Twenty years ago today, on November 14, 2003, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World sailed into theaters as an outlier in the sea of Hollywood franchises, sequels, and over-the-top action flicks. In retrospect, it’s no wonder moviegoers didn’t quite know what to make of a nautical adventure that was set two centuries earlier during the Napoleonic Wars. Or perhaps audiences had their fill of the high seas after Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl arrived in theaters only a few months before. The Curse of the Black Pearl was a hit with $305 million domestic, while Master and Commander had a relatively modest run of $118 million against a $150 million budget. When the rest of the world was factored in, Master and Commander finished with $212 million and it received no sequels.
Pirates of the Caribbean may have gotten the billion-dollar franchise, but Master and Commander is now regarded as a modern classic whose popularity has only grown via repeated airings on cable and through the streaming era where it continually pops up on the major providers. This has not gone unnoticed, as GQ ran a feature story on Master and Commander‘s enduring appeal earlier this year. The fans who have embraced this movie truly love it, and if you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Master and Commander, then we’re going to tell you why it should be on deck for your next movie night.
Considering that Russell Crowe was coming off a run that includes his Oscar-winning turn in Gladiator, and his star-making role in L.A. Confidential, it’s truly impressive that his performance as Captain Jack Aubrey stands tall alongside his previous parts. Aubrey is far from perfect, but he’s a heroic figure who strives to keep the crew of his ship, the HMS Surprise, safe and united against a common threat. Aubrey truly cares about the men under his command, as seen when he abandons the pursuit of an enemy ship so that the Surprise can bring Stephen Maturin (as played by a pre-MCU Paul Bettany) to shore so he can perform life-saving surgery on himself and treat his gunshot wound.
Aubrey is the creation of Master and Commander novelist Patrick O’Brian, who chronicled the captain’s nautical career across several books. While some aspects of Aubrey’s personality are larger than life, Crowe’s portrayal is refreshingly human and down to Earth.
One of the reasons why fans have come to appreciate Master and Commander is the strong bond of friendship between Aubrey and Maturin. Their relationship was also an important part of O’Brian’s novels. In the film, Maturin doesn’t often get what he wants from Aubrey in terms of time to pursue his scientific studies. But he has the captain’s ear and his respect. They even spend time playing music together in the captain’s quarters, although the rest of the crew doesn’t share their taste in music.
Fittingly, the movie ends with the Surprise about to pursue their foe once again while Aubrey and Maturin have another jam session. It was, pardon the pun, the perfect note for the movie to go out on.
Make no mistake about it, Master and Commander is a beautifully shot film by director and co-writer Peter Weir. The creative team behind this movie strove for historical accuracy whenever possible, which is also why it seems so timeless.
Cinematographer Russell Boyd and sound editor Richard King both deservedly won Oscars for their work on this movie. Their efforts, and those of the rest of the team behind the film, converged in breathtaking fashion. Few movies hold up as well as this one has over the last two decades.
Master and Commander needed three composers — Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, and Richard Tognetti — to collaborate on the score. Their combined work gives the soundtrack an old-school cinematic vibe, and they also set the tone for the movie by incorporating classical music into the mix.
The result is a spellbinding score that would have been a terrific album even if it wasn’t associated with the film. It’s everything you could ever hope to hear on a soundtrack and more.
There aren’t a lot of action sequences in Master and Commander, as the story largely focuses on the crew of the Surprise. But Weir brings his A-game every time that the crew encounters their nemesis, the French privateer, Acheron. Those are the scenes when the movie reaches another level of excitement.
Keep in mind that this film was made before CGI special effects dominated the field. For the most part, Weir used practical special effects and old-school filmmaking tricks to depict the battle between the two ships and the intense conflict between the two crews. Very few movies are afforded the same luxury in the current era of film. That’s another reason why Master and Commander has earned its place among the greatest films of the 21st century.
Watch Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on Prime Video.