Three-time Oscar nominee (he won for ''Gladiator'') Russell Crowe is playing Captain Jack Aubrey in ''Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,'' the swashbuckling high-seas adventure based on the late Patrick O'Brian's popular historical novels about the 19th-century British navy. It's a role that could conceivably put Crowe on the Oscar ballot for a fourth time.
The history of the film itself is an epic, spanning 10 years and five studios (it began at Samuel Goldwyn, then moved to Disney, and moved again to Twentieth Century Fox, which brought in Universal and Miramax as coproducers) and costing boatloads of cash ($135 million, spent mostly in Mexico, where ''Master'' shot in the same giant tank in which James Cameron sank his ''Titanic''). And now, with a Nov. 14 release date looming, it's sailing into the most treacherous waters yet, with fans of O'Brian's 20-novel series already circling cineplexes like sharks. A fiercely loyal lot -- they exhaust nearly as much bandwidth with their Web pages as Trekkies -- they've been grousing about the film's patchwork plot (combining elements of the 1st and 10th novels), complaining about the casting of the too tall Paul Bettany (Crowe's ''A Beautiful Mind'' costar) as Aubrey's diminutive shipmate Dr. Stephen Maturin, and even raising questions about Crowe -- or at least his waistline (in the books, Aubrey is a bit of a fatty).
''I'm hoping they've all seen 'Adaptation,''' half-jokes director Peter Weir (''The Truman Show''), who cowrote the film with John Collee (''Mind'' screenwriter Akiva Goldsman did some uncredited doctoring). ''I've tried to give the audience the experience of being at sea, of inhabiting this other world, which is what I enjoyed most about the novels. But it's rare for people who love a book to love the movie made from it.'' Still, Weir has no doubts about one thing: His hero couldn't have been more perfectly cast. ''The minute Russell walked into the room I thought, 'There he is,''' he says. ''He's got this natural authority. He likes to command. He's the captain of actors.''
The Killer Moment Watching Crowe climb a mast, fire a cannon, pilot a real man-of-war in high seas -- and even play the violin.