This first movie based on Patrick O’Brien’s hugely popular 20-volume series of books about a ship’s captain during the Napoleonic Wars falls into the Harry Potter category: the intensely detailed books have passionate and intensely detail-oriented fans, so any movie version had to be flawlessly meticulous.
Co-screenwriter/director Peter Weir (Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show) has delivered a respectful but exciting film based on two of the books. He clearly intends it to be the all-but-impossible — a thoughtful and intelligent action film for grown-ups. And it comes pretty close.
Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is captain of a tall ship called the H.M.S. Surprise in 1805, the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. His orders are to “sink, burn, or take as a prize” a French ship called the Acheron. But it is Aubrey who is surprised when the Acheron attacks. Many of his crew are injured or killed and his ship is badly damaged.
Aubrey must chart a new course on many levels. The Acheron is more powerful. Aubrey has no way of getting any information, direction, or support from home. He must lead his men (some of whom are still boys) into battle against a daunting enemy, knowing that many will be wounded or killed.
Aubrey is a good captain. He treats the men with dignity, kindness, and respect. But he understands that they need him to be a leader, not a friend, and that sometimes requires discipline and distance. Aubrey’s nickname is “Lucky Jack.” He knows that when he is in command of a group of boys and men a long way from home, it helps if they believe that he is lucky as well as wise. But that means he has to stay lucky.
The action scenes are exceptionally well-staged, putting the audience in the middle of the battles. The details are perfectly rendered — every gun, every blast, even every sound. But the action is balanced with a strong, classically structured story of the friendship between Aubrey and the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, last seen as Crowe’s roommate in A Beautiful Mind). They are friends and they share a great deal as they play music together in the quiet evenings. But they are very different. Aubrey is a man of action who gives and follows orders. Maturin is a man of science who believes that battles are tragic distractions from the pursuit of knowledge to make the world a better place. Their two perspectives provide balance as they struggle with their duties.
All of the performances are exceptionally strong and Crowe is splendid as Aubrey. He has the dash and the gravity and the sheer star power to provide the center of the movie, even in the midst of flying cannonballs. Weir has succeeded in making a film that is true to O’Brien’s books, utterly respectful of the history but all about the story.
Parents should know that the movie has prolonged and intense battle violence and some graphic scenes of amputation and surgery. Characters are in peril and many are severely wounded or killed, including some who are still children. A character is whipped as punishment. A character commits suicide. Characters drink and smoke and there are references to drunkenness, including the impact of extra rations of rum for the sailors.
Families who see this movie should talk about Why does Dr. Maturin say that “the deaths in actual battle are the easiest to bear?” Would Aubrey agree? How does Aubrey’s joke about “the lesser of two weevils” turn out to relate to some of the movie’s deeper themes? Why does Aubrey say, “I can only afford one rebel on this ship?” Who is he referring to? Characters in this movie are constantly making very difficult choices. Which did you think were most difficult? Which would you have decided differently?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seafaring classics like Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood and Against All Flags and Gregory Peck’s Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.. They will also enjoy the recent A&E television Horatio Hornblower miniseries starring Ioan Gruffudd.