Film / Master and Commander

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"For England! For home! And for the prize!"
Captain Jack Aubrey

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a 2003 Age of Sail naval warfare drama, based on the Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brian set during The Napoleonic Wars. It is directed by Peter Weir and stars Russell Crowe as Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey of His Majesty's Ship Surprise, and Paul Bettany as ship's surgeon, naturalist, and Jack's dear friend Stephen Maturin. It is known for being one of the more accurate depictions of Wooden Ships and Iron Men on film, true to its source.

The plot of the film references several books in the series, including Master and Commander (1969) and The Far Side of the World (1984). Captain Aubrey is sent to the coast of Brazil to engage a private man-of-war employed by Napoleonic France, only to find the enemy considerably more powerful than his beloved but nearly obsolete frigate, the Surprise. Worse, the enemy commander is Aubrey's equal or even superior as a tactician and seaman. Going beyond his orders, Aubrey pursues the enemy into the Pacific where she is raiding British whalers, and attempts a final stratagem that will either doom the Surprise or give her victory.


This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Snippets from several of the books on which the movie is based are thrown in (the title alone comes from two of them.) There is only a brief mention of Stephen being a spy, and the enemy ship is American-made (and thus advanced and well-built) but French-aligned.note 
  • Adventurous Irish Violins: Throughout the optimistic and adventurous sequences, as befitting a work set in the Age of Sail.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Jack realises he's been hoodwinked, and the Surprise must once again pursues the Acheron, much to Stephen's disappointment.
  • Artifact Title: "Master and commander" (later shortened to "commander") is an official naval rank between "lieutenant" and "post captain", and it is Jack's rank during the so-titled book. However, the film takes place later during his career, after he has already made post.
  • Badass Adorable: Several midshipmen, but cute little Will Blakeney takes the cake. He's a blond teen-aged Pretty Boy who gets interested in science and natural world. And he's a great sailor and officer who can kick some serious ass (with one arm, no less).
  • Badass Bookworm: Maturin can't just hold his own in battle; he can do it while nursing a fresh gunshot wound he treated himself without so much as alcohol to numb the pain. Digging a bullet out of your own gut? Pretty damn badass.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment:
    • The punchline of Jack's story about dining with Admiral Lord Nelson.
    Jack: The first time that he spoke to me... I shall never forget his words. I remember it like it was yesterday. He leaned across the table, he looked me straight in the eye, and he said "Aubrey... may I trouble you for the salt?" [everybody howls with laughter] I've always tried to say it exactly as he did ever since!
    • And Jack's toast "to wives and sweethearts...may they never meet."
  • Black Comedy: The morning after Hollom commits suicide, there's a service for him. Killick hands Jack a copy of the Bible... which is open to the book of Jonah. Jack gives him an extremely not-amused look and hands the book back before carrying on.
  • Boarding Party: They manage to trick and successfully board Acheron, but the battle is hard.
  • Burial at Sea: After the exhilaration of victory, there is a deliberate Mood Whiplash as the regrettable price is shown: burial at sea for the men—and boys—who died taking the enemy.
  • Butt-Monkey: Midshipman Hollom, played for drama. Where most midshipmen have made lieutenant by the time they're out of their teens, Hollom is almost 30 and has been passed over for promotion twice. He fails to effectively command or obtain the respect of the men under him, and is eventually Driven to Suicide over it.
  • Cool Boat: The Acheron is newer, faster, stronger, and better-armed than the Surprise, by some accounts an "aged man of war." Aubrey takes issue with that characterization.
    Aubrey: The Surprise has a bluff bow, lovely lines. She's a fine seabird: weatherly, stiff and fast... very fast, if she's well handled. No, she's not old. She's in her prime.
  • Child Soldiers: Middies are both "Precociously Talented" and "Tragic" types. Blakeney for instance is the latter because he gets maimed, and the former because even after that fact he can still lead a war party of men twice his age and personally kick ass himself. Truth in Television: most Royal Navy officers started in their teens.
