Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

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Master and Commander:
The Far Side of the World
Master and Commander-The Far Side of the World poster.png
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Peter Weir
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based on Master and Commander 
by Patrick O'Brian
Music by
Cinematography Russell Boyd
Edited by Lee Smith
Distributed by 20th Century Fox[nb 1]
Release dates
  • November 14, 2003 (2003-11-14)
Running time
138 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $150 million[1]
Box office $212 million

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a 2003 American epic historical drama film written and directed by Peter Weir, and starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin. The film was released by 20th Century Fox, Miramax Films, Universal Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films on November 14, 2003. 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.

At the 76th Academy Awards, the film was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. It won in two categories, Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing and lost in all other categories to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.


The film takes place in the spring of 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars. Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey of HMS Surprise has orders to pursue the French privateer Acheron, and "Sink, Burn, or take her a Prize". As the film opens on a foggy morning at sea, a crewman aboard the British warship hears a bell sound. Midshipman Hollom, who is on watch, hesitates to make a decision before Midshipman Calamy orders the ship to beat to quarters. As Captain Aubrey rushes on deck the ship is ambushed by Acheron, a ship twice as large as the British warship.

Surprise is heavily damaged, while her own cannon fire does not penetrate Acheron's hull. Later in the battle, Surprise's rudder is shot off and her helm is blown away, making the ship unsteerable, adding to the fact that the ship is taking water fast. Using smaller boats, the crew of Surprise tow the ship into a fog bank and evade pursuit. Aubrey learns from a crewman who saw Acheron being built that she has an innovative hull design, making her both more heavily armed and faster than Surprise. The senior officers fear the French ship is "out of their class". Aubrey notes that such a ship could tip the balance of power in Napoleon's favour if allowed to plunder the British whaling fleet at will. He orders pursuit of Acheron, rather than returning to port for repairs. Acheron again ambushes Surprise, but Aubrey slips away in the night by using a clever decoy.

Following the privateer south, Surprise rounds Cape Horn and heads to the Galápagos Islands, where Aubrey is sure Acheron will prey on Britain's whaling fleet. The ship's doctor, Maturin, is interested in the islands' fauna and flora; Aubrey promises his friend several days' exploration time. When Surprise reaches the Galápagos they recover the survivors of a whaling ship, the Albatross, destroyed by Acheron. Realizing the ship is close, Aubrey hastily pursues the privateer. Maturin accuses Aubrey of going back on his word, and of following Acheron more out of pride rather than duty, something which Aubrey flatly denies, although not without acknowledging that he has exceeded his orders in pursuit of the privateer. Superstitious crewmen begin to whisper that the incompetent Hollom is a Jonah who is responsible for the ship's misfortunes; he responds by killing himself.

Marine officer Captain Howard attempts to shoot an albatross, but accidentally hits Maturin. The surgeon's mate informs Aubrey that the bullet and a piece of cloth it took with it must be removed, but also that the operation should be performed on solid ground. Despite knowing that Acheron is close, Aubrey turns around and takes the doctor back to the Galápagos. Maturin performs surgery on himself using a mirror. Giving up his pursuit of the privateer, Aubrey grants the recuperating Maturin a chance to explore the island and gather specimens before they head for home. On crossing the island looking for a species of flightless cormorant, the doctor discovers Acheron on the other side of the island. Abandoning most of his specimens, Maturin hastens back to warn Aubrey, and Surprise prepares for battle. Due to Acheron's sturdy hull, Surprise must get within very close range to deal damage, something which the officers consider almost impossible. However, after observing the camouflage ability of one of Maturin's specimens—a phasmid (stick insect)—Aubrey disguises Surprise as a whaling ship under the name Syren; he hopes the French would move in close to capture the valuable ship rather than destroy it. The Acheron falls for the disguise and is disabled after a nearly one-sided gun duel. Aubrey leads boarding parties across the wreckage, engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the French crew before the ship is captured. Looking for the Acheron's captain, Aubrey is directed to the sickbay, where a French doctor by the name of De Vigny tells him the captain is dead and offers Aubrey the commander's sword.

Acheron and Surprise are repaired; while Surprise will remain in the Galápagos, the captured Acheron is to be taken to Valparaíso under the command of Captain Pullings. As Acheron sails away, Maturin mentions that Acheron's doctor had died months ago. Realizing the French captain is still alive and has deceived him by pretending to be the ship's doctor, Aubrey gives the order to beat to quarters and escort Acheron to Valparaíso. Maturin is again denied the chance to explore the Galápagos. Aubrey notes that since the bird Maturin seeks is flightless, "it's not going anywhere", and the two friends play a selection of Luigi Boccherini as the crew prepares to follow the Acheron once again.




