Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a 2003 American epic period war-drama film co-written, produced and directed by Peter Weir, set during the Napoleonic Wars. The film's plot and characters are adapted from three novels in author Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series, which includes 20 completed novels of Jack Aubrey's naval career. The film stars Russell Crowe as Aubrey, captain in the Royal Navy, and Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon.
|Master and Commander:|
The Far Side of the World
|Directed by||Peter Weir|
|Based on||Master and Commander|
by Patrick O'Brian
|Edited by||Lee Smith|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox [note 1]|
|Box office||$211.6 million|
The film was a personal project of Fox executive Tom Rothman, who recruited Weir to helm the project. Filming took place on the open sea, on replica ships in the water tanks of Baja Studios, and on the Galápagos Islands. The film, which cost $150 million to make, was a co-production of 20th Century Fox, Miramax Films, Universal Pictures, and Samuel Goldwyn Films, and released on November 14, 2003. It was a moderate success at the box office, grossing $212 million worldwide.
The film was critically well received and garnered Weir the BAFTA Award for Best Direction. At the 76th Academy Awards, the film was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing, and lost in all other categories to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In June 2021, a prequel film was announced to be in active development.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Jack Aubrey of HMS Surprise is ordered to intercept the French privateer Acheron. Acheron ambushes Surprise off the coast of Brazil, causing heavy damage, while remaining undamaged by the British guns. The ship's boats tow Surprise into a fog bank to evade pursuit. Aubrey's officers tell him that Surprise is no match for Acheron, and that they should abandon the chase. Aubrey responds that Acheron must not be allowed to plunder the British whaling fleet, and orders Surprise refitted at sea, rather than a lengthy return to port for repairs. Midshipman Blakeney has his arm amputated due to injuries sustained in battle. Shortly afterwards, Acheron again ambushes Surprise, but Aubrey slips away in the night by using a decoy raft and ship's lamps.
Following the privateer south, Surprise rounds Cape Horn and heads to the Galápagos Islands, where Aubrey is convinced that Acheron will prey on Britain's whaling fleet. The ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin, is interested in the islands' unique flora and fauna, and Aubrey promises his friend several days' exploration time. When Surprise reaches the Galápagos, however, they recover the survivors of a whaling ship destroyed by Acheron. Aubrey hastily pursues the privateer, dashing Maturin's expectation of more time to explore.
Surprise is becalmed for several days. The crew becomes restless and disorderly, and superstition begins to take hold among them. Midshipman Hollom, already unpopular with the crew, is named a "Jonah" by the sailors (someone who brings bad luck to a ship). As the tension rises, crew member Nagle deliberately bumps shoulders with Hollom as he passes him on the deck, and is flogged for insubordination. That night, Hollom commits suicide by jumping overboard with a cannonball; Aubrey holds a service for Hollom the next morning. The wind picks up again, and Surprise resumes the chase.
The next day, Royal Marine officer Captain Howard attempts to shoot an albatross but accidentally hits Maturin instead. The surgeon's mate informs Aubrey that the bullet and a piece of cloth it took with it must be removed soon, otherwise they will fester. He also recommends the delicate operation be performed on land. Despite closing on Acheron, Aubrey takes the doctor back to the Galápagos. Maturin performs surgery on himself using a mirror. Finally giving up the pursuit of the privateer, Aubrey grants Maturin the chance to explore the Galápagos islands and gather specimens before they head for home. While looking for a species of flightless cormorant, the doctor discovers Acheron on the other side of the island. Maturin abandons most of his specimens and hurries to warn Aubrey. Surprise readies for battle once more. Due to Acheron's stronger hull, Surprise must be at close quarters to damage her. After observing the camouflage ability of one of Maturin's specimens, Aubrey disguises Surprise as a whaling ship; he hopes the French will be lured in to capture the valuable ship rather than destroy it. Acheron falls for the disguise and Surprise launches her attack. With the back wheels of the cannons taken off, the cannons are angled upward and fire upon Acheron's mainmast while Captain Howard's Marine sharpshooters pick off the crew of Acheron from above. Acheron is disabled when the mainmast snaps and falls into the sea. Aubrey leads boarding parties, engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Upon capturing the ship, Aubrey is informed by the ship's doctor that the French captain is dead and is given the Captain's sword.