  • Chromosome Casting: Justified. Neither the French nor the Royal Navy allowed female sailors, and privately owned ships generally considered it bad luck to have women aboard ship. The solitary woman in the movie is a Brazilian lady who's on screen for all of five seconds doing nothing but twirling a Parasol of Prettiness.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Members of the crew fight with whatever weapons they have - daggers, dirks, cutlasses, sabres, pistol butts, axes, even a large carpentry hammer. They also used different ways of stopping cannon fire, from dousing the vent to blocking the striker with their bare hand.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Aubrey's steward, the irascible Preserved Killick.
    Aubrey: [sozzled from too many glasses of claret and impatient for the pièce de résistance] Killick? Killick! ... There.
    Killick: [who is standing right behind him] I'm already here, ain't I?
  • Death by Adaptation/Spared by the Adaptation: The changing of the plot alters the fate of four of the tenth book's minor characters: one spared, three killed off.
  • Determinator:
    • Aubrey is implacably determined to capture the formidable Acheron.
      Aubrey: My orders were to pursue the Acheron as far as Brazil. I exceeded my orders some time ago.
    • Unfortunately the French captain is equally determined to turn the tables on his pursuer.
  • Doom Magnet: Hollom is believed to be this by the crew, which results in him being Driven to Suicide.
  • Driven to Suicide: The aging midshipman Hollom, who has no prospects of promotion, is completely lacking in leadership ability, and to top it off gets labeled as a curse on the ship's luck.
  • The Drunken Sailor: They drink huge amount of wine and rum, especially during dinners. True to life in the Navy.
  • Duet Bonding: Aubrey and Doctor Maturin deepen their friendship by playing duets on violin and cello, respectively (much to the frustration of Killick, who can't stand the music).
  • Easy Logistics: "The French have their spies in England and elsewhere... as do we." ...What? You mean a French spy all the way back in Portsmouth when he saw Surprise put to sea, ran out across the ocean to warn the French Captain so he could lay an ambush at just the right time and place? Possible though, as there could have been agents located in South America or other ports where the Acheron could have stopped by. These agents would not necessarily have seen the Surprise put out to sea, but they would have been aware of English man-of-war movements in the area. It is also possible that the French were warned that England had dispatched the Surprise to intercept Acheron, allowing the Acheron to ambush Surprise rather than the other way around.
  • Empathic Environment: After weeks In the Doldrums, as soon as Hollom is buried at sea, the wind picks up. Depending on how you look at it, either Hollom's spirit has forgiven the crew for their lack of fellowship, or driving him to suicide removed his curse on the ship and they can get on with their duties. Or it was a complete coincidence. Though he said meaningful words right before jumping off the ship, implying he felt he might have actually have been cursed. Ambiguity about such things is a common plot device.
    Blakeney: The Captain thinks we'll get our wind tomorrow.
    Hollom: I'm sure of it.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first scene sets up the difference between the timid and incompetent Hollom and the brave and competent Calamy. Hollom glimpses the Acheron, the only one on the ship to do so, but lacks the confidence to call an alert on his own authority even though he's responsible for the ship. Calamy doesn't see it but calls the alert in order to be safe rather than sorry when it's clear Hollom won't.
  • Eureka Moment: "Let me guess. A stick?"
    Blakeney: It's a rare phasmid, sir... It's an insect that disguises itself as a stick in order to confuse its predators.

    Captain Aubrey: [later] A nautical phasmid, Doctor, at least for a hungry eye, if one has an appetite for whalers. I intend to take a greater interest in the bounty of nature from now on. [...] I had no idea that a study of nature could advance the art of naval warfare! Now to pull this predator in close and spring our trap.
    Stephen: Jack. You're the predator.
  • The Faceless: In the times we see the Surprise crew look at the captain of the Acheron, his face is always covered up (usually by a spyglass, because he's looking right back). This is important so that later on we don't recognize that he's impersonating the doctor.
  • Famed In-Story:
    • Living Legend Lord Horatio Nelson is an inspiration for every seaman of the Royal Navy.
