This analysis discusses the opening sequence of Peter Weir's film "Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World" (2003) in terms of how mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound and editing work together to create meaning for an implied viewer.
The film takes the viewer into the hermetically sealed world of an English man-of-war during the Napoleonic War (unlike the Patrick O’Brian novel which was set in the War of 1812 against the US. Clearly having the French as the enemy was always going to be less problematic and more profitable to American backers). The opening scenes are about setting tempo. Weir takes the audience into the circadian rhythms of life aboard at sea.
The opening four scenes are analysed. Each scene goes closer to the heart of the action by a progression of extreme long shots of the ship, through a tour of the deck, via an incident on board to end up with the close-up reaction to the incident which sets the tone for the film to come.
Mise-en-scene (french for 'putting in scene') is everything that appears in front of the camera. Weir wants to immerse the viewer in the reality of early 19th century sea-faring life. He provides period detail and realistic characterisations using lighting, colour, motifs, realistic costumes, and an attentive management of time and space.
The introductory sequences and titles give way to a tour of the harsh environment below deck. As the camera winds its way through the quarters, the dim lights and low roof render a sense of claustrophobia and unease. Initially the only lighting in the scene is a stark flickering keylight from the lamp of a passing sentry. The audience is drawn into the murkiness of the world below deck. Then a toplight filters from above deck to remind the audience of the world outside.
The sense of impending danger is heightened as the camera passes by two of the ship’s guns in close-up and displays their names to be “Jumping Billy” and “Sudden Death”. The latter name presages the several sudden deaths that occur later in the film.
Weir reminds the audience of the temporal component by using the motif of the hourglass. The hourglass will appear twice again in the film as an indicator of the passing of story time (and beyond this as a symbol of death.) When the hourglass is turned upside down, the bells are rung to signify the end of the shift. Sailors climb up and down the rigging in response to the bellringing. They are totally blacked out by attached shadows because it is not important that the viewer knows who they are. They suffice to be an anonymous metaphor for the rhythm of the ship.
The scene on deck when Mr Hollum is racked with indecision is played out in front of the crew. In the background plane behind the officers Mr Hollum and Mr Calumy, the ship’s crew watch impassively as Hollum prevaricates over the proper course of action in response to ‘the Phantom’. The audience’s attention is drawn to the ship’s carpenter Nagel who is framed strategically at the centre of the group of sailors watching the officers. Hollum’s indecision is exacerbated by a rear shot of the whispering officers seen from Nagel’s point of view. Nagel’s clash with Hollum will become a significant subplot.
Weir sets the scene in time and space with effective use of non-diegetic titles at the start of the film. In a sequence of three literary titles done in the exaggerated 19th century style, they give a sense of time, location and purpose. Immediately the audience knows that the story is set in the Napoleonic War. It knows the name of the ship, the HMS Surprise (and it is her modus operandi), her cargo, her location (“28 guns, 197 souls, N. coast Brazil) and most importantly her enemy, the French privateer the Acheron (named for one of the rivers of the Greek hell Hades, the 'river of woe'.) The audience gets a sense of the film’s purpose from the admiralty orders that will frame the film. Captain Aubrey must intercept the Acheron and ‘sink burn or take her a prize.’
There are two colour schemes in the opening scenes of the film. The ondeck scenes are blue signifying the closeness to the sea and the below-deck scenes are brown-filtered both suggesting the dinginess of below-deck life and also perhaps denoting the importance of the ship’s timber in keeping the crew afloat.
The film begins with birds-eye extreme longshots taken from various angles above and around the ship. The scene ends with a 360 degree tracking shot which takes us from clear water until ship is ominously about to enter a fog bank. The implied message for the audience to cultivate unease and expect danger in coming events.
That unease grows another notch when the audience shares Hollum’s fleeting experience of the Phantom ship with a point-of-view shot from the telescope. The clouds cover the scene so quickly that neither he nor the audience can be totally certain of what they saw. The shot shows effective use of off-screen space to heighten tension and uncertainty.
The on-deck scene also provides a brief close-up of young (13 years old) Midshipman Lord Blakeney. It is a small frontability cue to suggest the focal point he will play later in the piece linking the captain and the doctor in some of their more private moments. As Roger Ebert says “both men reveal their characters in teaching the boy, and that is how best grow to know them” (Ebert, 2005 online.)
The last scene of the opening section takes the viewer on a dizzying series of close-ups which derive their power from the delayed introduction of the two protagonists. Clinking surgical knives spread out on a bloodstained cloth herald the introduction of Dr Maturin. It is immediately followed by the quick motions of someone intently and swiftly twirling a map with their foot while dressing into multi-task fashion, before graphically matching a sword to represent the captain (as it also does on the Acheron) to the earlier shot of the knives which were a metaphor for the doctor. Sure enough, the action immediately switches to the putting on of a belt until the camera pans upwards to reveal the urgent face of the captain, ready to face the next crisis.
