My dear friend, Amy, loves to read and write. She is an educational consultant and has a background in English Language Arts. Amy has agreed to share one of her favorite movies and novel series Master and Commander.
Now, here’s Amy to share some swashbuckling with us:
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) is a riveting depiction of naval warfare in the Napoleonic era. Set in 1805, the film stars Russell Crowe as the dashing Captain John Aubrey and Paul Bettany as his friend, ship’s surgeon and naturalist Stephen Maturin.
Directed by Peter Weir, the film is based on the Master and Commander novels by Patrick O’Brian, a 21-book series that transports us to the turbulent period from 1800 to 1815. O’Brian began the series in 1969, and continued writing until his death in 2000, and the novels reflect an interest profound literary themes, as well as masterful storytelling rooted in a fascinating historical era. The series is both critically acclaimed and deeply beloved by readers, who were extremely pleased with the film version in most respects, even though the film and novels differ in some ways.
The plot of the film, as well as much of the dialogue, is drawn from 13 different novels in the series. In the film, Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise, has been ordered to take or sink the French privateer Acheron. As a heavier and faster class of ship, Acheron could change the balance of the war if it were allowed to venture into the Pacific and attack British whalers and shipping. Aubrey decides to pursue his quarry around Cape Horn, an extraordinarily perilous journey in a masted ship, and eventually engages Acheron near the Galapagos Islands.
The film does an excellent job of capturing the brutality and terror of naval warfare at a time when medical care was primitive, long-distance communication was nearly non-existent, and the stakes for success or failure were extraordinarily high.
Cape Horn and Galapagos
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. So it’s every hand to his rope or gun—quick’s the word, and sharp’s the action!”
The terror of the Cape Horn passage, the tension of the search for the enemy, and the chaos of battle on a crowded ship are all flawlessly represented. (In fact, the scenes showing the harrowing journey around Cape Horn used genuine footage of the replica of Captain Cook’s ship Endeavor, which happened to be circumnavigating the globe during the pre-production of Master and Commander.) The film is also set in an age of discovery, and the scenes of Dr. Maturin exploring the Galapagos also convey the breathless wonder of that period for viewers.
Yet the heart of the film, like that of the series, is the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin, two men who disagree about nearly everything, but are devoted to one another in spite of their differences. In the series, their friendship begins at a musical concert, and the two characters play music together in their free moments. The soundtrack of the film uses much of the same music referenced in the novels (e.g., Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G). Russell Crowe actually played the violin himself in these scenes, having been taught for three months by Australian orchestra leader Richard Tognetti. . (Incidentally, Crowe referred to this feat as the hardest thing he’d ever done for a film!)
Captain “Lucky Jack”
The love between Aubrey and his crew is also beautifully rendered in the film. At a time when a crew’s loyalty literally meant the difference between life and death (the Pacific mutiny of the crew of HMS Bounty occurred only fifteen years before ), Aubrey’s reputation as “Lucky Jack” and his bravery in the face of the elements and the enemy inspire respect. As captain, Aubrey is also responsible for the education of the midshipmen, who revere him. Based on real-life characters like Captain Cochrane and Admiral Nelson, Jack Aubrey is larger-than-life, yet relatable.
The backdrop of the Napoleonic wars offers an opportunity to explore the tension between the themes of order and chaos, freedom and oppression, all centered around a very realistic context, where trust between the captain and his crew is paramount in their struggle to survive:
“Men must be governed. Often not wisely, but governed nonetheless. –That’s the excuse of every tyrant in history, from Nero to Bonaparte. I, for one, am opposed to authority. It is an egg of misery and oppression. –You’ve come to the wrong shop for anarchy, brother.” –Aubrey and Maturin
Novels by Patrick O’Brian
Missing from the film were some of the important subplots in the series, including Dr. Maturin’s work as an intelligence agent for the British, as well as the relationships between Aubrey and Maturin and the women in their lives—critical aspects of the novels. Some viewers were also disappointed with a few casting choices. For example, Paul Bettany delivers an excellent performance as Stephen Maturin, but the actor differs physically from the character, who author O’Brian described as small and dark-haired. Similarly, Barrett Bonden, Aubrey’s coxswain, is played by Billy Boyd (best known as Pippen in Lord of the Rings), even though the character in the series is a more imposing physical type. Yet Russell Crowe shines in the role of the dashing Captain Aubrey, and nearly all the supporting members of the cast are well-selected, particularly David Threfall as irascible Captain’s steward Preserved Killick. Max Pirkis as Midshipman Blakeney conveys one of the extraordinary realities of life aboard a naval vessel of the period: a child could be in command of vastly more experienced seamen, and lead his crew in battle.
Author Patrick O’Brian is often described as the 20th century heir of Jane Austen, and his novels will delight fans of regency period literature. Captain Aubrey’s world is the world of Mansfield Park’s William Price, who only by happy circumstance assembled enough “interest” to get promoted to Lieutenant. It is the world of Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, who like Jack Aubrey made his fortune with prize money earned by capturing enemy ships. It is the world of Austen’s own brothers, Francis and Charles, who both served in the Navy, regularly corresponding with Jane. Austen fans will also enjoy the keen wit of the novels, in which understatement and gentle irony are employed with great skill, and translate surprisingly well onscreen:
“The first time [Lord Nelson] 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?’ I’ve always tried to say it exactly as he did ever since.”—Aubrey
Master and Commander won two Oscars and was nominated for eight others, including Best Picture. The only true flaw with the film is that it deserves a sequel! We hope fans of the movie will check out O’Brian’s novels, and dive into Aubrey and Maturin’s world.
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) from IMDb
- Aubrey-Maturin Appreciation Society
- Jane Austen’s Sailors: Gentlemen in the Military Capacity from Jane Austen Society of North America
“Hey, friends! I’m Amy Overbay and I am a mom and an education consultant. I live in Lincoln County (north of Charlotte), in a house tucked into the trees. I love working with church youth programs, reading and writing, our naughty dog Lucy, and family time. I especially love good stories and history.”
Thanks for sharing Master and Commander with us, Amy!
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What are your thoughts?