“Directly towards them, Mr. Mowett.”
According to Russell Crowe, playing Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, as they prepare to engage in battle with a French ship.
“Right at them, sir,” responded Edward Woodall in his role as 2nd Lt William Mowett.
After two decades, Peter Weir’s movie continues to be an exceptional work, a remarkable example of powerful, straightforward, and clever action cinema. To rephrase Ulysses S Grant’s thoughts on the strategy of land warfare, Master and Commander is a proficient action film that targets its audience swiftly and forcefully, leaving a lasting impact.
Lucky Jack boiled Grant, who was laconic, down to the essentials. The film Master and Commander is a straightforward and direct approach.
However, it holds even greater significance. It draws from elements of multiple works of fiction, specifically the Aubrey-Maturin series written by Patrick O’Brian. At the time of O’Brian’s passing in 2000, there were a total of 20 completed novels in the series, as well as one that remained unfinished. The stories chronicle the adventures of Aubrey and his comrade, Stephen Maturin, who serves as a doctor, scientist, and secret agent, during the time of the Napoleonic wars as they climb the ranks of the British Royal Navy.
O’Brian crafted a detailed universe, encompassing the naval battles of the 18th and early 19th centuries, filled with mystery and excitement. Weir captured this world on camera, both above and below deck, aboard a replica British frigate named the Surprise, as it engaged in a thrilling pursuit with a French vessel, the Acheron, around Cape Horn.
The characters in Weir’s story were brought to life by the actors. Crowe portrayed Lucky Jack, a confident and aggressive old-school Tory with various talents. Paul Bettany accurately captured Maturin’s conflicting nature, where he was both a man of science and enlightenment, but also often frustrated and shocked by his friend’s actions. After the battle, they would play music together as they watched the sunset on their ship. The supporting cast was well-chosen, including James D’Arcy as Tom Pullings, Aubrey’s ambitious and scarred protege who was given his first command. Robert Pugh played Mr. Allen, a skeptic at the captain’s table. Billy Boyd portrayed Barrett Bonden, the coxswain. And Max Pirkis played Lord Blakeney, a young midshipman who tragically lost his arm.
Unfortunately, there is only a single female character in Master and Commander, and she is depicted as beautiful. She is seen from the ship’s railing off the coast of the Americas, catching the attention of Lucky Jack. His gaze lingers on her long enough to establish his status as a leading man. Weir’s film also includes elements of rum and punishment, but they are not as prominent as the depiction of a female character.
It has been suggested by some that Master and Commander is not a true classic because it primarily focuses on male characters and lacks diversity. However, I disagree with this notion and would argue that my mother, an English literature teacher and fan of Eliot and Austen, would also disagree. She cherishes O’Brian’s novels and loves the film just as much as I do. I must admit, I have not personally read O’Brian’s books. I only made it through the first chapter of Master and Commander before choosing to read Flashman instead. In my defense, I was 16 and foolish.
However, I am a fan of the film.
While the crew of the Surprise takes a break and prepares for future missions, there is a pleasant surprise for any British onlooker who may feel lost in the artificiality of Hollywood movies. This particular scene takes place on the Galápagos, where Maturin is able to briefly indulge in his passion for cricket. The scene portrays him as a precursor to Darwin, as he carefully packs up birds and iguanas with both love and knowledge. However, the peaceful moment is interrupted as the Acheron suddenly reappears, similar to the menacing shark in Jaws. The game is once again on, and Captain Jack devises a clever plan to deceive the enemy ship. He pretends to be a helpless whaler, using Maturin and Blakeney’s expertise in camouflage from their studies of nature. The French ship falls for the trap and the adventure continues.
At the signal from Crowe, only three years after he started his other important historical epic role in Gladiator, his soldiers unleash chaos. The ultimate battle is a surge of smoke and debris, full of energy, exhilarating, and terrifying. Just as intense as the ship’s floors, where cannonballs and swords wreak havoc. “We need more sand here!” Maturin shouts while wielding blades and saws. In another scene, he performs surgery on himself, removing a bullet. He also uses a coin to perform a graphic trepanning procedure.
Reworded: Master and Commander is an action film that also incorporates intellectual elements. Its excitement is not without substance. The director’s attention to detail in depicting life on a warship in 1805 is impressive, intriguing, and at times, appropriately unsettling. The performances of Crowe and Bettany as two friends are perfectly executed with a similar level of artistry. As Gabriella Paiella wrote for GQ this year, the film’s enduring charm lies in its portrayal of male camaraderie.
In March of 2023, Paiella humorously imitated the beloved title card from the movie, leading into changing perspectives of a warship sailing at night.
“Napoleon has established dominance over Europe, with only the British fleet remaining as a potential obstacle. The oceans have now become arenas for battle. Despite being a moderate box office success in 2003, this film has unexpectedly become a popular choice for streaming, representing the type of movie that Hollywood no longer produces and promoting positive masculinity.”
Take it from me, a middle-aged man whose closest male friends all live across 3,000 miles of ocean (and who, yes, owns a T-shirt with that title card on it), Master and Commander really does present an inspiring view of relationships vital to health and happiness.
Why did this impressive film only have moderate success at the box office? And why haven’t there been any follow-up movies in a time where many franchises are based on material of lower literary quality than O’Brian’s, let alone an entire film by Ridley Scott focused on “that disheveled Napoleon”? (I’m eagerly anticipating its release.)
The film Master and Commander received positive reviews and was nominated for numerous awards, including 10 Oscar nominations for categories such as best picture and best director. It won two Oscars for its technical aspects. Despite its success, the film’s budget was high at $150 million due to filming on a replica ship and at sea. It did not make a significant profit, earning only about $210 million worldwide.
In 2005, during the rise of superhero franchises, Weir stated to the Seattle Times that a sequel to his film, featuring Lucky Jack, was unlikely due to its moderate success at the box office and lack of immediate profitability that typically leads to sequels.
Despite Russell Crowe’s desire to reprise his role as Lucky Jack, he ultimately did not. It is highly unlikely that he will in the future, even though it is not inconceivable for him to portray Rear Admiral Aubrey in “Blue at the Mizzen,” the final novel in the O’Brian series, which takes place after Napoleon’s downfall.
However, in light of the movie’s quick transformation into a popular meme – which is more tolerable for grumpy individuals like myself if it means the film will reach a new audience – the fact that it has spread rapidly on the internet provides some form of optimism.
There have been ongoing discussions about a new movie that serves as a prequel. Recently, an image circulated claiming to reveal the “Aubrey-Maturin Saga” and its release dates, starting with Master and Commander: Post Captain in spring 2023 and ending with Master and Commander: The Reverse of the Medal in spring 2027.
According to Garth Franklin, editor of DarkHorizons.com, “This is obviously not true, but I really wish it was.”
Brotherhood: When West Point Rugby Went to War, written by Martin Pengelly, has been released in the United States by Godine.