If you were going to vent about the Oscar snub that bothers you the most, there are plenty of popular options from which to choose. You might still get riled up thinking about how Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan for best picture, that Forrest Gump won out over Pulp Fiction, or that Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash. Perhaps you’re indignant that Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar, or that Leonardo DiCaprio is still waiting for his. You could have a particular category that always manages to disappoint you, like Best Original Song does for me. Or maybe you’re just baffled that films like Around the World in 80 Days or Oliver! could have been marked among the best films of all time while something as influential as Star Wars was passed over. But given 88 years of Academy Awards history, you probably would not choose to object to the victory of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, arguably the most popular film to ever with the Oscar for Best Picture. But to me, the best film of 2003 was a different long-titled film adaptation of a popular book series about men at war: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Don’t get me wrong, Return of the King is a great film, definitely worthy to be included among the nominees. In many ways, I’m happy that it won, as it showed the power of popular filmmaking and represented a potential breakthrough for fantasy movies to earn the sort of recognition they’ve long been refused. And there’s no denying that its clean sweep of all 11 Oscars for which it was nominated, tying the record for most wins by any film, made for an exciting story. But I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed when it won, as I felt like it was not the best movie of 2003, and I would have even put in third behind Lost in Translation.
There are a few strikes against Return of the King which I felt were ignored at the time in all of the hoopla surrounding its sweep. The largest issue I have with its Best Picture win is that from the start the ceremony felt like it was honoring the trilogy as a whole rather than the final film in that trilogy. Both previous movies had been nominated for Best Picture and lost (to A Beautiful Mind and Chicago), and the Oscar sweep felt like recompense for Peter Jackson and company as a way to award the epic nature of the series. It was, in many ways, the equivalent of awarding an Oscar to an actor based on his lifelong body of work rather than the performance for which he was nominated. So much of the discussion about Return of the King‘s merits centered around its role in wrapping up the story and its place as the third part of one 9-hour long saga, rather than its own merits as a film. On top of that, in my opinion Return of the King is the worst of the trilogy. It’s bogged down by endless battle sequences with 100,000 orcs which loses any sense of personal connection with the characters, it has a multitude of endings which seem to drag out the final hour of the film for far too long, and it is entirely dependent upon the character development of the previous films. It lacks the personal touches and charm of Fellowship of the Ring and the clever writing and storytelling of The Two Towers, which crafted immense drama from the least interesting of the three original books and which gave us a masterful performance from Gollum. But my point here is not to trash Return of the King, which is still a brilliant movie and part of one of the most amazing film trilogies of all time, but rather to make the case that another film was more deserving.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was actually nominated 10 Academy Awards that year, only one less than Return of the King, and it won both of the categories in which it did not have to compete against Return of the King: Cinematography and Sound Editing. Master and Commander actually has a lot in common with Return of the King. They’re both based on an immensely popular series of books centered around massive conflicts. Both are period pieces in their own way, though one is set in the real world while the other is a fantasy universe. Both have largely male casts (there are actually no speaking roles for women in Master and Commander), and both feature Billy Boyd in a supporting role as a fan favorite character from the books. But the similarities end there.
Master and Commander is in many ways the opposite of Return of the King. Where Return of the King is all about the spectacle of war, offering some of the largest battles ever seen on film, Master and Commander is relatively small in scope. It tells the story of the Napoleonic Wars not through immense fleet battles but through the conflict between two ships. The result is a film that feels intimate, with stakes that feel personal rather than world-altering. Master and Commander makes use of real ships out in the open sea, and real sets and locations, actors, and stuntmen, with a minimum of computer effects or models. It’s as much a look into the lives of its characters and of men in the Royal Navy in that time period as it is about the conflict itself.
Master and Commander is anchored by two outstanding performances from Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, two old friends who could not be less alike. Their love for each other and their conflicting views on the nature of war, shipboard life, and humanity itself are at the heart of the film, and provide many of its best moments. Master and Commander is a film that has just as much interest in having characters discuss the ethics of military law as it is in the heated action of close ship-to-ship conflict. It’s a movie that rejoices in nature and Dr Maturin’s love of it, taking full advantage of being one of the few feature films to shoot on the Galapagos Islands, but it also makes us feel Jack’s love of the chase and of his ship, and relishes in the joy of the Surprise cutting through the waves in pursuit of her prey.
Master and Commander is one of the most meticulous films in history, going out of its way to be faithful not only to its source material (it borrows plot elements from many books in the 20 novel series), but to the historical time period in which it’s set. So much attention was paid by the production team in order to get everything exactly right, from the costumes to the dressing of the sets, which included the naming of the guns in the precise order they’re named in the books despite the fact that the average member of the audience would neither know nor care about such details. There are so many small moments in the film that, while meaningless to those who haven’t read the book, hold great meaning to Patrick O’Brian fans, such as the way Dr Maturin flexes his hand before playing his cello in reference to the torture he endured at the hands of the French years earlier which left him with crippled hands. Even the music is often period appropriate, using classic historical pieces that not only fit within the time period but which are mentioned by name in the books. When Aubrey and Maturin dash away on their violin and cello in the captain’s cabin, allowing the characters to fully express their emotions when the customs of the period would prohibit such honesty, they’re more than likely playing a piece of music the characters performed in the books.
In any other year, Master and Commander would have had a good shot at winning Best Picture. It’s the sort of historical epic featuring actors at the top of their game directed by a highly revered filmmaker (Peter Weir) that the Academy usually loves. It’s gorgeously shot (hence the Cinematography win), lovingly crafted, and simply a lush, rich film. Yet it’s also different enough for it to stand out from the typical war epic, with unique characters and a smaller focus than we typically get from other films in the genre. It’s set in a time period rarely covered, and in a theatre of war seen even less on the big screen. It is dramatic and exciting, but also filled with humor and charm, all while going out of its way to give us an accurate look at what life at sea was like in 1805. It’s filmed in stunning locations and on beautiful ships, and above all else it feels real, like we’ve been transported back to the early 1800s. And despite the thrilling and fictional nature of the film, it never feels exaggerated, instead it captures the truly heroic nature of that period’s man-of-war’s men, who lived cramped, dangerous, hard lives in order to batter the enemy in the name of king and country (and prize money, of course).
Perhaps the greatest reason Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World should have won Best Picture over The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is only apparent in hindsight. The two movies have aged substantially differently. Master and Commander still feels as fresh as the day it was first released, due both to its lack of reliance on computer effects and also on the timelessness of its story and setting. Return of the King, on the other hand, is already showing its age a bit, despite being only a little over a decade old. Where The Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t seem to have aged, particularly given its reliance on old-school filmmaking techniques, forced perspective, and its greater focus on character, Return of the King‘s giant battles already look a little dated, to the point where it can be somewhat distracting to watch. I would never argue that Return of the King is not a masterpiece, because it is, and a part of me is still happy that it won, looking back on 2003 Return of the King feels more like the finale to the trilogy that defined its era of Hollywood (much like the Marvel movies have defined the last five years, and the Star Wars era has returned in the past few months), Master and Commander feels like the film that should have won Best Picture. Any debate about Oscar snubs is always going to be subjective, as is any debate on which work of art is “better” than another, so really any choice to win an Oscar is simply a matter of personal preference. As for my preference, I would have given the 76th Academy Award for Best Picture to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.