    • Captain Lucky Jack himself, ho was also famed for knowing Lord Nelson in person. Aubrey will never forget the first time his idol spoke to him in person, nor what he said: "Aubrey... may I trouble you for the salt?"
  • Fan Disservice: Maturin's Shirtless Scenes are all of him after he's been gut-shot, with all of the unpleasant physiological effects thereof.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: The "Docteur" at the end that presents Jack with the dead captain's sword has no blood on his hands. Later, when we learn that it's the captain posing as the surgeon to escape notice, it suddenly makes sense.
  • A Friend in Need: Captain Aubrey has to choose between pursuing his quarry and saving Dr. Maturin's life. Stephen also has to choose to abandon his precious specimen collection, to inform Captain Aubrey the Acheron is nearby.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Done when Dr. Maturin amputates Midshipman Blakeney's arm, when a crewman is whipped for insubordination, and when Stephen operates on himself. Avoided at other points.
  • Grand Theft Prototype: Aubrey's crew takes possession of the Acheron at the end of the movie. Should be noted also that the Real Life HMS Surprise, the inspiration for the ship in the novel, was originally the Unité, a French corvette in service of the French Navy, which was captured by the British Navy, renamed, and introduced into British service.
  • Grizzled Veteran: The old sailing-master is a particular fan of sea-shanties and Lord Nelson.
  • Handicapped Badass: Will Blakeney, a one-armed 13-year-old Little Lord Badass Plucky Middie. Naturally he looks up to Lord Nelson, who also lost an arm. A beautiful moment occurs when Aubrey visits the young Lord Blakeney in his hammock just after he has had his arm amputated. He recommends a book to the young Lord's attention; an account of the battle of the Nile, with several fine illustrations. After some very stiff-upper-lip dialogue, Aubrey departs, leaving Blakeney to leaf through the book, which opens at an illustration of Lord Nelson, minus an arm. Blakeney more than rises to the implied challenge, which later leads to...
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Blakeney after the crew takes the Acheron. He can barely keep himself together while stitching up Calamy in his hammock. During the funeral service, he doesn't openly weep like the other young middies, but rather has a blank and sad look on his face. Afterwards, he goes to the doctor, still with a blank look on his face, hoping to ease his grief through study.
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • Dr. Maturin speculates about evolution decades before Darwin. Though evolution was already being speculated about years before the film is set, by Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) among others. Darwin's big idea was of natural selection, not evolution. The More You Know...
    • Jack says something along the lines of "heading home before peace breaks out with France, God forbid". He's not being facetious. Should peace break out, he would have been reduced to half pay, with no prospects for bettering his situation through taking prizes. Peace, for any naval officer without private wealth or political clout, tended to mean near-starvation.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: "I just shot Maturin in the guts." You would think that the Captain of the Marines would know better. And he was shooting at an albatross; he clearly hasn't read up on his Nautical Folklore.
  • In-Series Nickname: Captain John Aubrey's nickname is "Lucky Jack"; his friend Stephen calls him that, as well as his crew.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Invoked by Aubrey. He brings a copy of Lord Nelson's battles to Will, to inspire the new amputee to achieve great things like the great Lord Nelson, who also lost an arm to battle.
  • Karmic Death: Just about everyone who specifically goes out of their way to be mean to Mr. Hollom ends up dead.
  • Karmic Jackpot: Saving Dr. Maturin's life and letting him wander around the Galapagos like he originally promised leads Captain Aubrey straight to his prey's front door and a tactical idea made out of Mixed Metaphors and NATURAL PHILOSOPHY!
  • Knuckle Tattoos: Old Joe Plaice has "HOLD FAST" tattooed on his knuckles. This is a tattoo that was common on sailing ships in the old days.
  • Lame Pun Reaction:
    • "The lesser of two weevils." A groaner for Dr. Maturin and the audience, but hilarious for tipsy Captain Aubrey and the other characters present. Jack pestering Stephen to walk into the joke is funny in and of itself. As is Maturin's Lampshade Hanging of the incident, "He who would pun would pick a pocket!"
