Audiovisual texture is of primary importance to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). We hear it in the whip and chord of sail, in the creak of timber, the crack of cannon fire. We see it in “Lucky” Jack Aubrey’s initials carved into his ship, in the muddy slop served at mealtime when fresh water is in short supply, and in the ocean pressing at our senses. The characters’ faces seem to take on the texture of their surroundings – the face of one man tanned and creased as a ship’s prow; another fevered, pale and chilly as the fog. There is plenty of computer-generated imagery in Master and Commander but the film does not give in to CGI and allow its plastic unreality to infest the screen unchecked. The cinematography evinces a deep and sincere interest in objects as real photographed things, rooted in time and place.
The plot of two ships doing battle during the Napoleonic Wars is largely an excuse for a series of vignettes detailing life aboard HMS Surprise and all its happenings, large and small. The trivialities of dinner and conversation at the captain’s table are weighed equal to deadly storms and preparations for combat. Every soul is of interest to the film but the focal point is the unlikely friendship between Captain Aubrey and surgeon Dr. Maturin. There is no revelation to be had by observing these characters; both men are what they first appear to be, the sum of what they contribute to life aboard ship. They behave like the musical instruments they play, speaking the proper notes at the proper time. This is not so much a flaw in the writing as an indication of what the film’s eye falls upon: the grain of the world it describes and the archetypes of that world, men dedicated to their purpose and duty.
The captain of the enemy ship Acheron remains a phantom until the final battle, when he promptly becomes a corpse, and then finally a trickster on the run. He is barely present in the narrative, and barely needed. Master and Commander is sustained on the energies of HMS Surprise and her crew. It is notable that we never see the lands and empires these ships fight in service of. The Surprise is a microcosm, part of civilisation but apart from it, bestranged. We sight land twice and set foot upon it just once. On both occasions it is an uncanny sight to see men and women (women! – the captain views them as if they were sirens) beyond the confines of the ship. The Galápagos Islands, our only landfall, are a destination so unique and exotic they strengthen rather than break the spell of isolation.
King and country have a fairytale quality when spoken of. Admiral Nelson is described in hushed reverence by the officer class, as if they were talking of a figure remembered from a shared dream. Nelson’s strategic brilliance and nationalistic fervour make him a hero to Captain Aubrey and role model for the young amputee, Midshipman William Blakeney, but Admiral Nelson, King George III, and all other matters of home seem too far removed to be entirely real. The ship is their mother and wife, their only safety from the vast ocean.
‘She’s in her prime’ says Aubrey defensively of his ship, picking at splintered timber after the Acheron’s first attack. The film refuses to be distracted by architecture and carriages, pomp and poverty and that other world of 1805 on land. These sailors look to their work, to the horizon, and to the enemy.