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Buy one of the following installments of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series from amazon.com:

'Master and Commander' (1969)

'Post Captain' (1972)

'H.M.S. Surprise' (1973)

'The Mauritius Command' (1977)

'Desolation Island' (1978)

'The Fortune of War' (1979)

'The Surgeon's Mate' (1980)

'The Ionian Mission' (1981)

'Treason's Harbour' (1983)

'The Far Side of the World' (1984)

'The Reverse of the Medal' (1986)

'The Letter of Marque' (1988)

'The Thirteen Gun Salute' (1989)

'The Nutmeg of Consolation' (1991)

'The Truelove' (1992)

'The Wine-Dark Sea' (1993)

'The Commodore' (1994)

'The Yellow Admiral' (1996)

'The Hundred Days' (1998)

'Blue at the Mizzen' (1999)


Photograph by Stephen Vaughan

Crowe, Crowe, Crowe Your Boat: Russell Crowe sails the world's oceans in 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.'

O Captain, My Captain

Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany bond on the high seas in 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World'

By Richard von Busack

FEW MEN knew more about the Royal Navy of legends than Patrick O'Brian. It's clear how much director Peter Weir picked up from O'Brian's 20 novels for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the long-awaited movie version of the Aubrey/Maturin series. This isn't a high-church literary movie, like Weir's Dead Poets Society. Russell Crowe's enormous vitality takes the film to a different level of excitement: it is to sea epics what The Lord of the Rings is to sword and sorcery.

Weir begins in midvoyage, with the crew of the 28-gun HMS Surprise waking up on a cold morning in 1805, sailing off the coast of Brazil. "Eight bells" is sounded, a softer alarm than one would imagine. Men sleepily descend from the ropes, and the new shift goes aloft. On the deck, a man with a telescope peers into the morning fog.

Weir and his co-screenwriter, John Collee, pack so much information into the frame that the Surprise is as familiar as home in the first 10 minutes. But cinematographer Russell Boyd also makes the sea look full of promise and threat. This morning is a re-creation of the rose-pink dawns seen in some of Geoff Hunt's illustrations for the book jackets.

A French ship is seen in the distance. It's the Surprise's quarry throughout the movie, the Acheron. As the men gather on the deck, a grim old sailor catches the eye of a child, a little midshipman who bears the title Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis). Looking at him ominously, the old man silently shows the boy the tattoos on his knuckles: the letters spell out "Hold Fast."

Our first sight of Captain Aubrey is based on a motif from the Batman movies. We can't see his face for a whirl of clothes as he hurries to get topside. But Weir includes a close-up shot of his hands snapping together his belt, with the anchor insignia on the buckle--not a utility belt, but good enough. On the deck, we see him plain, Russell Crowe: the first actor in cinema history not to look stupid in a three-cornered hat.

O'Brian makes a point that Jack Aubrey is a stout man, and Crowe may not be fat enough for some (reading O'Brian, I always envisioned Nigel Hawthorne, who played King George in The Madness of King George). However, Crowe is big enough--brash, slightly clumsy, with a large appetite. At one point, the ship's cook serves Aubrey a pudding, with a little decorative Acheron made out of cheese afloat on it. Aubrey shows off, stuffs the tiny ship into his mouth with his hand, tigerishly, as the officers guffaw. A few images like that, and Crowe becomes Captain Aubrey in the same way Sean Connery became James Bond.

Even in A Beautiful Mind, there was a certain hesitance in Crowe, just like Richard Burton, whom Crowe resembles, often displayed. One got the sense from Crowe's early interviews that the business of acting made him wince a little. A role like Jack Aubrey is satisfyingly right for Crowe's particular limits. More than that, it seems to be the kind of heroic role Crowe takes completely to heart.

And Paul Bettany makes a faultless Maturin. In the books, the ship's Irish doctor is more furtive, a little less easy to imagine (Maturin has more than a few hidden agendas in O'Brian's series). The dumb way of putting it is that Maturin plays Spock to Aubrey's Kirk; he is not just the companion on the adventures but also brings a different kind of intelligence.

Maturin can speak freely to the captain. The two have another means of communication, as well, since they play violin and cello duets on quiet evenings. I don't care much for movies with only men in them, but Maturin strikes such a contrast to Aubrey it's as if there is a female/male balance of spirits. Master and Commander, with its double-barreled butch title, would have been so much less without Crowe and Bettany together. They harmonize.

And like the Bond movies that it is a little bit modeled on, Master and Commander is packed with contrasts. The idea is that you always want Commander Bond to go some place tropical and some place snowy in the same movie, probably a visual reminder that the British Empire used to stretch from the palms to the pines.

Aubrey and his men chase the Acheron, which is younger, faster, better built and better armed, around the hemisphere, pursuing it through the frost and storms of Cape Horn until they're becalmed in a simmering hot sea. (Weir may have borrowed the idea for the coppery lighting from John Huston's adaptation of Moby-Dick.)

All those who are fond of scurvy pirates will get a taste of some real seamanship in these scenes of raging tempests and silent guile. Master and Commander can be a brutal movie. It features the episodes expected in a sea epic: an amputation, a flogging, some shipboard surgery. Still, all this isn't for sensation or to make an audience gag or squirm but to have them understand what a cruel life the navy represented.

Weir, who long ago made an antiwar film about the doomed World War I campaign at Gallipoli, isn't drunk on the fun of war. The little boy who's told to "hold fast" loses his arm, and the old man with the tattoos nearly loses his life. The tension of the arguments between Maturin and Aubrey keeps the film taut. Weir writes that he was working from the principle "that a captain doesn't always have to be right, but he has to be certain."

But idiots are certain, too. This adventure is shaded with the question of whether Aubrey suffers from, if not Ahabism, Ahabist tendencies. In the scenes where Aubrey labors in the midst of lonely self-questioning, learning to lead himself, we can see something of what's been said of the Royal Navy in the Admiral Nelson years: that it was a breeding ground for democracy, that it was a realm where a common man could rise, where he could be as good, or as bad, as an aristocrat.

And in these fanatical times, it's a blessing to see how Weir takes a nice light touch to the film's patriotism. When the game's afoot, Aubrey rallies the ship's men, reminding them of their mission to thwart Napoleon. He grins and shouts, "Do you want them to set up a guillotine in Piccadilly?" "No!" they roar.

What English-speaking viewer, colonized in the cradle by Peter Pan and London Bridge--what sap for England--can't feel his heart outshout his brain and join in, "No! Of course not, it wouldn't be British!"

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (PG-13; 128 min.), directed by Peter Weir, written by Weir and John Collee, based on the novels by Patrick O'Brian, photographed by Russell Boyd and starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the November 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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