Acheron and Surprise are repaired; while Surprise remains in the Galápagos, the captured Acheron is to be taken to Valparaíso. As Acheron sails away, Maturin mentions that their doctor had died months ago. Realising the French captain deceived him by pretending to be the ship's doctor, Aubrey gives the order to change course to intercept Acheron and escort her to Valparaíso, and for the crew to assume battle stations. Maturin is once again denied the chance to explore the Galápagos, but Aubrey wryly notes that since the bird he seeks is flightless, "it's not going anywhere", and the two play Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid by Luigi Boccherini as Surprise turns in pursuit of Acheron once more.
- Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey
- Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin, Surgeon
- James D'Arcy as Thomas Pullings
- Edward Woodall as Second Lieutenant William Mowett
- Chris Larkin as Captain Howard, Royal Marines
- Robert Pugh as John Allen, Master
- Max Benitz as Midshipman/Acting Third Lieutenant Peter Myles Calamy
- Max Pirkis as Midshipman Lord William Blakeney
- Lee Ingleby as Midshipman Hollom
- Richard McCabe as Mr. Higgins, Surgeon's Mate
- Ian Mercer as Mr. Hollar, Boatswain
- Tony Dolan as Mr. Lamb, Carpenter
- David Threlfall as Preserved Killick, Captain's Steward
- Billy Boyd as Barrett Bonden
- Bryan Dick as Joseph Nagle, Carpenter's Mate
- Joseph Morgan as William Warley, Captain of the Mizzentop
- George Innes as Joe Plaice, Able Seaman
- Patrick Gallagher as Awkward Davies, Able Seaman
- John DeSantis as Padeen Colman, Loblolly Boy
- Mark Lewis Jones as Mr. Hogg, Master of the Whaler Albatross
In trying to find men who looked as though they were from the 19th century, Weir recruited many extras from Poland. Philip French noted that the casting of Crowe, an Australian, as a British naval hero following a tradition in film (e.g. Errol Flynn as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk, Peter Finch as Lord Nelson, and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian).
The film is drawn from the Aubrey–Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, but matches the events in no one novel. The author drew from real events in the Napoleonic Wars, as he describes in the introduction to the first novel, Master and Commander. Many have speculated as to which Royal Navy captain matches the fictional character most. The Royal Navy Museum considers Captain Lord Cochrane as the inspiration for the character in the first novel, Master and Commander. No specific real life captain completely matches Aubrey, but the exploits of two naval captains inspired events in the novels, Captain Thomas Cochrane, and Captain William Woolsey. Cochrane used the ruse of placing a light on a floating barrel at night to avoid capture. Woolsey, aboard HMS Papillon, disguised a ship under his command as a commercial boat; on discovering information that a rogue ship was on the other side of a small island, he sailed around the island and captured the Spanish ship by stratagem, on April 15, 1805.
The film combines elements from 3 different novels of Patrick O'Brian, but the basic plot mostly comes from his tenth novel The Far Side of the World. However, in the film version, the action takes place in 1805, during the Napoleonic wars, instead of 1812 during the War of 1812, as the producers wished to avoid offending American audiences.[note 2] In consequence, the fictional opponent was changed from the USS Norfolk to the French privateer frigate Acheron. Acheron in the film was reconstructed by the film's special-effects team who took stem-to-stern digital scans of USS Constitution at her berth in Boston, from which the computer model of Acheron was rendered. The film excludes scenes in ports, and, besides Brazilian women in a single scene, the novels' female characters were not adapted.
The episode in which Aubrey deceives the enemy by means of a raft bearing lanterns is taken from Master and Commander, while the episode in which Maturin directs surgery on himself, while gritting his teeth in pain, to remove a bullet is taken from HMS Surprise. The stern chase around Cape Horn is taken from the novel Desolation Island, although the Acheron replaced the Dutch 74-gun warship Waakzaamheid, the Surprise replaced the Leopard, and in the book it is Aubrey who is being pursued around the Cape of Good Hope.
20th Century Fox executive Tom Rothman had wished to adapt O'Brian's novels since first reading them, recognizing the potential for a film franchise. Becoming CEO, he recruited director Peter Weir to helm the project.
Great efforts were made to reproduce the authentic look and feel of life aboard an early nineteenth-century man-of-war. In addition to 2,000 hats and 1,900 pairs of shoes, some 400 pounds of hair were used on actors.
However, only ten days of the filming actually took place at sea on board Rose (a reproduction of the 18th-century post ship HMS Rose).[note 3] Other scenes were shot on a full-scale replica mounted on gimbals in a nearly 20-million-gallon tank at Baja Studios in Mexico, built for the filming of Titanic (1997). 