Allusion to real events and people[edit]

Although in the original book by Patrick O'Brian the "prey" ship was the American USS Norfolk, these episodes are probably inspired[citation needed] by the capture of the East Indiaman Stanhope by the great naval strategist Don Blas de Lezo.[2]



The film combines elements from 13 different novels of Patrick O'Brian, but the basic plot mostly comes from The Far Side of the World. However, in the film version, the action takes place in 1805, during the Napoleonic wars, instead of 1813 during the Anglo-American war, as the producers wished to avoid offending American audiences.[citation needed] 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.[3] 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. The episode in which Aubrey deceives the enemy by means of a raft bearing lanterns is taken from Master and Commander, and the episode in which Maturin directs the surgery on himself, while gritting his teeth in pain, to remove a bullet is taken from HMS Surprise.[4] Other incidents in the film come from other books in O'Brian's series. The film's special edition DVD release contains behind-the-scenes material giving insights into the film-making process. Great efforts were made to reproduce the authentic look and feel of life aboard an early nineteenth-century man-of-war. 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), while other scenes were shot on a full-scale replica mounted on gimbals in a large tank. The Rose is now renamed HMS Surprise in honor of her movie role and moored at the San Diego Maritime Museum as a dockside attraction (and in September 2007 returned to sailing status). 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.[citation needed] Their faithful 18th century appearance complemented the historic accuracy of the rebuilt "Rose", whose own boat, the "Thorn" could be used only in the Brazilian scene. The on-location shots of the Galapagos were unique for a feature film as normally only documentaries are filmed on the islands.


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.[5] 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.[5]

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.[5]

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.


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 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." 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.


Critical response[edit]

Master and Commander was critically well received. 85% of 204 reviews tallied by the aggregate web site Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an overall positive rating, and the film has a "certified fresh" rating.[6] Roger Ebert gave the movie 4 stars out of 4, saying that "it achieves the epic without losing sight of the human".[7]

Christopher Hitchens finds "the summa of O'Brian's genius was the invention of Dr. Stephen Maturin. He is the ship's gifted surgeon, but he is also a scientist, an espionage agent for the Admiralty, a man of part Irish and part Catalan birth—and a revolutionary. He joins the British side, having earlier fought against it, because of his hatred for Bonaparte's betrayal of the principles of 1789—principles that are perfectly obscure to bluff Capt. Jack Aubrey. Any cinematic adaptation of O'Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure. On this the film doesn't even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project." He finds the actions scenes more inspirational: "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."[8]


The movie opened #2 in the first weekend of North American release, November 14–16, 2003, grossing $25,105,990. It dropped to the #4 position in the second weekend and #6 in the third, and finished the domestic run with $93,926,386 in gross receipts. Outside the U.S. and Canada the movie grossed $116,550,000, doing best in Italy (at $15,111,841) with an overall worldwide total of $212,011,111.[1] As of December 2010, this puts the film at #397 on the all-time worldwide gross ranking (unadjusted for inflation).[9]


76th Academy Awards:[10]

AFI Top 10 Epics (longlisted)


Director Peter Weir, asked in 2005 if he would do 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."[11] 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."[12] In December 2010 Russell Crowe launched an appeal on Twitter to get the sequel made: "If you want a Master and Commander sequel I suggest you e-mail Tom Rothman at Fox and let him know your thoughts".[13]


  1. ^ a b "Box Office History". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 30, 2009. 
  2. ^ "The Basque that Saved the Spanish Empire". El vasco que salvó al Imperio Español. El almirante Blas de Lezo, José Manuel Rodríguez. España, Altera, 2008. ISBN 978-84-96840-23-2
  3. ^ Hendrix, Steve (16 November 2003). "Now Playing at a Theater Near You: Old Ironsides". The Washington Post.  Retrieved on 25 August 2009.
  4. ^ HMS Surprise, Patrick O'Brian, 1973, UK, Collins (ISBN 0002213168)
  5. ^ a b c ""The Sounds of Realism in 'Master and Commander'" - National Public Radio interview with Richard King". 13 November 2003. Retrieved 2012-04-28. 
  6. ^ "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2012-04-28. 
  7. ^ "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  8. ^ Christopher Hitchens (November 14, 2003). "Empire Falls - How Master and Commander gets Patrick O'Brian wrong.". Slate. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  9. ^ "All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses (#301-365)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 30, 2009. 
  10. ^ "The 76th Academy Awards (2004) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  11. ^ Seattle Times, August 30, 2005
  12. ^ Bowman, Donna; Noel Murray; Sean O'Neal; Keith Phipps; Nathan Rabin; Tasha Robinson (April 30, 2007). "Inventory: 13 Failed Attempts To Start Film Franchises". The A.V. Club. Retrieved July 13, 2011. 
  13. ^ "Russell Crowe tweets Master and commander sequel movie news". 2010-12-06. Retrieved 2012-04-28. 


  • McGregor, Tom (2003). The Making of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-05865-4. 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 20th Century Fox involved Miramax Films and Universal Pictures to co-finance and co-produce the film, but Fox itself distributed the film.[1]

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Staff (August 14, 2003). "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved December 19, 2014.