    • Jack gets a much better reaction to his second pun: "After all, surprise is on our side." This goes over well with the crew of the Surprise.
  • Large Ham: Captain Aubrey.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": The crew of the Acheron collectively crap themselves when it turns out that the unarmed whaling ship they've been chasing, a ship so unthreatening that most of them are calmly sitting on the rails, with no weapons to hand, is in fact the HMS Surprise, a twenty-eight gun Royal Navy corvette, whose starboard battery is now trained directly at them.
  • Meaningful Echo: Blakeney asking Calamy to not let them sew through his nose in case he dies. Later Blakeney asks to personally take care of Calamy's body, and then must ask for help as he, having lost an arm, can't do the job on his own.
  • Not So Different: When Aubrey finds sheet music and a French horn in the Acheron's captain's quarters. Seconds later he's almost killed by a French steward who surprises Aubrey much like Killick can. Also the enemy captain is seen to have similar problems of keeping personal hygiene (i.e. shaving and combing). Lampshaded at the beginning when Aubrey wonder what the enemy captain's deal is. Maturin speaks his opinion: "He fights like you, Jack."
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Two in the opening battle:
      • Jack is scanning the fog bank for a "shape" that Midshipman Hollom thought he saw. He pans back to the left just in time to see muzzle flashes and frantically bellows for everyone to take cover.
      • "The rudder's shot away! The steering won't answer, sir!"
    • Midshipman Blakeney, in charge of everyone left on the Surprise during the climactic battle, notices the Acheron gunners turning their guns towards the Surprise's waterline, aiming to sink her. One carronade blast later, Blakeney gets his chance at boarding action as he and his fellow boarders charge in to douse the guns.
    • Aubrey gets one at the end when Maturin is privately lamenting to him that Higgins (who is not a competent doctor) is the only one even somewhat qualified to care for the wounded on the Acheron. Aubrey is surprised, because he spoke to the Acheron's doctor himself. When Stephen informs him that the Acheron lost their doctor to fever long before the battle, Aubrey realizes that he's been had.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: Let's all pause this history and war to have a nature documentary about the Galápagos Islands. While perhaps jarring to many in the audience, this sort of thing happens in the books all the time.
  • Papa Wolf: Discussed. Aubrey says that the French Captain fights so hard that you would think it's personal for him. Aubrey even worries that it might be personal—that in his prior career he might have killed the man's son or the like.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The whole film.
    Aubrey: [boarding the Acheron] FOR ENGLAND, FOR HOME AND FOR THE PRIZE!

    Aubrey: [leading gunnery practice] "You want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly?!" "NO!" "You want to call that raggedy-ass Napoleon your king!?" "NO!" "You want your children to sing La Marseillaise!?" "NO!" "Mr. Mowett, Mr. Pullings, STARBOARD BATTERY!" [crew cheers]
  • Pirate Parrot: One of Aubrey's crewmen is seen with a green parrot on his shoulder.
  • Plucky Middie: The Surprise's officer corps is filled out with early-teenage nobles undergoing on-the-job training; SOP for the Royal Navy of the time.
    • During the climactic battle, Lord Blakeney (around twelve years old) is actually in command of the ship at one point and leads a boarding party of adult sailors onto the Acheron.
    • Calamy is given the mission of freeing prisoners, gets a Heroic Sacrifice moment, and is promoted to Lieutenant posthumously. He died an acting third lieutenant, and his status at death would have been recorded as such on the ship's muster.
    • Boyle is seen bravely accompanying Blakeney's boarding party, hurling water over the French cannons to douse the fuses and prevent them firing.
