I’ve talked about the films of Peter Weir on “Reel Christianity” before, but I’ve never gotten to talk about my favorite film of his. That’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, which was released in 2003 and thus probably was ignored by some audiences who instead went to “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and/or “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” that year. But picture those two movies blended together with baroque music and slower pacing, and you’ve got “Master and Commander”, one of my favorite adventure movies.
The film features Russell Crowe as the title character, Captain Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise, a British warship that crosses paths with a French ship named the Acheron. The film begins with an attack on the Surprise from the Acheron, and it sets in motion a long journey for Aubrey and his crew to retaliate. The crew is ordered to “sink, burn, or take her a prize.” Aubrey’s best friend, and the Surprise’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), is with Aubrey most of this time as they travel the seas, and it adds a lot to the drama of the film.
Because the film is based off of several books by Patrick O’Brian, we see the Surprise go off to many places, get involved in several battles, and get to know several crewmembers. So in a way, the film feels a little episodic, but it still flows and makes a very impactful film. And part of the reason why it’s so impactful is because we see the friendships of the men on this ship, particularly between Aubrey and Maturin. But we also see them interact with other crewmembers like first lieutenant Thomas Pullings (James D’Arcy), midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby), and teenage midshipman William Blakeney (Max Pirkis), whose arm Maturin has to amputate after the first attack from the Acheron.
As the battles go on, tension starts to rise among the crewmembers. Some start thinking more and more than Hollom is clumsy and should not be in his position, which prompts Hollom one night to take a cannonball in his arms, jump into the sea, and sink to his death. One of those men is caught being disrespectful to Hollom by Aubrey and is whipped as punishment, and Maturin goes to Aubrey afterward and says that many men are becoming mutinous because of Aubrey’s abuse of power. This culminates when the ship is heading toward the Galapagos Islands but first finds some men who survived a pirate attack, ultimately letting them know that the Acheron is nearby. The Surprise starts to turn around, which upsets Maturin, who was promised by Aubrey to get to look around the island for plant and animal life. Maturin goes to Aubrey and expresses his frustration.
MATURIN: Jack, have you forgotten your promise?
AUBREY: Subject to the requirements of the service.
MATURIN: Oh, I see. I see. So, after all this time in your service, I must simply content myself to form part of this belligerent expedition. Hurry past inestimable wonders, bent solely on destruction. I shall say nothing of the corruption of power or its abuse...
AUBREY: You forget yourself, Doctor.
MATURIN: No, Jack. No. You've forgotten yourself. You see, for my part, I look upon a promise as binding.
AUBREY: The promise was conditional. …We do not have time for your [cursed] hobbies, sir!
It’s a tough scene to watch, as we’ve seen the two men interact as friends, even play violin-cello duets together on the ship. It feels as though Aubrey, who earlier joked about choosing the lesser of two evils, has become “subject to the requirements of the service” and feels no remorse about having to go back on a promise to his friend. But soon after, as a midshipman tries shooting at an albatross, he accidentally hits Maturin in the side. Maturin, as the ship’s doctor, is forced to take the bullet and the cloth from his shirt that was taken with it by himself.
Maturin performs the operation successfully but needs much time to rest, and Aubrey postpones his pursuit of the Acheron to let Maturin explore the Galapagos for a time. Eventually, however, they do have to go back to sea and have one last battle against the Acheron, which seems successful until the end of the film, where Aubrey realizes that the man whom he thought was the Acheron’s doctor deceived him, and they must go back after them. The film ends as the crew gets ready once again, as more violin-cello music plays underneath (which, personally, I love).
More than just being an epic adventure film, “Master and Commander” deals heavily with the idea of friendship, even just being a human, and how often our duties can get in the way of that and perhaps make us less human. I certainly can’t speak as a sailor, but I do know that as a student, I have found myself many times just trying to get stuff done for my classes or my jobs without being relational with other people. That’s an idea that I discovered finally when I started studying at the university level, and it’s something that I want to remember for the rest of my life.
A certain passage of Scripture speaks on this kind of idea, more specifically on one’s relationship with Christ in contrast to their work. One day, Jesus goes to the house of a woman named Martha, who is making a lot of preparations for dinner and such. But Martha’s sister Mary doesn’t help with those preparations, but rather listens to Jesus’ teachings. Martha gets frustrated at this, but Jesus tells her words that I want to remember always: “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
My prayer for us is that in our relationships with God and with others, that we would not get so distracted from our jobs or activities that we forget where our focus should really lie.