alan little’s weblog

master and commander extended

3rd May 2004 permanent link

I promised in January that I wouldn’t say any more about the film Master & Commander until the DVD came out. Well, it’s out; I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve ever seen a film on cinema release and then eagerly waited for the (video or) DVD release, not to mention the first time I’ve ever bought a new DVD at full price. (Which was a mistake. I bought it in HMV and then saw that it was 4 quid cheaper in Safeway). Also the first time I’ve ever watched all the extra bits on an extended DVD, and found them possibly more fun than the film itself. (I sold my Extended Edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring on ebay, at a profit, without even having made it through the entire long version of the film, never mind any of the extras).

All in all, it’s a four-star DVD of a three-star film. I enjoyed seeing the film a second time but I still don’t think it’s anywhere near being a cinematic classic. The extras, though, are fascinating – some wonderful photography, great music and loads of interesting insights into how the film was made, how the effects worked and the lengths they went to for authenticity.

O’Brian’s stories, and the story of the film, are fictional but the frigate HMS Surprise really existed; to build their replica frigate they used the actual plans of the real ship, drawn up by the Admiralty dockyard when she was captured from the French in the 1790s. For the fantastic Cape Horn storm sequence, they used composites of real film of real Cape Horn storms taken from a real sailing ship – apparently pure computer-generated imagery still can’t get the look of water just right. They recorded the sound of real replica cannons, and real cannonballs crashing into real wood – and found that they sounded nothing like they expected them to. They actually fired cannons on a crowded gundeck with full guncrews standing around them. Read O’Brian: people regularly got badly hurt doing that, even in training with nobody firing back. (If you don’t trust O’Brian’s works of fiction, read The Wooden World, N.A.M. Rodger’s marvellous book on the eighteenth century navy.)

The photography includes a lot of long shots of the ship sailing that are to my eye much more beautiful than the tight, claustrophobic ship’s interiors that they continually used in the film. The soundtrack is great; I will be shopping for some Correlli in the near future.

But. As I said, I found all this almost more interesting than the film. I have a feeling they somehow put so much effort and attention into respecting O’Brian and creating complete, perfect period authenticity, that they had very little left over for actually making a really compelling work of art of their own.

Here’s Peter Weir on how different a film is from a book, and how hard it is for one to do the other justice:

O’Brian’s greatness lies in his prose and in his characters and in his bringing to life a world on board a ship, and an era, really. And the first thing you do when you pick the book up as a filmmaker: all of the words fall out on to the table and all you’re left with is the cover, the front cover and back cover and the skeleton of the plot and the ghostly shape of the characters. And you have to replace that prose with images, and it’s the most extraordinary experience to attempt to do that. And I think that’s the great challenge with O’Brian, to provide a way of telling the story visually that would equal his prose, or at least do it justice.

... and Paul Bethany on making an adventure movie that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence:

I’m not aware of any action movie that in the middle of it has two people playing the cello and the violin.

I think they did O’Brian justice in the visual re-creation, but didn’t really manage to pull it off with the storytelling.

I have a nagging feeling that it’s better to engage in creative activities of one’s own than to watch other people’s and then criticise them. I could, for example, have spent time at the weekend continuing my intermittent essay on yoga teaching, about which I still have more I want to say. Or scanning & editing pictures of Tibetan temple murals, which I still haven’t got round to. The problem is that those things are Hard Work, whereas enjoying a good DVD and then jotting down a few notes about what I thought of it isn’t. So. At least I did my yoga practice.

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