Master and Commander is something of an underrated cult classic. We think, anyway. It’s not perfect. But it’s a swashbuckling, unique film that offered something a little different to blockbuster movie norms.
Peak fame Russell Crowe took the lead role, right after the colossal success of 2000’s Gladiator rocketed him to superstardom.
Against expectations, Master and Commander isn’t a gung-ho slaughterhouse of sea battles. Instead, it’s a thoughtful and considerate look at ambition, friendship, and a sense of duty.
Set Sail in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Set during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), we meet the fictional Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).
But although Aubrey is fictional, his character is loosely based on the exploits of one Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860). He was so effective during the Wars, Napoleon nicknamed him the “Sea Wolf”.
Aubrey heads the HMS Surprise. Now, that ship was very real. Launched by the French Navy in 1794 and called the Unité, the Royal Navy (tally, bally ho!) captured it in 1796. There it was put to use as a British man-of-war frigate until 1802, when it was sold out of service.
However, its use in the film is entirely fictional.
With his trusty ship, Captain Jack Aubrey is on a mission to intercept a heavy French frigate called the Acheron. But while off the coast of Brazil, the Acheron manages to ambush Aubrey’s crew in heavy fog.
The HMS Surprise is heavily damaged and Aubrey’s crew contend their ship is no match for the superior Archeron. They suggest abandoning the mission.
But Aubrey refuses to let the Archeron run riot across the British fleet.
After heading to the nearby Galápagos to repair the ship, so begins Master and Commander’s intriguing plot—a game of cat and mouse, with Aubrey determined to use his guile to defeat the superior ship.
This is where things get unconventional. Master and Commander doesn’t turn into an all guns blazing type of film. That side is largely on the back burner (although there are some fantastic battle scenes), with a focus on how the sailors deal with various travails at sea.
That is set alongside Aubrey’s relationship with his crew, such as his close friendship with the HMS Surprise’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). They’re into the arts, with a love for classical music, literature, progressive technology, and science.
They regularly perform music together in Aubrey’s quarters.
Their friendship is one of the unexpected driving forces of Master and Commander. And the characterisation adds a lot of weight to the developing narrative.
As Captain Aubrey is put thoroughly to the test on this mission.
Although Aubrey is a progressive captain for his era, he still commands total respect from his crew. And knows how to dish out punishments when it’s necessary.
Right, there’s that side. But whilst Aubrey and his crew chase down the Archeron, it gives the viewer much time on the ship of its era.
We get close insights into the way of life of sailors. This is all spectacular and very well done—the authenticity is impressive.
Right down to the little details. A ship’s power hierarchy is revealed, alongside the social structure. Director Peter Weir went to great lengths for historical accuracy, so these scenes are all an accurate depiction of the way of things back then.
Things advance further after Maturin is accidentally wounded on the ship.
Aubrey decides to abandon the pursuit of the Archeron. This is to take his friend back to the Galápagos for a life-saving operation.
As Maturin recovers, he examines the local wildlife on the island.
Out of the blue, he spots the Archeron anchored up on the other side of the island. Aubrey disguises the the HMS Surprise as a whaling ship. And so begins a lengthy battle to win honour and defeat his nemesis captain. Cue the explosions.
There are heavy losses for all concerned, but the HMS Surprise emerges victorious. His crew are able to board the Archeron.
Aubrey hurtles across the ship on a man hunt for the captain. He finds the Archeron’s doctor, who informs Aubrey his captain died during the battle.
The doctor then hands Aubrey the captain’s sword as a mark of respect for his abilities in mastering his opponent.
The two ships return to the Galápagos’ shores once more to repair all the damage. Aubrey promotes one of his crew to captain status. This is Pullings (James D’Arcy), who sets off with the captured Archeron to the seaport of Valparaíso, Chile.
After Pullings sets sail, Maturin checks the Archeron’s records and finds the ship’s doctor had died months before they’d captured the ship.
Aubrey realises the Archeron’s wily captain has duped him, posing as the ship’s doctor to avoid imprisonment. Determining he must set sail after the ship to intercept it and tow it to Valparaíso, the HMS Surprise crew once more resume battle stations.
Maturin complains it disrupts his birdwatching plans on the Galápagos. But Aubrey wryly notes the bird he wants to watch is flightless, so it’s not a problem.
