Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) warns his crew that the Surprise is about to come under attack. (courtesy photo)

'Master and Commander' pits the British against the French, and leaves Americans to enjoy a spirited film

Before his death three years ago, Patrick O'Brian published 20 volumes of vivid historical fiction that, focusing on naval captain Jack Aubrey and ship's physician Stephen Maturin, recreate life on a British man-of-war during the early 19th century. Napoleonic France was the adversary, and the United States, an upstart former colony, had to be put in its place. Combining the first installment in the series, Master and Commander, with a later one, The Far Side of the World, the first cinematic adaptation of O'Brian's work is as nimble as its title is unwieldy.

The year is 1805, and, seven weeks out of home port, Aubrey (Crowe) commands his ship, the HMS Surprise, in pursuit of the Acheron, a French frigate, along the eastern coast of South America, around Cape Horn, and north to the Galápagos Islands, also aptly named Las Islas Encantadas - the Enchanted Isles. One of the most striking changes that Peter Weir, the Australian director who has worked in the U.S. for more than two decades, made to O'Brian's meticulously researched fiction was to have the hostile frigate be French instead of American. While American troops are dying in Iraq, it would have been hard for Twentieth Century Fox to release a feature in which the objective is to destroy a vessel that flies the Stars and Stripes. Some moviegoers in this country might be pleased to see an official representative of France vilified. "It's a devil's ship, I tell you," says one of Aubrey's sailors. "And it's leading us right to the gates of hell."

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Dir. Peter Weir; writ. Peter Weir & John Colley, based on novels by Patrick O'Brian; feat. Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D' Arcy, Lee Ingleby, Max Pirkis (PG-13)
It also leads them to a naturalist's paradise, the Galapagos, where Maturin (Bettany), a proto-Darwin, marvels at the giant turtles, swimming iguanas, flightless cormorants, and other fauna unique to that isolated environment. The Galapagos interlude is the only moment in the entire film in which we leave the confines of a sailing ship, but, unlike Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Master and Commander is not claustrophobic. Nor, despite the absence of women, does it seem deficient in dramatic hormones. The HMS Surprise is a vibrant, concentrated universe, in which officers and seamen manage, despite clashes of personality, the hazards of nature, and assaults by a wily, deadly enemy, to keep their enterprise afloat. We become privy to shipboard surgery without benefit of anesthetics, a flogging administered to a surly sailor, and a hearty meal of infested biscuits. "One must always choose the lesser of two weevils," declares Aubrey, whose mastery of puns is equal to his nautical proficiency. Nicknamed "Lucky Jack," he is the Master and Commander of the movie and the man-of-war, even when the storm is fierce or the winds grow slack. Hollom (Ingleby), an anguished midshipman who, convinced he is afflicted with the curse of Jonah, never gains the respect of his subordinates. But zestful Aubrey, a talented violinist who is a melodious match to the cellist Maturin, inspires his shipmates - and viewers - to follow him to the far side of the world. •

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