It's an odd claim to make for a film that won the Oscar for cinematography, but at its best Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (released on video this week) is less a visual experience than an aural one. Director Peter Weir opens with aerial shots of a tall ship accompanied by on-screen text--"H.M.S. Surprise ... N. coast Brazil. Admiralty orders: ... 'Intercept French privateer Acheron en route to Pacific.'"--before swiftly shifting to a nighttime change of watch aboard the vessel. The camera glides past sleeping sailors and silent cannons; we see a hand flip an hourglass and another ring a bell; shadowy figures climb the rigging as others descend. The real function of the scene, however, is not to let us see--it takes place, after all, at night--but to let us hear. And what we hear is a marvel. Weir and his sound people fill the darkness with the low gurgle of the sea, the heavy creak of the hull, the squeak of hammocks and lanterns swaying with the ship's roll, the strain of rope ladders carrying men's weight. The scene has no narrative or expository purpose, but it announces Weir's intentions with wordless clarity: Master and Commander may feature crashing naval battles and acts of derring-do, but its primary concern will be the portrayal of life aboard this ship, the mundane rhythms and chores that were part of life in the Royal Navy circa 1800.
The Surprise is the favorite ship of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), appearing in more than half of the twenty historical novels by Patrick O'Brian from which Master and Commander was adapted. There are few remaining accolades to throw in the direction of these extraordinary books, which center on the lives of Aubrey and his physician-comrade Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany in the film), so I won't bother to add mine. I'll just cite the greater literary authority of John Bayley, who distinguished them from the seafaring adventures of C.S. Forester thus: "Although [O'Brian] is dutiful about giving us marine warfare ... his real interest is in the ships and the crews, in naval custom, habit, and routine, the daily ritual of shipboard life and the interplay of personality in the confinement of a wooden world. His ships are as intimate to us as Sterne's Shandy Hall or Jane Austen's village of Highbury in Emma ... except that [O'Brian's] village happens to be a wooden ship of war at the apogee of a great Navy's world sea power."