Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, reminds us all of what cinema used to be – a world full of soul.

True to the period and the Patrick O’Brian novels upon which it is based, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, has gone on to become a classic of modern cinema. Matthew Wellington looks at what makes Weir’s sea adventure so special.

2003 – Fighting in a crowd

“It’s a clean-sweep, the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” – This is the eleventh Academy Award win for the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, tying the record for the most wins with the films Titanic and Ben Hur.

76th Annual Academy Awards® in 2004.

2003 was a spectacular year in the history of cinema with the Domestic Box Office (United States) alone taking in a staggering $9.24 billion. A figure which at the time was the single highest total revenue for a year in the history of the Domestic Box Office*. 

From all-time classics such as Finding Nemo ($380,529,370*) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($377,845,905*), to Ang Lee’s horrific Hulk ($132,177,234*) and a remake of British comedy caper film The Italian Job ($106,126,012*) – which was totally unnecessary might I add – 2003 was an almighty year and one which brings back fond memories of my formative years. 

I mean who can forget seeing Andrew Lincoln before he was Rick Grimes, or Keira Knightley after she bent it like Beckham.

We saw Billy Connelly play an Irishman alongside Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai ($111,110,575*), Jack Black taught an entire generation why Led Zeppelin are the greatest rock band of all-time in School of Rock ($81,261,177*), and the criminally overhated The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ($66,465,204*) saw Sean Connery in his final live-action role before retiring. But hidden deep within a seismic tide of releases, that includes all the above and the little-known Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl ($305,410,819*), was perhaps the greatest film of the past two decades. A cinematic triumph built on good old fashioned principles that now stands proudly as one of the last bastions of hope against the trend of relying entirely on computer generated effects. I am of course speaking of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World ($93,926,386*).

Peter’s Weir’s uncompromising 18th century epic, which tells the story of H.M.S Surprise and its crew during the Napoleonic Wars, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, underperformed commercially for 20th Century Fox upon release but has gone on to be considered an all-time classic by those of us who over indulge ourselves in cinema. This exuberant sea adventure which had a production budget of $135,000,000, only ended up making a total of $212,912,137 worldwide, just 1.6 times its budget. In comparison, Edward Zwick’s aforementioned The Last Samurai, cost just $5 million more to make at $140,000,000 and returned an estimated 3.3 times its production budget with a Worldwide Box Office of $456,810,575. I guess having Tom Cruise in a lead role helps, but let’s not forget, Master and Commander had Russell Crowe coming off the back of The Insider, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. This period was peak Russell Crowe. His back-to-back-to-back title run. His three-peat.

Touchstone Pictures / Getty Images / Universal Pictures / The Pager illustration

“I think that while it did well…ish at the box office, it didn’t generate that monstrous, rapid income that provokes a sequel.”

Peter Weir, Director

However despite the commercial failings or “well….ish” Box Office, Master and Commander has gotten better with age and as Hollywood continues to favour dazzling computer generated effects and poorly constructed characters, over well-crafted stories and practical effects, it is a film that reminds us all of what cinema used to be – a world full of soul. 

Master Character Building

“England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England.”

Captain Jack Aubrey

In the golden age of Hollywood, films about the Age of Sail and the Age of Discovery were not rare. In fact, cinema’s rise in popularity marched hand-in-hand with films about sail. Like Master and Commander, many of these were based on novels or historical events. Titles such as H.M.S. Defiant, Billy Budd and Mutiny on the Bounty placed the tales of men at the very heart of their stories and in doing so, stood the test of time, working almost as well today as they did the year in which they were released. 

Mutiny on the Bounty practically became a Hollywood staple, with three highly successful feature films produced during the last century. The first in 1935 with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. The second in 1962 with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Richard Harris. Then finally the third in 1984 with Mel Gibson, Lawrence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins. These three films in particular place a great emphasis on the sense of isolation that occurs whilst at sea, the threats nature can present and the dilemmas man may face. They present the base struggles of man between good and evil, the certain and the unknown. 

With Master And Commander, Weir and his Co-Writer John Collee kept these same emphases and in doing so crafted an experience that was truly worthy of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture. It was just pure bad luck that this old fashioned epic ran into a modern fantasy epic that would define our time. After all, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy gave us all a glimpse of what Hollywood was about to become, a series and sequel driven industry, where Box Office profits rules above all.

Almost the entire 2 hour 18 minutes run time of Weir’s adventure takes place onboard H.M.S Surprise, a small 28-gun Frigate. The historically accurate aesthetics and detail achieved on the ship, allow the audience to step back into the Eighteenth Century with the claustrophobic environment and hazards that face the crew daily evident from the off. The David-and-Goliath struggle against the far larger, superior French warship Acheron is the undercurrent of the film. With her superior guns presenting an ever-present danger in the audience’s mind, even during the many moments of contemplation. Acheron may bring anarchy to the moment at any time. Yet despite its spectacular action set pieces, the beating heart of the picture lies in the intimate moments that take place within Surprise’s wooden walls and sometimes outside them. These moments of respite are neatly juxtaposed and torn apart by the violence and noise that erupts during the film’s major set pieces and by the end of the adventure, Surprise herself (the ship) is as much of a character as Captain Jack Aubery (Crowe) and Doctor Stephen Maturin (Bettany). 