There was a third HMS Surprise which was a scale model built by Weta Workshop. A storm sequence was enhanced using digitally composited footage of waves actually shot on board a modern replica of Cook's Endeavour rounding Cape Horn. All of the actors were given a thorough grounding in the naval life of the period in order to make their performances as authentic as possible. The ship's boats used in the film were Russian Naval six- and four-oared yawls supplied by Central Coast Charters and Boat Base Monterey. Their faithful 18th-century appearance complemented the historical accuracy of the rebuilt "Rose," whose own boat, the "Thorn", could be used only in the Brazilian scene.
Sound designer Richard King earned Master and Commander an Oscar for its sound effects by going to great lengths to record realistic sounds, particularly for the battle scenes and the storm scenes. King and director Peter Weir began by spending months reading the Patrick O'Brian novels in search of descriptions of the sounds that would have been heard on board the ship—for example, the "screeching bellow" of cannon fire and the "deep howl" of a cannonball passing overhead.
King worked with the film's Lead Historical Consultant Gordon Laco, who located collectors in Michigan who owned a 24-pounder and a 12-pounder cannon. King, Laco, and two assistants went to Michigan and recorded the sounds of the cannon firing at a nearby National Guard base. They placed microphones near the cannon to get the "crack" of the cannon fire, and also about 300 yards (270 m) downrange to record the "shrieking" of the chain shot as it passed overhead. They also recorded the sounds of bar shot and grape shot passing overhead, and later mixed the sounds of all three types of shot for the battle scenes.
For the sounds of the shot hitting the ships, they set up wooden targets at the artillery range and blasted them with the cannon, but found the sonic results underwhelming. Instead, they returned to Los Angeles and there recorded sounds of wooden barrels being destroyed. King sometimes added the "crack" of a rifle shot to punctuate the sound of a cannonball hitting a ship's hull.
For the sound of wind in the storm as the ship rounds Cape Horn, King devised a wooden frame rigged with one thousand feet of line and set it in the back of a pickup truck. By driving the truck at 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) into a 30–40-knot (56–74 km/h; 35–46 mph) wind, and modulating the wind with barbecue and refrigerator grills, King was able to create a range of sounds, from "shrieking" to "whistling" to "sighing", simulating the sounds of wind passing through the ship's rigging.
Richard Tognetti, who scored the film's music, taught Crowe how to play the violin, as Aubrey plays the violin with Maturin on his cello in the movie. Crowe purchased the violin personally as the budget did not allow for the expense. The violin was made in 1890 by the Italian violin maker Leandro Bisiach, and sold at auction in 2018 for US$104,000. Bettany learned how to play the cello for the role of Maturin, so the pair could be filmed playing properly. The recording was dubbed in the final version of the film.
Iva Davies, lead singer of the Australian band Icehouse, traveled to Los Angeles to record the soundtrack to the film with Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti. Together, they won the 2004 APRA/AGSC Screen Music Award in the "Best Soundtrack Album" category. The score includes an assortment of baroque and classical music, notably the first of Johann Sebastian Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, played by Yo-Yo Ma; the Strassburg theme in the third movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3; the third (Adagio) movement of Corelli's Christmas Concerto (Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8); and a recurring rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The music played on cello before the end is Luigi Boccherini's String Quintet (Quintettino) for 2 violins, viola & 2 cellos in C major ("Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid"), G. 324 Op. 30. The two arrangements of this cue contained in the CD differ significantly from the one heard in the movie.
The song sung in the wardroom is "Don't Forget Your Old Shipmates", a British Navy song written in the early 1800s and arranged in 1978 by Jim Mageean from his album Of Ships... and Men. The tunes sung and played by the crew on deck at night are "O'Sullivan's March", "Spanish Ladies" and "The British Tars" ("The shipwrecked tar"), which was set to tune of "Bonnie Ship the Diamond" and called "Raging Sea/Bonnie Ship the Diamond" on the soundtrack.
Release and receptionEdit
Hoping to draw adults during the film awards seasons, Master and Commander was slated for a release in mid-November. However, the film failed to reach the No. 1 spot on its opening weekend. It opened #2 behind Christmas comedy Elf in the first weekend of North American release, November 14–16, 2003, earning $25,105,990. It dropped to the #4 position in the second weekend and #6 in the third, and finished the domestic run with $93,927,920 in gross receipts. Outside the U.S. and Canada, the film grossed $118,083,191, doing best in Italy (at $15,111,841). The film grossed $212 million globally, barely recouping its $150 million budget.
