I can’t recommend Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (adapted from Patrick O’Brian’s series of Nelson’s Navy novels) highly enough. The period details are meticulous, the battles excitingly choreographed, the realities of early 19th-century life at sea unshirked (cramped and wretched below-deck, anasthesia-free surgery, scummy food, even at the captain’s table), and the acting superb, especially that of Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as O’Brian’s famous seagoing duo, Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin.
What’s most wonderful about the movie, though, is Aubrey himself. His job is to create order, civilization, and a disciplined fighting force out of the cutthroats from the London slums who are his impressed seamen and the cultured greenhorns who are his midshipmen on the H.M.S. Surprise. When a sailor is insolent to an officer, Aubrey has him flogged–although he’s a good seaman, and when the flogging is over, the seaman, who takes his punishment like a man, is still part of the crew. When Maturin, a naturalist by hobby, begs for the Surprise to stop for a few days on the Galapagos Islands so that he can gather wildlife specimens, Aubrey has to say no to his best friend; they’ve got a war against the French to fight.
This is a movie about the making of a fighting force, a fitting film for our time now, in which Time magazine has dubbed the U.S. soldier man of the year. When the battles are over, Aubrey and Maturin make violin-and-cello music together in Aubrey’s cabin, beautiful counterpoints between the free-spirit intellectual and the upholder of the social order that allows the free spirit to flourish.