(Spoilers throughout, and especially toward the end.)
It is above all else a film about conflict. Explicitly, that between the British and the French in the days of sails and cannon and muskets on the high seas of the so-called at the time “far side of the world” (around the south-east and west coasts of South America). More subtly, quieter conflicts rage between science and religion and warfare and nationalism and pride and superstition – the latter of which would these days more exclusively be lumped in with religion, but back then also took on a life of its own at least in the context of, and in this context, seafaring. It is a film epic. But it is also a narrow examination of deeply human characteristics. Down to the expertly and/or innately furrowed brow or knowing look.
I first watched it years ago, two or three times. And at the time nor now could I claim to be an expert on period-specific warfare or naturalism or religion or the simple complexity of the human experience, despite the fact that of course I have been a human for more than three decades. Not to mention the gorgeous music accompanying the film I estimate, rather than research, to be of the baroque. And specifically, at least mostly, originally by Bach. But an expert would not approach the film like I have with every viewing: awe and admiration. They would approach it at best critically, if not necessarily in all respects approvingly. Certainly, it is critically, if not expertly well-reviewed. But it did not perform dramatically well at the box office.
I put this down to the simple, clearly evident premise of the film: a quite obscure, geographically located contest between the British and French, punctuated as perfectly as possible by scientific sojourns around the at the time as yet barely documented world treasure that is the Galapagos. It won a couple of Oscars, from memory, hampered by the concurrent presence of one, perhaps the first, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy films. (In fact on the LOTR actors, Dominique Monaghan, if I’m not mistaken, was on board the British MAC ship (busy boy).) It’s easy for me to assume its understated success went over the heads of too many of the movie-going public for it to instead have been an overwhelming success.
But this is an incorrect assumption, as assumptions always are. In fact it’s not even close, as most assumptions probably are. The film featured as its lead an Australian (and perhaps New Zealand (sometimes it’s hard to recall birthplaces of such people from memory (and I’m endeavouring to conduct this homage purely from recollection))) and also somewhat US popular, thanks to Gladiator, actor: Russell Crowe. And it dealt with a cat-and-mouse game between a British and superior French ship along the east and then west of South America. This would never have played well with such fervent nationalists as are probably the majority of the movie-going US public. It’s a simple, yet in my opinion accurate account for the film’s undeservedly yet unavoidably understated success.
Yet, if we look beyond such commercial concerns (which apparently according to Wikipedia hampered the production of a second film), MAC is a singularly, epically good film. And the reason is, as I stated earlier, its focus on conflict. War is something that has been done literally and innumerably to death and will continue to as war evolves, unfortunately mostly depending on the propaganda purposes of the country (or company?) most concerned with the message to be sent. They’re welcome to it. But what this film does well is it goes far beyond pedestrian notions of nationalism or patriotism or zealotry, and examines the conflict inherent in the human condition and the civilisation it has been striving to progress for some 10 millennia, albeit mostly from a male perspective (if you discount native Brazilian women and toasts to “wives and sweethearts; may they never meet”).
This is where MAC becomes infinitely more interesting than who’s firing or swinging a sword at whom. It is a film about a swirling morass of conflict not unlike the swirling seawater to the stern of the principal ship – which also serves as the somewhat central character. As far as I can recollect MAC is set within the enlightenment era, in which science is slowly displacing religious and otherwise superstition. A character in the film is identified as a Jonah – basically a bad luck charm – and he throws himself overboard holding a cannonball, to his death. And coincidentally winds and rains delivering passage and life, respectively, begin again just in time to avert mutiny shortly after his sacrifice (urged by pressure from the Biblically superstitious crew). The captain, Crowe, wisely rejects posthumously acknowledging him as a Jonah and instead eulogises him as, to be succinct, quite the able seaman lost to circumstantial tragedy. It’s a pivotal moment, in which the dead character is almost resurrected like a secular Christ as a reminder that superstition is at best unhelpful and at worst catastrophic.
The catastrophe of losing one man, let alone many, aboard a warship so far from home port is also neatly punctuated by this incident. Each loss of every man is mourned not just due their humanity or popularity, but to their former purpose aboard the ship. The men – some old, some very young, others in-between – all depend on each other to fulfil their roles whether important or menial. And every loss is a loss indeed; a hamper not just to their dominance over the enemy, but the very chances of survival for every surviving crew member. So even though there is interpersonal conflict on the ship, this is the least of it. Because the survival of the entire crew, and every individual man, is so dependent on the very survival of individual men. The ship, arguably the main character under Crowe’s captainship, becomes a metaphor for human civilisation struggling against its internal membership and external forces – characterised by the French, the weather, and religious interpretation.
The film’s ultimate message is that conflict produces righteous victors. But also that other righteous would – and possibly should – be victors might be sacrificed along the way. The good doctor is a victor. He is shot while seeking to observe an obscure species of bird by a marine attempting to hunt the same bird, in a wonderfully dramatic clash of science versus instinct. And by virtue of this he successfully operates on himself (another metaphor so profound as to be almost too blunt to be a metaphor) on the very island (Galapagos) he was previously denied inspection of due to the hunt for the French. And then! During the very research he was previously denied by said hunt, he observes the nationalistic enemy and must return to the warship empty-handed of most of his specimens barring observations. Curiosity enlightens; conflict destroys.
So with much subterfuge and camouflage (incidentally that the captain observes via a stick insect gathered from the island) the British ship of course conquers its enemy. The dead are given to the waters they served so precariously above. The victors’ history, as with all victors’ histories, is the one portrayed by the film. But a British victory is of course one the modern western world is not hungry for. Perhaps during the late 1800s, this film would have proven both popular and successful as propaganda to the British Empire – if film such as this yet existed. Regardless of the breadth of its audience, it is of course an enlightening film. Science triumphs over superstition and conflict – even as it aids the latter. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World above all else teaches me that with every conflict, personal or worldwide, individual humans and humanity at large grow. Every conflict renders following conflicts less necessary and/or likely and/or destructive. Humans are still battling themselves and each other. But progressively we are fighting less, and cooperating more. The Earth is a ship, and the billions of us will sink, swim, or sail, perhaps one day actoss the universe, together.