Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

24 November

Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, 1859

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (to give it its full title).

Building on work by Joseph Hooker, Robert Chambers and others, Darwin rushed into print a book he had been mulling over for two decades, because he knew that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had, quite independently, come up with theories remarkably similar to his own.

Written for the layman, the book set out Darwin’s observations and theories about the evolution of the abundance of different life forms on Planet Earth.

Evolution is no mystery and even the most creationist of fundamentalist Christians believe in it. It is nature’s version of something humans have been doing since the dawn of their own species – selecting desirable characteristics and breeding for them.

What makes Darwin’s break important is his suggestion that new species can develop from this evolutionary process. A species being defined as something that cannot breed with another (so a Jack Russell terrier is not a species, it’s just a variant of dog).

Breaking with the orthodox scientists of the day, who were almost all clergymen and believed in the ideas of “natural theology”, Darwin’s book was an immediate success because it gave voice to ideas that were already in the cultural ether.

Though he never wavered from his core theory, Darwin adjusted the text of his book with each new edition, borrowing, for example, the phrase “survival of the fittest” from Herbert Spencer as a poetic and pithy way of rendering the idea of natural selection (“fit” here in the sense that the survivor has fit into a niche, not that he/she has been working out).

In spite of some problems with the theory, many of which Darwin himself acknowledged, Darwin’s theories became, and have remained, the primary scientific model for describing the biology of the world we live in, and the place of human in it.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, dir: Peter Weir)

That long title, with a colon halfway through, is clearly saying something. What’s it’s saying is “franchise”.

But in spite of Russell Crowe’s strenuous attempts, Peter Weir’s adaptation of one of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels remains the only one in the series. Which is a great pity because it is an unusual and satisfying film, which sticks close to O’Brian’s schematic of spending as much effort on describing life on the ocean wave as in telling any “adventure on the high seas” story – with O’Brian there’s a fair chance you will come away actually knowing how to splice a mainbrace.

Crowe plays gutsy Captain Jack Aubrey, Paul Bettany is cerebral Dr Stephen Maturin, a scientific man much in the Darwin mould, and we follow them as they chase an enemy French ship through gales and calms, into a cannons-blazing battle and finally onto shore in the Galapagos.

Skilfully blending fascinating insights into life on sea – the sight of Crowe and Bettany playing string duets sticks in the mind – with rollicking old-school adventure of the sort Errol Flynn used to make, this is a big budget epic that treats the viewer with a certain amount of intelligence. Which is obviously not how the viewer wants to be treated at all.

Master and Commander debuted not long after Pirates of the Caribbean had announced that the seafaring adventure was back with a cannon’s roar. But unlike Gore Verbinski’s pirates-and-CGI pantomime, Peter Weir’s film lost a king’s ransom at the box office. So no, no franchise.

Why Watch?

  • One of Crowe’s best roles
  • A sensitive and respectful adaptation of one of O’Brian’s much loved books
  • Another intelligent movie from Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poet’s Society)
  • Shot at sea on a real ship – and you can tell

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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2 thoughts on “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”

  1. Page 364 of “Far side of the world” quotes Darwin. However, Darwin was born in 1809 so, at the time “Martin” quotes Darwin, Darwin would not have been more than 5 years old.


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