As they head off in pursuit of the Archeron, the two friends have another duet.
And with that, the HMS Surprise sails off into the distance to an uncertain, but optimistic, future.
It’s a fantabulous closing scene—one of the best in modern cinema. It’s become iconic, but it can’t help but lift your spirits every time you watch it.
If you want to hear the whole piece of music there, it was by Italian composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805). It’s called La Musica Notturna Delle Strade di Madrid and was written in 1780.
The film’s score was by composers and musicians Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, and Richard Tognetti.
To note, Bettany and Crowe did play the piece in the scene. Crowe specifically learned to play the violin for this role, with tutoring from Tognetti.
Despite his efforts, being actors (rather than classically trained musicians) director Peter Weir decided to add the above professional production over their performance.
Master and Commander is an epic, great period drama.
It has the feel of Last of the Mohicans (1992), but set at sea. All the swashbuckling attention to detail is there, it feels so incredibly authentic to the era. Watching the film is like being on the ship with them all.
And it’s a compelling story. One of friendship and obsession—of trying to do the right thing. Of managing professionalism and national duty alongside whether Aubrey is losing it a bit.
Crowe’s charismatic lead performance is fantastic. As is Bettany’s supporting role. The pair riff off each other really well and it’s a unique friendship they portray. Very touching, you can’t help but admire the love the pair’s bromance.
The type of thing that must have played out during The Age of Discovery.
Ultimately, we think it’s Master and Commander’s thoughtful sense of self that’s turned a major blockbuster into an intriguing cult classic.
The Production of Master and Commander
The film was adapted from the novelist Patrick O’Brian’s (1914-2000) eponymous book series. The first one was published in 1969.
O’Brian went on to write 20 books about Jack Aubrey’s adventures.
For the film, the two works Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World were combined into one. They deal with chasing down a privateer.
With $150 million in budget to play with, director Peter Weir went to great lengths to make Master and Commander accurately represent its era.
With two historical advices on set, he had proper support.
It’s similar to Ridley Scott’s first film The Duellists (1977). With a much smaller budget, Scott was still able to accurately recreate the Napoleonic era.
For Master and Commander, the shoot took place from June-November 2002.
A replica ship was built at Baja Studios in Mexico. That region was previously built to film James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. Additionally, some 2,000 hats and shoes were created for the actors and extras.
All the cast and crew had a fortnight of intensive training, with guidance on what to do on frigate. That included loading and firing cannons and fighting with swords.
Crowe also insisted the cast also play rugby together during downtime, so as to build up their sense of camaraderie.
It’s unclear if they were also forced to endure scurvy as part of their preparation. Sadly, there are no sources on that.
Filming locations? Well, the scenes in the Galápagos were shot on location. That’s notable as it was the first film to ever record a scene on the islands.
But only 10 days of filming took place out at sea. Most was shot in a studio.
The film had been intended to be part of a franchise, but its disappointing return at the box office of $211.16 million meant the end after only one outing.
One of the reasons why the film may have failed is due to Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Master and Commander launched in cinemas in November 2003, mere weeks before the Lord of the Rings did. The latter had an enormous amount of hype behind it.
At least it was critically acclaimed, with strong reviews and 10 Oscar nominations. Again, it was thwarted by Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Kind.
But it did win for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing.
And the good news is a prequel to Master and Commander is officially in the works, following a 2021 announcement. Something to look forward to!
I saw this in the theater and was very impressed. Shame it didn’t do better — I did see Return of the King too, but this was a totally different sort of movie. It’s interesting that the captain is actually a good guy to his men while having to balance that with keeping discipline. From what I’ve read of the British Navy in the 17th and 18th centuries, it makes total sense that these guys would sometimes leave and become pirates instead where they had freedom and far better pay if they were lucky. Maybe things had gotten better by the Napoleonic Wars. Good review! This might be worth watching again since it’s been a while.
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Ta very much. And lucky! I wish I’d gone to see it in the cinema. I remember the TV spots for it. I did go to see Return of the King instead, so that film really did Master and Commander in. Dodgy timing with a release.
I was thinking about it recently, what life was like back then on the seas. Horrendously dangerous and often horrible, but an exciting life I suppose. The alternative being… staying in town doing a mundane job all the time. Regardless of the scurvy, at least you got to see the world.
Although the scurvy thing was pretty awful.
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