Though a steadicam is used for most scenes, the occasional shot with a handheld camera suggest the bobbing motion of a ship.
Editing is the co-ordination of one shot to the next (Bordwell & Thompson 2004, p.294.) The film starts will a series of establishing shots showing the ship from different angles. After all the titles have been displayed, the audience is plunged into the narrow confines below deck. The tour below is a series of long takes until the abrupt cut to the hourglass and a hand which taps it before turning it upside down to signify the end of a shift.
Immediately following there is a graphic match between the scene of the bellringing and the men climbing the rigging to show the direct consequence of the changing of the shift. The whitish light on the right of the bell is matched by the light from the right of the rigging in the following scene. These small, almost subconscious reminders of each other further immerse the audience in the daily routine of the ship.
The rhythm of the editing changes to suit Weir’s purpose. The pace picks up during the on-deck scene when the phantom ship is spotted. Then in the final scene of the opening, the call to ‘beat to quarters’ (an all hands on deck call) shows a frantic editing pace to match the hectic action aboard ship. A brief cut advances the action to show a drummer beating the call before cutting again to show the frenetic activity below decks.
Weir uses the 180 degree system to ensure consistent eyelines (Bordwell & Thompson 2004, p.312) during the scene while Hollum and Calumy are talking and being watched by the crew. The 180 degree axis is a line between Hollum and Nagel emphasising the looming quarrel between the two. The shots are either over the shoulder from Hollum towards Nagel or a point of view shot from Nagel’s perspective.
All the sound in the opening five minutes is diegetic (ie can be heard by characters in the film.) The key elements are a drumroll, creaking sails, chickens clucking, gulls squawking and some human dialogue.
The drumroll is the single most urgent element on the soundtrack in the five few minutes. It acts as a bridge between the sighting of the phantom and the introduction of the captain. When the captain’s face finally appears on the screen, the drumroll immediately ends and its noise is replaced by a less panicky (but just as industrious) steady hammering. The drumroll, as it is theatre, is a thus a metaphor for the introduction of the lead character.
The wind is the accompanying sound to the initial sequences from above and outside the boat. The howling gale conspires to bring an eerie quality to the proceedings and suggest much foreboding to come.
The mournful quality of the squawking of the seabirds also serves this purpose. It is also has the ‘albatross’ motif, presaging several moments of importance that birds will play in the film such as the accidental shooting of the doctor and the sighting of the Acheron while searching for a flightless cormorant.
The chicken clucking, the first live sounds we hear in the film are a startling sound bridge between the silent tour of the boat and the first human close-up of the ship’s cook. The noise occurs a split second before the viewer can make sense of the accompanying vision thereby adding to the temporary disorientation. The cooks ease the distress both the chickens and the viewers by some gentle clucking of his own ‘come on, come on, it’s alright’.
The dialogue is the final element of the sound. It is a mixture of foreground dialogue between Hollum and Calumy and the background dialogue of orders barked out and the responses of the sailors. The naval language conveys the strong sense of realism and takes the viewer naturistically into the centre of the action.
6. Synergy between the technical codes
The ‘beating the colours’ sequence is a masterpiece of collage between sound, editing, cinematography and mise-en-scene techniques. The tempo has risen in each of the three previous scenes and is now at a crescendo. The diegetic drummer taps out an urgent beat. The drumming will frame the entire scene and gives a sense of energy and purpose to proceedings. The urgency is also enhanced by the quick editing in this sequence. This scene is in direct contrast to the slow pace of the earlier scenes.
Sound and mise-en-scene show orders barked out and quickly obeyed. This crucial scene finishes with the unveiling of the two main characters. Dr Maturin is introduced by the symbolism of a set of surgical knives being placed on a bloody tablecloth. In the audience’s first medium close-up of him, the doctor is staring upwards towards the deck off-scene, perhaps fearful of the potential casualties to come. A rapid cut then switches our attention to introduce Captain Aubrey.
The mise-en-scene combines with staccato editing to paint a swift picture of a man of action. He dresses speedily but with military precision. He deftly flicks the map around with his foot to check his bearings before picking up his symbol of office – the sword. Only after he adjusts his belt and attire does the camera pan upwards to offer the first close-up of his face. This is the cue for the drumroll and the scene to end.
The stage is now set and the captain is ready to take command.
Bordwell David, Thompson Kristin 2003, Film art: an introduction (7th edition), McGraw Hill, New York
Ebert, Roger 2006, Review – Master and Commander: the Far side of the world
Master and Commander: The far side of the world, 2003, motion picture, Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Director Peter Weir