    • Subverted with Hollom, who is nearly thirty and still a midshipman, implying he's failed his officer's exam multiple times, and has no hope of further advancement due to his incompetence and lack of leadership qualities.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation:
    • In book canon, Aubrey is taller than Maturin and Maturin is described as being fairly ugly and scrawny. Paul Bettany is by no means ugly, and quite a bit taller than Russell Crowe. Aubrey is also supposed to be quite fat, but Crowe couldn't put on that kind of weight and still pull the character off, so he ends up being only a bit stout. From the various descriptions given in the book, it seems that Aubrey is more in the nature of being stout and powerfully built than obese as modern readers/viewers would recognize the term. Book!Jack is six feet tall (or slightly more) and around 225lbs, probably something like a powerfully built man with a bit of a gut.
    • The enemy ship, in the book the American frigate USS Norfolk, was replaced by a French privateer built by the Americans. The design in the movie was based on the USS Constitution, christened in 1797, which is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat today,note  and the Norfolk of the book was based on the Real Life USS Essex, which harassed British shipping in the Pacific Ocean during the War of 1812 and seized 15 prizes before she was captured by the British off of Valparaiso, Chile. Word of God is the movie's producers did not have the same concerns that C.S. Forester had when writing the Horatio Hornblower novels: that American audiences would not appreciate the Americans being the bad guys. Instead, they viewed it a sin to not show Napoleon as the true enemy, since only about three books have the US as the enemy. It does mean, however, that instead of planning to take on a 36-gun frigate in the 28-gun Surprise (disadvantageous but doable) only to find it wrecked on an island, Aubrey gets to face a very mean 44-gun heavy frigate with hull construction comparable to a line-of-battle ship, and is completely unable to penetrate her hull in the first engagement. Instead, he has to resort to cunning and audacity.
  • Precision F-Strike: The whaler who just lost his ship and two years' profit has a very curt opinion about the Acheron: "Fuckin' pirates."
  • Privateer: The ship the Surprise pursues is a French privateer.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack:
    • Bach — "Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major".
    • Boccherini — "Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid No. 6".
    • Mozart — "Violin Concerto No. 3", 3rd movement.
    • Corelli — "Christmas Concerto", Adagio Op. 6 No. 8.
    • "Don't forget your old shipmates" — Traditional Napoleonic era naval song.
    • "Raging Sea/British Tars" — Traditional Napoleonic era naval song.
    • "Spanish Ladies" — Traditional English naval song.
  • Red Alert: "We shall beat to quarters!" This line heralds a Napoleonic Red Alert sequence with sailors being rousted out of their hammocks by drumbeats and scrambling to their battle stations. Hollom isn't sure he actually saw anything in the fog, but gives the order anyway and is praised for it by Aubrey. It proves to be a prudent decision, as the crew is immediately ready to fight back when fired upon.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The fight for the Acheron truly turns in favor of the British when the whalers from the Albatross are freed and they take their anger out on their captors. Complete with roaring.
  • Rousing Speech: Captain Aubrey gives his crew several rather effective ones.
  • Rule of Threes: Lampshaded when Aubrey says the French captain has caught him by surprise twice, but there won't be a third time.
  • Sailor's Ponytail: Most sailors sport this hairstyle.
  • Scars Are Forever: Lieutenant Pullings' facial scar is much more disfiguring in the books than it is in the film, but since Pullings' actor is Mr. Fanservice, nobody objects too much.
  • Servile Snarker: Killik, Aubrey's steward. Loyal, vicious in a fight, and the only man on the ship, other than Maturin, who will openly grumble in the captain's presence without fear of punishment.
  • Shaming the Mob: Aubrey to his own crew, and himself, after Hollom's suicide.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: Happens to Aubrey during the first enemy ship attack.
  • Shown Their Work: On top of the research put into the film, the Surprise's stern chasers in the opening are crewed by Marines, not sailors. Tradition holds that the sternmost guns on a warship be manned by the Marine compliment, which continues to this day.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!: During an argument between Aubrey and Maturin over whether to complete the promised stop at the Galápagos (during which Maturin was hoping to study the native fauna) or immediately pursue the nearby Acheron, each man is defending his side with arguments about its utility to England and the war effort, until Aubrey finally loses patience and puts his Captain's foot down.
