Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Information

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a 2003 American epic historical war-drama film written, produced and directed by Peter Weir, set in 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 Jack Aubrey, captain in the Royal Navy, and Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin. 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. The film grossed $212 million worldwide.

The film received critical acclaim upon release. 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.


In May 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Jack Aubrey of HMS Surprise is ordered to pursue the French privateer Acheron, and "Sink, Burn or take her [as] a Prize." The British warship is ambushed by Acheron; Surprise is heavily damaged, while its own cannon fire does not penetrate the enemy ship's hull. Using smaller boats, the crew of Surprise tow the ship into a fog bank and evade pursuit. Meanwhile, Aubrey learns from a crewman who saw Acheron being built that it is heavier as well as faster than Surprise. The senior officers conclude that the Surprise is no match for Acheron, and would rather end their mission. Aubrey, however, notes that the Acheron could tip the balance of power in Napoleon's favour if allowed to plunder the British whaling fleet at will. He orders the mission resumed and the Surprise refitted at sea, rather than returning to port for repairs. Shortly afterwards, Acheron again ambushes Surprise, but Aubrey slips away in the night by using a clever decoy buoy and ships lamps.

Following the privateer south, Surprise rounds Cape Horn and heads to the Galapagos Islands, where Aubrey is convinced that Acheron will prey on Britain's whaling fleet. The ship's doctor, Maturin, is interested in the islands' unique flora and fauna, and Aubrey promises his friend several days' exploration time. When Surprise reaches the Galapagos, however, they recover the survivors of a whaling ship destroyed by Acheron. Realizing the ship is close, Aubrey hastily pursues the privateer. Maturin feels that Aubrey is going back on his word, and is following Acheron more out of pride rather than duty. Aubrey flatly rejects these accusations, however, he also concedes to Maturin that he has exceeded his orders in this mission.

Still in pursuit, "Surprise" is stranded without wind for several days. Due to the extreme heat, lack of rain and overconsumption of grog, the crew becomes restless and disorderly. Midshipman Hollum, already unpopular with the crew, is named a Jonah, a person who brings bad luck. As the tension rises, crew member Nagel refuses to salute Hollum on the deck, and is flogged for his insubordination. That night, Hollum experiences a mental breakdown, convinced he is cursed, and commits suicide by jumping overboard with a cannonball and drowning. The next morning, Aubrey holds a service, asking on behalf of the crew for God and Hollum's forgiveness. The wind picks up again, and "Surprise" resumes the chase.

The next day, 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 operation to be performed on solid ground, rather than at sea. Despite closing on Acheron, Aubrey turns around and takes the doctor back to the Galapagos. A weakened Maturin performs surgery on himself using a mirror. Finally giving up the pursuit of the privateer, Aubrey grants Maturin the chance to explore the Galapagos islands and gather specimens before they head for home. On crossing the island looking for a species of flightless cormorant, the doctor discovers Acheron anchored on the other side of the island. Realizing the danger, Maturin abandons most of his specimens and hurries back to warn Aubrey. Surprise readies for battle once more. Due to Acherons sturdy hull, Surprise must get in close to deal damage. After observing the camouflage ability of one of Maturin's specimens"?a stick insect"?Aubrey disguises Surprise as a whaling ship; he hopes the French would move close to capture the valuable ship rather than destroy it. The Acheron falls for the disguise and is disabled. Aubrey leads boarding parties across the wreckage, engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat before the ship is captured. Looking for the Acherons captain, Aubrey is directed to the sickbay, where a French doctor tells him the captain is dead and offers Aubrey the commander's sword.

Acheron and Surprise are repaired; while Surprise remains in the Galapagos, the captured Acheron is to be taken to Valparaso. 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 the Acheron and escort her to Valparaso, and for the crew to assume battle stations. Maturin is once again denied the chance to explore the Galapagos, but Aubrey wryly notes that since the bird he seeks is flightless, "it's not going anywhere", and the two play a selection of Luigi Boccherini as the Surprise turns in pursuit of the Acheron once more.


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a film in which all cast members are male, putting it in a group of about 120 films made since 1934 with all male cast.


  • Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey
  • Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin
  • James D'Arcy as First Lieutenant / Acting Captain Thomas Pullings
  • Edward Woodall as Second Lieutenant William Mowett
  • Chris Larkin as Captain Howard, Royal Marines
  • Max Pirkis as Midshipman Lord William Blakeney
  • Jack Randall as Midshipman Boyle
  • Max Benitz as Midshipman / Acting Third Lieutenant Peter Myles Calamy
  • Lee Ingleby as Midshipman Hollom
  • Richard Pates as Midshipman Williamson

Standing Officers

  • Robert Pugh as John Allen, Sailing Master
  • Ian Mercer as Mr. Hollar, Boatswain
  • Tony Dolan as Mr. Lamb, Carpenter


  • Richard McCabe as Mr. Higgins, Surgeon's Mate
  • David Threlfall as Preserved Killick, Captain's Steward
  • Billy Boyd as Barrett Bonden, Captain's Coxswain
  • Bryan Dick as Joseph Nagle, Carpenter's Mate
  • Joseph Morgan as William Warley, Captain of Mizzentop
  • George Innes as Joe Plaice, Able Seaman
  • William Mannering as Michael Doudle, Able Seaman
  • Patrick Gallagher as Awkward Davies, Able Seaman
  • Alex Palmer as Nehemiah Slade, Able Seaman
  • Mark Lewis Jones as Mr. Hogg, Whaler
  • John DeSantis as Padeen Colman, Loblolly Boy
  • Ousmane Thiam as Black Bill, Steward's Mate
  • Konstantine Kurelias as Young Sponge
  • Thierry Segall as Captain of the Acheron
  • Aidan Black as Private Trollope
  • Sebastian Grubb as Jemmy Ducks

Allusions to real persons and events

This movie 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 speculate on which Royal Navy captain matches the fictional character most. The author claims no one real captain was the model for his fictional character. The Royal Navy Museum considers Captain Thomas Cochrane as the inspiration for the character in the first novel, Master and Commander.

Taylor, author of a biography of Pellew, puts forth Captain Edward Pellew as one of the inspirations for Aubrey's fictional career and traits. 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 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. 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 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. 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 that give 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; she is moored at the San Diego Maritime Museum and serves as a dockside attraction (and in September 2007 was 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. 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. 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 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 into a 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 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.


Box office

Master and Commander opened #2 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) with an overall worldwide total of $212,011,111.

Critical response

The film was critically well received, as 85% of 208 reviews tallied by the aggregate web site Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an overall positive rating. 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".

Roger Ebert gave the film 4 stars out of 4, saying that "it achieves the epic without losing sight of the human".

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."

Awards and honors

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76th Academy Awards:

  • Won, Best Cinematography, Russell Boyd
  • Won, Best Sound Editing, Richard King
  • Nominated, Best Picture
  • Nominated, Best Director, Peter Weir
  • Nominated, Best Art Direction
  • Nominated, Best Costume Design
  • Nominated, Best Film Editing
  • Nominated, Best Makeup
  • Nominated, Best Sound Mixing
  • Nominated, Best Visual Effects
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

  • 2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
    • Nominated Epic Film


Director 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." 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".

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