If, like me, you still have trouble remembering which side is port and which is starboard, you might be inclined to let Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World sail on by without climbing aboard. The title alone was almost enough to scare me off, combining as it does two of the books -- the first and the 10th -- in Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume set of historical novels about the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. But the movie, like the ship it rarely lets out of its sight -- the HMS Surprise, a 28-gun warship mastered and commanded by Russell Crowe's Captain Aubrey -- somehow gets the job done, the job being to show us what it was like to ride the open sea in the days of sail. The perfect antidote to Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander reminds us that life aboard a ship 200 years ago was far more than a Disneyland theme-park ride.
It was a "little wooden world," to quote Aubrey, who rules that world with a firm and steady hand. When the Surprise, in an opening sequence that shows exactly how much damage a fusillade of cannonballs could do to ship and crew, is attacked by a French frigate called the Acheron, Aubrey develops an Ahab-like obsession to chase down and destroy a vessel that's both faster and larger than his, not to mention better armed. And Aubrey's crew might not be willing to follow him to the far side of the world -- around Cape Horn to the Galapagos Islands -- if he didn't have the indefinable qualities of a born leader, to which Crowe adds the indefinable qualities of a born actor. It isn't all that showy a performance, truth be told. In fact, Crowe rarely raises his voice. Yet, by assuming command and never letting it out of his grasp, he dominates every scene of the movie, even the ones he's not in.
Paul Bettany plays the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin -- Spock to Aubrey's Kirk, except that, with all due respect to "Star Trek" fans, Aubrey and Maturin are the richer characters. They've been assigned their roles: Aubrey's the warrior, Maturin's the worrier, Aubrey the man of action, Maturin the man of intellection. But they also have a way of meeting in the middle, as when they play duets in the captain's quarters, Aubrey on violin, Maturin on cello. It's a prickly relationship, Maturin being the one person on board who can tell Aubrey whether he's gone to far. And you can see how the friendship could continue to develop over the course of however many sequels, especially once Maturin is revealed to be a spy. So far, he's no match for Aubrey, whose only real opponent is a man we never see -- the captain of the Acheron, which keeps appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing, like a ghost ship.
Thus does Master and Commander echo Moby-Dick and its white whale. Another way it echoes Moby-Dick is in its seafaring jargon -- "swing the lead," "take the caulk." I didn't mind that I almost never understood what anybody meant, especially because the sound of the ship cutting a swath through the water tended to drown out what they were saying. Keeping faith with O'Brian's novels, director Peter Weir and co-scriptwriter John Collee have staked everything on their ability to take us back in time, even at the expense of emotionally involving us. Not that I wasn't moved when Aubrey rouses his beleaguered crew by saying to them, "This ship is England." But I didn't find myself pulling for the British Empire so much as marveling at how the Brits, via the most complicated machines ever devised up to that point, came to rule the sea and therefore the world. Apparently, it's all in the details.