One of my favorite types of movies is the sharply detailed history. We expect movies (and TV and books, etc.) to take liberties with real-life details, so I find such pleasure in stories that take the time to be accurate and grounded in depicting a particular era. The most powerful aspect of cinema is bringing to life what we cannot experience ourselves, and I find there are few things more compelling than actual history as source material.
That said, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander:The Far Side of the World (2003) isn’t accurate as a historical record of actual events; the compelling accurate reality here is the detail of life on a frigate in the Royal Navy. The movie, based on a series of novels by English author Patrick O’Brian, painstakingly recreates the 19th century feel of military life at sea, with Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, although the argument could be made that the production and sound design of the ship is the real star.
But that fighting is great. Again, I’m used to lots of ad-libbed ship fighting, where raggedly dressed men charge at each other with flintlock pistols and sabers, like swashbuckling, Pirates of the Caribbean stuff. Master and Commander stops short of swashbuckling because it explains the strategy behind how and why navies fight each other in this way. Despite his brashness, Aubrey is consistently at a disadvantage in the naval engagements for much of the story, showing us that part of this type of warfare is knowing when to retreat and use the vast expanse of dark ocean to escape to fight again. I’m astounded by the type of courage the men and boys who lived this life had, to maintain this type of discipline for months at a time to possibly die far from home.This warfare is also the same type of tension that I love in submarine movies, where one side hides from the other before attacking, where being strategic is more important than how many guns you have, and it’s the most realistic I’ve seen of this kind of battle in a movie.