At the core of Patrick O’Brian’s works are the characters of Lucky Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, and their “study-in-contrasts” friendship. The friendship between Jack and Stephen is one of the most vivid and unexpected in modern literature. They are unique creations and very much the reason there are twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels. Jack is a fusion of the best traits of several real-life captains – a brilliant seaman and genius warrior, if a reluctant follower of orders. He also is exuberant, loud and a connoisseur of bad jokes. Stephen is a brilliant surgeon, naturalist and “lubber” whose courage matches Jack’s.
It took a star with an imposing presence, Russell Crowe, to play the bigger-than-life Jack Aubrey. Much of the magic of O’Brian’s work is pairing the captain with his natural opposite, a man of science whose courage matches Jack’s: Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany.
Peter Weir’s celebrated body of work was a key draw for Russell Crowe. “I’m a longtime fan of Peter’s movies,” says the actor, “and I had always wanted to work with him. I had grown up with Peter’s movies. For instance, I remember the most terrified I’d been in my young life was being in a cinema watching The Last Wave.”
Crowe was also fascinated with the character of Lucky Jack. “He was a kind of man who doesn’t exist anymore; there’s no template for Jack Aubrey,” says Crowe. “If you are talking about the British Royal Navy as his employer, he is a very unruly employee. However, in the broader sense of the mission with which he is charged as captain, he might not do it the way you want him to do it, but his results at the end of the day will be far more than you intended.”
Weir says Crowe was born to play Lucky Jack. “Russell has a natural energy and authority, and he took command of that ship from the beginning.”
Crowe appreciated some of the perks of “command.” “Every day between my trailer and the set, I would hear ‘Good morning, Captain’ about seventy or eighty times,” says the actor. “Actually, it was difficult giving up the uniform; I’d grown quite fond of it.”
Crowe was pleased to rejoin Paul Bettany who played, memorably, Crowe’s imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind. Their collaboration in film proved invaluable in helping the actors create their characters’ relationship in MASTER AND COMMANDER- The Far side of the World. Says Crowe: “We developed a kind of creative shorthand in A Beautiful Mind that I thought would serve us well in establishing quickly and effectively the Jack-Stephen dynamic. I was so glad that Peter made the decision to cast Paul. There are rythms and things that we just understand of each other. With another person, you might actually have had to break down a scene and explain it. Paul and I were able to get to a point of depth that you might have to work ten rimes harder with somebody else to even touch on.”
“It was a joy to watch Paul take the character and make it bis own, yet at the same time have it deeply rooted in Patrick O’Brian’s writing,” says Weir. “Russell and Paul are beautifully weighted opposite each other,and you believe they are friends. It’s as if Maturin, as Paul plays him, is the shape of modern man and Russell as Jack is from bygone times.”
Bettany says two elements attracted him to Master and Commander: action and characters. “Any fan of Patrick O’Brian’s books knows them to be real page turners,” says Bettany, “and I see the film as an action movie within which is a richly detailed friendship that endures some life altering situations. I found that really intriguing.”
A critical point in the friendship between Bettany’s Stephen Maturin and Crowe’s Lucky Jack comes after a surprise attack by the Acheron that leaves Captain Aubrey’s ship severely damaged and a number of his men dead or critically wounded. Despite (or perhaps spurred on by) the odds against bim, Jack is more determined than ever to complete his mission to best the Acheron. His single-minded focus on the enemy ship becomes a concern for Stephen.
“Stephen studies people the way he studies animals; he certainly studies Jack,” says Bettany. “I think what Stephen finds intriguing about Jack is that he is the exception to the rule that ‘power corrupts’ – Jack wields his power wisely. But that is really tested in this film. Stephen begins to think that Jack’s goal of catching the Acheron is turning into an obsession, which could be a detriment to his crew.”
To fill the supporting roles, Weir worked closely with U.K. casting director Mary Selway. They searched for top acting talent who had the necessary endurance for the demanding six-month shoot and a physical appearance that suggested another time and place. The formidable lineup of actors includes Billy Boyd (of Lord of the Rings fame), James D’Arcy, Bryan Dick, Lee Ingleby, George Innes, Mark Lewis Jones, Chris Larkin, Richard McCabe, Jan Mercer, Robert Pugh and David Threlfall.
For Weir, research involved trips to the Greenwich Naval Museum, HMS Victory, the USS Constitution and two crosses on the Endeavor replica off the Australian coast. Then there was an ever-expanding library of books to be read – valuable first-hand accounts – and most importancly, the paintings of naval actions at sea. “Studying the paintings made me determined to find faces that looked of the period,” says Weir. This led him to cast in Poland, “to get us as far away as possible from people raised on a Western diet, with Kodak-ready smiles or expressions of world-weary cynicism.”
The castinig of the crew, some 130 men, received as much attention as that of the principals. Searching for “18th century faces” was left to Judy Bouley and, incredibly, she saw more than 7,000 hopefuls. “As a guide, we had reproductions of paintings and sketches of the period and most importantly, a rare set of photographs, taken in the mid- 1840s of English fishermen, shot by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson,” says Weir.
“We went to the ends of the earth to find these people,” says producer Duncan Henderson. “We have background from Poland, Senegal, Austria and Sudan -people who came from all over the world to work with us on this film.”
Some background artist were seasoned tall ship sailors. Their gravity-defying feats of scrambling up and down the ships’ rigging lent yet another touch of authenticity to the film.
From the Master and Commander promotional documents. Courtesy of Christine.