Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

It has literary elements but is also a good sea yarn without them.

Peter Weir has a penchant for the weird: "A Picnic at Hanging Rock" drips with symbolism and sex and remains my favorite Australian film of the '70's; "Truman Story" leans heavily on allegory about media control. His new "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," starring Russell Crowe, has literary elements but is also a good sea yarn without them.

1805 British Navy Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe) commands a vessel in the Pacific chasing phantom French frigate Acheron, which is faster, bigger, and almost as creative at navigating and fighting as Aubrey's "Surprise." The story is an amalgam of Richard O'Brian's Aubrey sea tales, filled with falling yardarms and demanding dreams, like the mast of the Acheron and Aubrey's goal of taking down a Napoleonic symbol.

Aubrey refers more than once to Admiral Nelson, seemingly a device to catapult the action into an emblem of England stopping Napoleon's westward advance. As Weir is wont to do, he layers in another allegorical strand, this one the visit to the Galapagos Islands, where study of survival is new and exciting and helpful when a captain needs inspiration in battle. Courage, determination, loyalty, and leadership are the key thematic elements. Weir does not shy away from suggesting that power compromises one's command or that ends may not justify the means.

This is not Melville's "Billy Budd"--a sea story about the effects of pure evil on an innocent sailor and the rest of the crew. But it does entertain for over 2 hours, and as he did in "Gladiator," Russell Crowe easily plays the hero, more willing to play games as if they were war and war is if it were a game.