Subject to the Requirements of the Service: Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

By Tim Pelan

Peter Weir and Russel Crowe behind the scenes of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Courtesy of Cinephilia & Beyond

Asked by Debbie Lynn Elias of Behind The Lens Online on what compels the director Peter Weir to film such varied stories as he does, leading up to Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World, the director ruminated and replied. “It’s like many things. It’s your childhood, the way you grew and where you grew up. I live at the bottom of the world in Australia. Television didn’t come in until I was 12. So all those young years were spent outside. I went swimming a lot. We lived by Sydney Harbour. I was always in the water and playing imaginative games. It was just a time where, apart from radio, there was very little stimulation… I used to watch the big ships going out to harbor. I knew I’d be on one as soon as I could. I wanted to go to Europe. At 20, I was on one. So, I had a sense of distance and I had five weeks at sea. At one period, ten days in the Indian Ocean without sighting land.”

With Master And Commander, Weir and his co-writer John Collee kept to that sense of isolation at sea: “England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England.” This pre-battle pep talk from Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) sums up the heart of both film and source author Patrick O’Brien’s central point—that the drama here is not just about smoke n’ oakum pursuits and battles, or storms at sea, or enduring the doldrums with not a breath of wind to fill your sails while your quarry slips over the horizon: it’s that this small 26-gun Frigate, H.M.S Surprise, crammed to the gunnels with men from all stations of life and points on the globe, together with their provisions and livestock, is a floating world entire. One pulsing with the bonded daily habits, routine, duties and superstitions of a crew at the heart of the greatest naval power of its age. And damn if it isn’t one of the most immediately immersive, engaging, entertaining, and moving films I’ve ever had the pleasure to return to again and again, like a sailor lured by the siren call of the sea.

For instance, Weir opens not on music playing over the titles, but the ship, silently sailing on calm night-time waters. On screen, text in flowing, period script simply states: Admiralty orders to Captain J. Aubrey: “Intercept French Privateer Acheron en route to Pacific INTENT ON CARRYING THE WAR INTO THOSE WATERS… Sink, burn, or take her a Prize.” As the watch changes, a bell rings and the hourglass is flipped. Silhouettes of sailors pass each other nimbly on the rigging. The camera glides around the ship’s hull as it rolls and creaks, water slapping its sides; then up around bodies softly snoring in swaying hammocks that strain with their weight. A goat bleats as the dimmed lamp’s glow passes amidst the cook’s supplies. This is a film full of subtle sound design (it won an Oscar for it) as much as VFX fury (it didn’t here—of its ten 2004 Oscar nominations, the only other one it received was for cinematography. Unluckily, the Academy decided to reward Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings achievement with a bumper batch for The Return of the King.).

Much as director David Lean believed, with his own failed attempt to realize the story of The Bounty, star Crowe considered Nelson’s sailors “were like the astronauts of their day. Setting out on these epic, dangerous voyages and living in this confined space for months at a time. You are basically riding a piece of wood against the force of the ocean. Sometimes it’s working for you but you are always at its mercy.” Crowe was also seduced by the duality of Lucky Jack, as his crew call him: “I loved the image that Peter put in my head when we talked about this man, a sailor with callouses on his hands, who has grown up in the Navy and knows every part of his ship; if the sails aren’t going up fast enough he will jump down and grab the rope and see what is causing the problem. And those same calloused, thickened hands then pick up this delicate, feminine instrument, the violin, and he will play from his heart the things he can never say. I couldn’t walk away from the description of the character.”

Not many war or action films stop to engage in a classical duet by the principals, or wardroom jokes and anecdotes over the port and—actually, I don’t know what the officers were dining on, but it looks delicious. Certainly not “the lesser of two weevils.” Aubrey is pressed for a recollection of the great Lord Nelson by an eager young teenaged Midshipman and he jokes how the great man looked his then young self in the eye and asked, “May I trouble you for the salt?” As the young man dutifully smiles but looks disappointed, Aubrey then tells another simple tale of Nelson and his shrugging off of a boat cloak as he stated his zeal for King and country kept him warm, the boisterous room growing quiet. “I know it sounds absurd, and were it from another man, you’d cry out ‘Oh, what pitiful stuff’ and dismiss it as mere enthusiasm. But with Nelson… you felt your heart glow.”

By contrast, Mr. Hollam (Lee Ingleby), another Midshipman, and considered old for his rank, does not find leadership or decisiveness comes naturally to him. He is timorous, and criticised for not “Beating to quarters” quickly enough when he espies the Acheron in a fog bank, and for delaying in helping Warley, a carpenter, up on the mast that breaks away in a storm as the Surprise attempts to navigate Cape Horn. Ultimately Warley’s friend Nagle has to chop the wreckage free alongside the captain, sacrificing the man to right the ship in the heavy swell. Hollam becomes a “Jonah” figure, shunned by his crewmates—at one point Nagle shoves past him. Hollam fails to reprimand him and Aubrey is duty bound to slap the insubordination down with a (rare) flogging, leading to an argument with friend and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) over tradition and service—the doctor reminding him that a fair number of the crew have been pressed into service, and Nagle was drunk. The men are exhausted, the doctor says, their captain is pushing them, and he’s right. Aubrey knows he has exceeded his orders in not returning home for repairs, but he has set his sights on besting the Acheron’s captain—“Phantom or no, Lucky Jack’ll have him,” Nagle remarks earlier down below. Maturin offers counsel on the men’s morale and his own driven pride—“The men of course would follow Lucky Jack anywhere. But therein lies the problem—you’re not accustomed to defeat.”

