According to book-industry estimates, the naval adventure novels of Patrick O'Brian have sold more than three million copies in the United States alone, which means that "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" arrives in theaters enjoying a built-in audience of military-history buffs and other closeted homosexuals. The movie won't disappoint them: This 19th-century shipboard epic is full of manly men in tight pants and frilly shirts, who sign up for extended tours of duty in the exclusive company of other manly men (and boys!). With fraternal affection, they chart mutual milestones of personal growth and responsibility. They call each other "seamen." They answer to a fellow named "Lucky." And they even whip each other now and then -- just for disciplinary purposes, y'understand.
Discipline -- having it, maintaining it, enjoying it -- is the main focus of "Master and Commander," a zesty boys' night out that pits the crew of the Royal Navy's "HMS Surprise" against a superior French vessel that's been stirring up trouble off the coast of Brazil. (In O'Brian's conception, the adversary was American, but the change better conforms to the prejudices of this Freedom Fry Nation.) Pursuing the Froggy frigate Acheron becomes an obsession to Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), stretching his ship's capabilities to the breaking point and risking the respect of his men, including his closest confidante, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).
Crowe strides confidently across the deck of the "Surprise;" rugged, slightly portly and with a mane of golden straw cascading down his neck, he looks for all the world like a gene splice of Liz Taylor's past husbands. One of the more emotional subplots sees Aubrey mentoring a young crewman, who's duly awed by the commander's history of having served under Admiral Nelson. Given that the plucky little fellow shares the same yellow tresses that are the movie's visual shorthand for virtue, one could easily misconstrue that it's the band Nelson they're both enraptured with, not the war hero.
So why is it surprisingly easy to forget (or at least ignore for a while) that "Master and Commander" is so inherently fey? It could be because director Peter Weir was responsible for one of the last great movies of the 20th century ("The Truman Show"). With his expert hand at the helm, the movie often transcends camp, depicting the hardscrabble realities of shipboard life with a forceful verisimilitude that convinces us we're all in the Navy now. Frigid squalls lash the masts, cannon fire blasts holes in hulls, amputations are performed with gut-wrenching primitivism and the men communicate a collective amity that (after all our giggles have been stifled) feels hard-won and correct. Reportedly, Weir allowed Crowe to direct the performances of the actors playing his subordinates. While it isn't a trend I'd welcome, it seems to have fostered a genuine camaraderie (as well as accomplishing the secondary goal of keeping Crowe too busy to recite any poetry.)
If the movie has a drawback, in fact, it's that it's too convincing. Watching it, you can't for the life of you figure out why anybody would have agreed to serve in the Royal Navy. Personally, I think it must have been the trousers.