When you make a $135 million film, you need to fill theaters, and Master and Commander has no female characters, no space-age gadgetry, and only two big battle scenes. But this high-seas adventure has one big asset that towers over everything — Russell Crowe.
Hollywood has been trying to make big-screen versions of Patrick O'Brian's wildly popular seafaring novels. But Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World languished in studio development hell for years.
Waterborne movies like Titanic are expensive to make. And wash-ups like the disastrous Waterworld have turned producers into landlubbers. But Crowe, 39, in his first film since A Beautiful Mind, quickly turned the tide.
A woman appears on screen in just one fleeting scene in this 140-minute film. But Hollywood is confident Crowe has the good looks and Oscar-winning credibility to attract women and older viewers. And while the script is aimed at a more sophisticated audience than the average caffeine-driven action flick, younger audiences are likely to sign on for the voyage as the Gladiator star battles on the high seas.
Crowe, however, thinks the film is less of a risk than producers believe, especially behind the strength of director Peter Weir, the filmmaker who gave us The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, The Mosquito Coast and Witness.
"If you look at the breakdown of the percentage of people who actually read O'Brian's books, there's a surprisingly large percentage of women," Crowe says.
"For me, I look at it like this: Is Peter Weir going to make a fantastic movie, something that will be held up to, you know, the greatest of cinematic adventures? And I thought that it would be. I mean I never concern myself with the commerciality of the movies."
Still, with his Oscar-nominated turn in A Beautiful Mind and a string of high-grossing movies following L.A. Confidential, Crowe is on an undeniable hot streak. He won the best actor Oscar for 2000's Gladiator, and may have only lost out for A Beautiful Mind the next year because of his Hollywood bad-boy reputation.
Real War’s a Kid Game In Master and Commander, Crow is "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise, a British tall ship sailing off the coast of Brazil in 1805 when it is suddenly attacked by a French privateer and left crippled.
Cannonballs rip through the fog as Crowe strides across the wooden deck, vowing revenge, though his crew of able seamen are hardly as confident, and they are hardly even men. Many sailors are just 12 years old, not uncommon in the British Navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. They've got enough to deal with, having to eat chow squirming with vermin.
For reflection, Capt. Jack turns primarily to ship's doctor Stephen Maturin, portrayed by Paul Bettany, who played Crowe's imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind. The relationship of their characters in Mind film couldn't be further apart, and yet much of the new film hinges on the relationship between the two sailors.
Much of the staggering $135 million budget was devoted to buying a vintage three-masted wooden frigate and renting the same 6.5-acre water tank used for the filming of Titanic. In nearly every scene, you can feel the pitch of a rolling sea, giving this film a realistic feel unlike classic high-seas adventures.
Amid the threat becoming seasick from the special effects, audiences must also pick up on the nautical jargon that permeates O'Brian's novels. "You have to reach a balance," Crowe says.
"You can't have all the conversations completely riddled with jargon. However, to replace that with easily understood words is to then desecrate the period and the books and the whole reason for doing it in the first place."
Crowe on Board With Chickens With the new, nautical vocabulary, audiences will get a picture of 19th-century sailing life that they never saw in The Caine Mutiny or even this summer's Pirates of the Caribbean. The dirty ship holds a goat and chicken, to supply eggs and milk, and you can almost smell the stench of this floating barnyard.
Perhaps you pick up a thing or two about history, making such a movie. But playing a gladiator only teaches you so much about ancient Rome. Now, playing a sea captain, even in a more ambitious role, hardly serves as a college degree in history.
"It's movie knowledge, you know? You spend X amount of time becoming an expert on something," Crowe says. "But as soon as you've done the last shot, you throw it all away."