploits of Lord Nelson, however true and rousing they may be, would by the nature of a writer’s creative ingenuity limit his or her ability to fully explore the themes and details provided by the circumstance of time. They would be artistically tied to their character’s celebrity. 

Consider the response of historians to films like Elizabeth, Robin Hood, The Duchess, and so on. Biographical films carry too much baggage, their characters are too well known and that leaves room for error. If Queen Elizabeth, played by Cate Blanchett, cuts her hair too soon in the film, historians will notice. When Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood chooses to approach a version of the legend that most historians do not agree with, he will be criticized for the blunder. Master and Commander was heralded for its precise production of the era, its attention to detail, specifically because it could afford to do so.

Master and CommanderDocumentaries are considered to be the most historically accurate, and educational forms of cinema. They can employ knowledgeable commentators to explain any topic, and combine them with interesting images to best inform the viewer. And yet, the majority of documentaries focusing on the subject of the Napoleonic Wars and 19th century seamanship would have a hard time engaging the audience like Weir’s Master and Commander. While a documentary can provide pictures of war ships from that time, and perhaps even low-budget reenactments of famous battles, it is impossible for them to match the spectacle of an expensive Hollywood blockbuster.

Early History Branch historian Charles Brodine, after viewing Master and Commander said, “I was impressed with the depiction of the combat scenes: the crew moving to and fighting at their battle stations, the working of the guns below deck, the damage to ship and personnel from shot and shell, the care of the wounded and the repair of the ship after battle.” Many historians such as Brodine and Dudley praised the film for its effective retelling of one of history’s most exciting phases, a compliment rarely bestowed upon biographical films or documentaries, proof that fiction may in fact be the best method for manufacturing authenticity.



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