    Aubrey: WE DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR YOUR DAMNED HOBBIES, SIR!
  • Sword and Gun: Dr. Maturin, in the final battle.
  • Take a Moment to Catch Your Death: "Looks like the deed is done, sir," sighs the old sailing-master upon boarding the enemy ship, which is covered with bodies. Then, suddenly...
  • A Taste of the Lash: One sailor gets flogged for disrespecting and bumping into Hollom, his senior officer. Hollom actually said nothing, and got reprimanded by Aubrey in private because not demanding the men's respect erodes the discipline the ship requires.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • The old sailing-master, upon boarding the enemy ship, which is covered with bodies, thinks they are done. However... they are not. The battle is about to continue and he's among the first ones shot dead.
    • Killik is packing up the Captain's silver. "For God's sake don't drop anything!" Next moment a cannonball blows out the bulkhead behind them, knocking them and the silver to the ground.
  • Title Drop: Included in the Captain's rousing speech.
    Aubrey: ... 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.
  • Twist Ending: Played for awesomeness and hilarity.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: During the storm a couple of sailors puke.
  • Wasn't That Fun?: Captain Aubrey grins and says, "Now tell me that wasn't fun," after retrieving Midshipman Calamy from the sea after setting up a ruse.
  • The Watson: Dr. Maturin asks about the weather gage, and Lofty the child crewman asks about privateers.
  • Weapons Understudies:
    • Of a sort. The French frigate is represented by a 3D model of the USS Constitution, an American (nominal) 44-gun Heavy Frigate (essentially an Age of Sail Battlecruiser). note  In The Far Side of the World, the book the film was based on, the enemy was the USS Norfolk, a 32-gun American frigate during the War of 1812 more comparable to the HMS Surprise, based on the Real Life exploits of the USS Essex.
    • The Surprise herself, portrayed here by the replica of the HMS Rose, a 20-gun post shipnote  mounting nine-pound long guns. The Surprise, classed as a 28-gun sixth rate, was rearmed with twenty-four 32-pound carronades along her main deck plus eight 32-pounders on her fore- and quarterdecks, plus chasers, upon entry into British service. As in the French Navy, this caused confusion over whether she should be rated as a fifth rate or a sixth rate (she was re-rated as a sixth rate in 1798 and maintained this for the remainder of her career). She also bore the main mast of a 36-gun frigate, equally as inordinate as her heavy armament.
  • Weather of War: A fog conceals the French privateer before the first attack, but also saves the Surprise when Aubrey orders his men to put out boats and tow the damaged ship into it, knowing the French won't risk their advantage by following them.
  • We Have to Get the Bullet Out: When Dr. Maturin is shot, he performs (assisted) surgery on himself to remove the bullet. This is entirely Justified at the time, however: musket balls travel at a low velocity and can carry bits of clothing into the body with them; since clothing is often dirty, these bits of clothing were a common cause of infection. The doctor's assistant even explains that he's worried about the clothes more than the ball, and after extraction he matches up the recovered piece of clothing with Maturin's shirt, to ensure there are no other pieces left in his body.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: One of the more realistic depictions of the trope in modern cinema.
  • Worthy Opponent: The captain of the Acheron, who outwits Aubrey twice and nearly sinks him both times. Later seen disguised as the ship's doctor, presumably in order to regain control of his ship at a later date. Mixed with Not So Different, when Captain Aubrey enters the man's cabin and finds it littered with sheet music and a battered French horn.
  • Zipping Up the Bodybag: Done the old-fashioned way, stitching up the dead bodies up in their hammocks before dropping them over the side. Blakeney is worried about the tradition of putting the last stitch through the nostrils (to ensure the man is actually dead), and asks Calamy to ensure that doesn't happen to him should his wounded arm prove fatal. In the aftermath of the final battle, it's Calamy who's passed, and Blakeney makes sure to stitch him up himself.

Alternative Title(s): Master And Commander The Far Side Of The World

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/MasterAndCommander