Weir and Collee steer the storyline at an almost perfect pace, allowing the audience time to get to know these main characters. We sit with them as they discuss the challenges that lie ahead of them and laugh during their brief moments of respite. The downtime is used to ensure we have an understanding of these characters and where they have come. This is not a film that depends solely on action for its impact, but on the nature of life on board such a ship and the relationships of the men within it. By allowing the audience time to understand Aubery, Maturin and others, Weir achieves in less than 2 hours, what takes some films multiple installments. In far too many films these days, we do not have enough downtime with the lead roles, which in turn reduces the emotional impact and connection we have to them. Master and Commander does the opposite, investing heavily in dialogue for both the film’s stars and its minor supporting characters, even allowing them to have unique subplots within the main story arc.

There’s the young Midshipman Lord William Blakeney (Max Pirkis). Blakeney is a teenager who is thrust suddenly into command on the deck during the opening battle. It is a shocking moment for both Blakeney and the audience, who are not used to seeing teenagers in such positions. Later we see revealing moments of character, as Aubrey takes time to discuss leadership with Blakeney, which in time shines through during closing moments of the culminating battle. And with Doctor Maturin, Blakeney develops a shared passion for biology and begins to write a journal on birds and beetles, which like Aubrey’s words before sets in motion future events that inevitably aid the Surprise in her David-and-Goliath task. 

Then we have Mr. Hollam (Lee Ingleby), another Midshipman who is considered too old for his rank. Hollam does not have natural leadership and is shown early on to be indecisive for an Officer of his rank. When Hollam’s indecisive nature is shown again, it’s a gut-punch moment that ultimately leads to the death of a known character and as the music Fantasia On A Theme by Thomas Tallis climaxes, that moment remains to this day as one of the most impactful moments in any drama.

Hollam’s actions eventually lead to him becoming a “Jonah” figure amongst the crew, who blame him for the ship’s run of bad luck. A “Jonah” is a long-established expression among sailors, meaning a person who brings bad luck. Over the course of the remaining acts, Hollam becomes shunned by his crewmates, even those who had appeared to be his friends, and at one point is shoved by Joseph Nagle (Bryan Dick) – the best friend of the previously deceased character. Hollam fails to reprimand Nagle and Aubrey is duty bound to seek justice. Justice is found in the form of flogging, a classic of cinema and a favourite of the Royal Navy. This event leads to Maturin and Aubrey’s clash over tradition and service – Men Must Be Governed.

The film is full of scenes which at first don’t appear to be anything special at all, but once developed, captivate both the audience and those fellow characters involved within them. One scene in particular stands out, and not just because it made my father genuinely laugh in the cinema – a rare feat – but because it shows what makes film such a perfect medium. The scene in question takes place in the poorly lit, unassuming Captain’s Quarters, where Aubrey and his Officers are eating their evening meal. I am, of course, referring to the lesser of two weevils.

We see Aubrey regail his fellow Officers with a story, which ends in a momentary silence. He then asks Maturin a question, which at first appears to be of scientific nature. Enthused by this, Maturin lunges into a scientific debate about which weevil he would prefer. It is at this point where the film’s attachment to characters truly shines through, with the camaraderie between these men becoming evident. All involved sit silently, with keen ears and high levels of attentiveness.

“Neither, there’s not a scrap of difference between them.” Maturin states.

Undeterred by this, Aubrey pushes his friend further, insisting that Maturin makes a choice.

After a period of deliberation, Maturin makes his choice between the two weevils. He chooses the right-hand one for it’s “advantage in length and breadth”. Suddenly, Aubrey strikes his fist down on the table, deafening the audience and shocking those Officers sitting besides the table.

“There, I have you!  You’re completely dished!  Do you not know that in the service………..…one must always choose the lesser of two weevils.”

Maturin’s annoyance is overwhelmed by the genuine laughter that takes place within the cabin and he replies “He who would pun would pick a pocket”.

These intricately written moments and subplots behind the overarching main plot don’t end there and as the film barrels towards its climactic battle there’s a detour to the Galapagos Islands and the accidental shooting of Maturin, amongst others. 

Whilst it is true that unique subplots are nothing new to cinema, when done well, the audience truly notices. Just like the great David Lean before him, Weir’s attention to his characters is glorious, allowing Master and Commander to achieve such a rare feat of emotional attachment, whilst never losing sight of the element that makes this film special, the human element. Master and Commander deserves a place alongside the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, 39 Steps, Rear Window, and Seven Samurai – to name but a few. 

Cinema needs more films like Master and Commander.

Can I just end on this final note – it is an absolute travesty that we’ve seen nine Spiderman films, five Pirates of the Caribbean entries, and about a thousand Transformers, but only one Master and Commander. A true Hollywood scandal. We may have a glint of hope however, as this Russell Crowe tweet from 2017 shows….. perhaps 20th Century Studios (was formerly Fox) have something up their sleeve? However, if you can’t give us a sequel, well perhaps you’d be kind enough to remaster the picture on the god-awful DVD and Blu-Ray. 4K would be great. I speak for the many, not the few.

US Domestic Box Office and Worldwide Box Office figure taken from the following:

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