Peter Weir

Is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In January, Russell Crowe responded to some guy on Twitter who said Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a powerful sleep aid. The guy tagged Crowe, which led to Crowe telling him it was an “adults movie” and praising it as a story about “fidelity to Empire.” Everyone yelled at the original guy, a few sites picked it up as a funny story, and that was that.

I’d never seen it, despite a friend of mine saying it was his favorite movie. Part of this series is that I’ll watch anything anyone suggests, so this is for Ryan, who loves this movie as much as Russell Crowe.

A lot of the modern discourse about Master and Commander (we’ll shorten it to that from here on out) is about how it disappointed. This was the year of the last Lord of the Rings movie and it was the same era as the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The world was primed for a bunch of movies to follow Master and Commander and the books that provide the basis would allow for just that. It never happened. This was the only one, and director Peter Weir only made one more movie in the next two decades.

What happened? Master and Commander got clobbered at the Oscars by The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Nominated for 10 awards, it won only for cinematography and sound editing. It made money, but not as much as you’d expect. Russell Crowe wasn’t even nominated for Best Actor. It’s pretty weird, especially given the niche that Master and Commander has carved over the years since. It’s not uncommon to see it on lists of best films of the era and it looks worlds, universes, whatever, better in retrospect than Johnny Depp’s boat franchise from the era.

The narrative that seems to have sprung up is that it was too boring. It’s a long movie that almost never leaves a single ship and most of the cast does their best to sell the time they have, but no one really sticks with you. It’s beautiful, thus the cinematography Oscar, but it’s a very long story about how important it is to sail for England and to fight for country. It’s a tough thing to ask audiences to sink their teeth into, which the team behind the movie seemed to realize when they changed the adversary from the books to make sure Russell Crowe wasn’t fighting American ships.

It’s perfectly stitched together. We open on fighting and then learn why. We find out the other ship is evil and never meet anyone involved, even in distance. We find out our guys are the good guys and Russell Crowe tells Paul Bettany about the power of leadership and the importance of country. There are a few scenes where they all but turn to camera to explain their positions, these old friends who represent the importance of scientific doubt and military dedication. Their opposition is interesting, but it’s also unwavering and a little predictable.

Russell Crowe is the beating heart, which is what makes the lack of an Oscar nomination so interesting. He’s the only good thing about Gladiator, another movie that people have rethought and seem to love now despite some very big swings, and he was just off the success of A Beautiful Mind. This is all part of peak Russell Crowe, which should have spelled success.

I really think it’s the ensemble cast that does it in. There are memorable little moments, but most of the cast walks in, does something, and walks out. That’s a fine thing to do, but it begins to feel like you’ve met thirty interchangeable characters by the end of the movie. I offer this only as a means to finding why people didn’t connect with it at the time, but it does feel especially empty when one character very memorably sacrifices themselves to save the ship but you begin to wonder if this is someone you should feel for or not. Russell Crowe’s character even seems a little conflicted.

The heroics are writ large and the triumphs are great. It’s a feel-good movie, to a certain degree, and I definitely had a good time with it. I’d shake off the “sleepy” angle that our intrepid Twitter user tried to sell. There’s a lot of fighting and even a lot of the natural, slowed-down-to-show-you-the-boredom ship stuff works to move the pacing along. If you asked me if it’s a beautiful movie, I’d have to say yes. Is it well-made? Obviously. It crushed my expectations as I sat down expecting to struggle through an overly long trip to sea. Russell Crowe is right.

I will say this, though, that Russell Crowe is also right about the second part of what he said. His character gets in an argument with Paul Bettany’s character about corporal punishment and leadership that turns into a summit of Big Ideas and Truths. Bettany says that a light touch is important and Crowe says you have to lead with strength. There’s an opportunity here to say something, but Weir seems content to let Bettany offering a road not taken be the extent of it.

We never spend any time with the French at all. Crowe’s character gives a rousing speech to say that the ship literally is England, just in case you might miss it, and demands overwhelming, unquestioning military support. These are the politics of a captain and his mates, so I’m not asking for this to have some Battleship Potemkin moment or anything, I just was surprised to see a moment or two where someone says “maybe you’re wrong” to Crowe and then to follow a plot that insisted he isn’t, never could be, and any questioning of him will be rebutted with immediate displays of how he’s right.

The hero does heroic stuff, barks at people who challenge him, and wins constantly. Contrast this with dozens of movies that Master and Commander brings to mind, nearly all of them with more internal strife or more development. It doesn’t matter here for what’s on screen and the broad sense of beauty and craft, which is why this won what it did, but also might be why some people find it hard to connect with. This is one of the all-time versions of good guys telling you they’re good and then showing you that, which is a fine thing to be, but I kept thinking about what might be possible with a captain who is famously lucky that gives leadership advice all the time. It’s great that he thinks he’s a genius, but it’s a little less interesting if he actually is.

It’s absolutely not fair to talk only about what it “could” be, because what it is an extremely entertaining voyage where the good guys fight the bad guys. Weir’s choice to never show us the enemy until the very end, and even then not really, lets us root for our team and get wrapped up in the life of sailors in the era. It’s a period piece that really just wants to hold the camera on these people and show us their lives, then leave. Crowe says it’s about sticking to your guns and he’s absolutely right. He knows exactly what he made and it’s good enough for him, so it should be good enough for all of us.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I liked it a great deal more than Uncut Gems. Crowe is the center of almost every scene, just like Sandler is, and the energy is exactly reversed. There’s never a moment in Master and Commander where Crowe’s character is anything less than confident and charismatic. It’s just a movie that doesn’t ask you to work very hard to at least like it, even if you don’t connect directly with the message.

Is it the best movie of all time? I am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I get Master and Commander now and I feel like I’m being a little reductive in trying to find this angle where this movie most people liked and a lot of people love didn’t connect with people. There really is this narrative, though, and a ton of people seem to spend a ton of time trying to figure out why this didn’t take the world by storm. I stand by my criticism, which is almost zero percent about what’s on screen and more about what’s not there, which is that a super charismatic character that everyone likes who wins all the time can only be so interesting. Crowe nails it, front to back, but I’m not sure there’s enough space for us to think about what we want him to be. It’s only a problem in comparison and even then, it feels like I’m grasping at straws, but that’s because the paint on the canvas is all so perfectly where it’s supposed to go.

You can watch Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on Amazon ($3.99) or YouTube ($3.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.