Master And Commander contains probably three of the most affecting scenes to my mind in any drama—the aforementioned man overboard moment (as the music Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis swells, and continues below decks whilst a shaken Hollam observes the tearful Nagle pack Warley’s belongings and tools, it will tear your heart out); Hollam’s funeral (now blamed for the doldrum that has them sit without a breath of air to fill the sails, he leaps overboard) as Aubrey forfends the Bible passage suggestion of his steward Killick (David Threlfall) on Jonah and remarks how he himself and the crew perhaps did not extend a kind enough word to him on occasion (miraculously, the wind picks up); and of course, the funeral service of the dead after the climactic battle, as Aubrey reads the butcher’s bill and young Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), now one-armed after the earlier skirmish, insists on sewing his friend’s body into his hammock, before asking for help.

The friendship of Jack and Stephen is at the bedrock of the film and elucidates the themes of duty, science, philosophy and reason—stopping off at the Galapagos Islands to effect repairs and allow Maturin to recover from an accidental shot wound (he’s so good he performs surgery on himself with a mirror and assist) allows the amateur naturalist to educate young Blakeney on the natural world he finds so fascinating—he is the protege of two very different father figures, yet the doctor and captain bond over music and philosophical discussion.

Beneath Aubrey’s bluster and talk of “the service,” he is also a humanitarian and wit, with a surprising degree of empathy and feeling—realising he couldn’t catch the Acheron and that his friend needed the stability of land for surgery (not to mention a respite for the crew), he stops off at Darwin’s genesis of life. Not on the doctor’s account, Stephen hopes. “No, not at all. I just needed to stretch my legs,” Jack smiles.

To capture elements of the battles and storms at sea, despite the replica vessels at his command (Surprise was a replica of HMS Rose, bought by 20th Century Fox after filming, it now resides at the Maritime Museum in San Diego; Acheron was constructed for the film from digital scans of the USS Constitution, the oldest floating commissioned vessel in the world), it was necessary for Weir to engage with a greater degree of VFX than he was used to previously. He was impressed with Peter Jackson’s unit seamlessly meshing model “bigatures” with CG and live action on The Fellowship of the Ring. To visualise how he would approach the filming of the climactic battle, DGA Quarterly recounts how he laid out a blue sheet on his office floor for the ocean and with a fishing line towed two little square-rigger ship models around the room, blew wind on them from a fan, and filmed it with a lipstick camera. This primitive footage combined with Asylum Effects’ CGI animatics of the ships, and paintings of battle scenes formed the crux of his ideas to proceed. Richard Taylor’s miniature unit, Weta Workshop in New Zealand, built scale models of the British ship Surprise and the French vessel Acheron. In Marin County, California, the ILM team, headed by visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier, produced 300 shots in 12 weeks. In the final battle, Luck Jack’s smaller and out-classed Surprise is disguised as a whaling vessel, laying a trap for Acheron. After the unveiling of her colors and a surprise broadside, the crews engage hand to hand before the Acheron’s main mast collapses, signaling her inevitable surrender.

The two ships are miniatures shot separately on dry land in New Zealand, as all the miniatures were, and composited into the ocean by ILM, Weir recalled. “It was a very, very tricky shot to get right. We had problems with scale. Then there were problems with the water. We had to slow vessels down and would speed them up on another take. Then it seemed it was all taking too long. What helped was the decision to pan right to left and trek back with the camera, enabling the enemy vessel to come in quicker. I wanted a feeling of stalking and to feel the weight of the enemy vessel and its power.”

“The set for the gun deck was built on a cliff near the tank [in Baja] so we could see the sea and sky out of the cabin windows. I’m one of those directors that would rather have a set be realistically designed and have the camera crew solve any problems, rather than making room for the camera. So there were no breakaway walls. Some of the grips wore football helmets because people were always banging their heads. We had all the sets on massive gimbals so there was always a sense of movement.”

“The New Zealand unit built a slightly larger miniature of the mast, about 15 to 20 feet tall, and it was shot being hit by charges and a miniature cannonball. I wanted to give a sense of the projectile, which was moving too fast to be photographed, so ILM added that as well as more flying debris. They shot debris out of an air cannon in front of a blue screen or falling into a big water tank.”

“Paintings were terribly important in all of these action sequences in terms of getting the volume of smoke, the attitude of ships in close combat and particularly for damage to the vessels… miniatures firing at each other were further enhanced. The sky and the water were all added. We had white smoke in the shot, which was then digitally enhanced to make it black. Until the ship emerges from the smoke, the audience clearly thinks that the English ship has failed in its objective. This created more tension. The slightly larger miniature mast and the miniature ships were composited by ILM. But the key thing I had to always remind them of was that it shouldn’t look too smooth. You can do so much with CGI that sometimes it can look too perfect. I wanted them to imagine they were doing the shot in a camera boat that was rocking so the shot looked a little off.”

Upon discovering that the French captain has deceived him and is still onboard the now captured Prize, Aubrey turns about and goes after the captured Acheron, now commanded by 1st Lt Pullings (James D’Arcy). Recalling his promise to return Stephen to the Islands to finish his curtailed studies, hs sheepishly states, “Ah… Well, Stephen, the bird’s flightless?” “Yes.” “It’s not going anywhere.”

If the subject of the film and the time it is set in is conservative, it is conservative with a small “c.” This little world is vital, professional, enquiring and humming with life—all “Subject to the requirements of the service.”

Courtesy of Tim Pelan and Cinephilia & Beyond.

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