Despite the success of Gladiator in 2000, also starring Crowe, the historical epic had lost much of its popularity among general audiences by the time of the Master and Commander release. In 2003, the box office was largely dominated by escapist and fantasy films, such as X2: X-Men United, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In addition to being more erudite, Master and Commander's realistic and gruesome depiction of combat may have been too serious for audiences during the holiday season. O'Brian's novels also had little name recognition.
The film was critically well received, as 85% of 217 reviews tallied by the aggregate web site Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an overall positive rating, with an average rating of 7.61/10. The site's consensus states: "Russell Crowe's rough charm is put to good use in this masterful adaptation of Patrick O'Brian's novel." On Metacritic, the film has an 81 out of 100 rating based on 42 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
Roger Ebert gave the film 4 stars out of 4, saying that "it achieves the epic without losing sight of the human". The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw praised the film and Crowe's performance. However, Jason Epstein, writing for The New York Times, criticized the film, taking issue with changes from the novel, Crowe's "one-dimensional action hero", and implausible events in the script.
Christopher Hitchens gave a mixed review: "Any cinematic adaptation of O'Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure [Dr. Stephen Maturin]. On this the film doesn't even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project." (The film omits completely the fact that he is a spy as well as doctor and naturalist—a key plot element in the novels.) Hitchens nonetheless praised the action scenes, writing: "In one respect the action lives up to its fictional and actual inspiration. This was the age of Bligh and Cook and of voyages of discovery as well as conquest, and when HMS Surprise makes landfall in the Galapagos Islands we get a beautifully filmed sequence about how the dawn of scientific enlightenment might have felt."
San Francisco Chronicle film reviewer Mick LaSalle was generally downbeat and, after praising director Weir's handling of scenes with no dialogue, observed that "Weir is less surefooted as a screenwriter. Having not read any of O'Brian's novels, I can't say if the fault is in Weir's adaptation or in the source material, but halfway into 'Master and Commander,' the friendship of the captain and the doctor begins to seem schematic, as if all the positive traits that an individual could have were divided equally between these two guys, just so they can argue. Their interaction takes on a preening quality, reminiscent of the interaction of the 'Star Trek' characters four or five movies down the line. We come to realize that the specific adventure matters little except as a showcase for these personalities. Once that happens, the story involving the French ship loses much of its interest and all of its danger, and the movie starts taking on water. 'Master and Commander' stays afloat to the finish, but that's all that can be said."
At the 76th Academy Awards in 2004, Master and Commander received ten nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. It won the awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing but lost the rest to The Return of the King. The film also garnered Weir the BAFTA Award for Best Direction.
Weir, asked in 2005 if he would make a sequel, stated he thought it "most unlikely", and after disclaiming internet rumors to the contrary, stated "I think that while it did well...ish at the box office, it didn't generate that monstrous, rapid income that provokes a sequel." In 2007 the film was included on a list of "13 Failed Attempts To Start Film Franchises" by The A.V. Club, noting that "this surely stands as one of the most exciting opening salvos in nonexistent-series history, and the Aubrey–Maturin novels remain untapped cinematic ground."
Film critic Scott Tobias wrote a positive retrospective article about this film in 2019, begrudging the fact that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, another sea-faring film also released in 2003, had led to a string of Pirates of the Caribbean fantasy films, but there was no demand for a sequel featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and deeply rooted in historical facts of the Napoleonic Wars, the Age of Sail and the Age of Discovery.
- 20th Century Fox involved Miramax Films and Universal Pictures to co-finance and co-produce the film, but Fox itself distributed the film.
- In the book The Making of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Rothman strongly disputes this.
- The Rose is now renamed HMS Surprise in honor of her movie role; she is moored at the San Diego Maritime Museum and serves as a dockside attraction. In September 2007, the ship was returned to sailing status.
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Our fingers are in the right place, and our bowing is good, but you wouldn’t want to hear the sound we were making.
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.|
- A Literary Companion to the Film which explores the film's connections to the Aubrey Maturin series
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World at IMDb
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World at Box Office Mojo
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World at Rotten Tomatoes
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World at Metacritic
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World at the Wayback Machine (archived August 1, 2003)