It’s easy to forget that 2003 brought us not one but two swashbuckling Captain Jacks. Johnny Depp’s slurring Sparrow may have won the plaudits – and deservedly so – but beyond him Pirates of the Caribbean was clichéd, poorly acted and, worst of all, really quite dull.
Thankfully, around the same time Russell Crowe’s more understated Captain Jack Aubrey also set sail in Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. Based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian, this seafaring journey couldn’t be more different from Disney’s theme-park ride.
The plot is ostensibly about Aubrey’s audacious pursuit of a larger, faster and better-armed French war vessel, but when his personal need for victory threatens the wellbeing of the ship and her crew it becomes a fascinating examination of obsession and the corrupting nature of power.
Aubrey’s foil is the ship’s surgeon, played by the always mesmerising Paul Bettany, and it’s the evolution of their long friendship that forms the focus of the story. Bettany’s quiet, composed naturalist is the (increasingly ignored) voice of reason, whose desire to explore the new species of the beautiful Galapagos Islands – filmed here for the first time – is continually scuppered by Aubrey’s growing obsession, despite the captain’s best intentions.
The beauty of the film lies in the details of the time period, from the use of a coin during the on-deck brain surgery of a shipmate, to Bettany’s God vs Science discourse on the use of disguise by the humble stick insect – which cleverly gives Aubrey his method of final attack on the French frigate.
The battles are brutal and devastating, more faceless tactical warfare than Errol Flynn-style duelling, and the film is all the more absorbing for it. It’s a tale of two experienced captains using every trick in the book to outwit each other, and the acting from a mixed crew of young and old is first rate throughout.
It’s a sad fact that Disney’s Pirates grossed over a billion dollars and spawned two uninspired sequels, while Peter Weir’s naval masterpiece only just made its (admittedly large) budget back. But then nothing about Master and Commander feels like it was made in Hollywood. It’s erudite and thoughtful where most would choose brash spectacle, and manages to feel more like a character-based period drama than an action film.
The extras are a little disappointing – a ship location map that can be called up at any point, a trivia track and a few deleted scenes – so DVD owners probably won’t want to shell out again. But if you didn’t see it the first time around, this Blu-ray release takes the detail to a whole new level and makes it a must-own.