Master and Commander at 20: a miraculous masterpiece of action cinema

“Directly towards them, Mr. Mowett.”

Russell Crowe, playing Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, declares this in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, as they prepare to engage in a battle with a French ship.

“Directly towards them, sir,” responds Edward Woodall in his role as 2nd Lt William Mowett.

Twenty years on, Peter Weir’s film remains a masterpiece, a miracle of forceful, direct, intelligent action cinema. To paraphrase Ulysses S Grant on the art of (land) war, as an action movie, Master and Commander is simple enough. It finds out where its viewer is, gets at them as soon as it can, strikes them as hard as it can, and keeps moving on.

Grant was brief, but Lucky Jack sums him up. Master and Commander is a film that takes a direct approach.

However, it encompasses much more than that. It draws from various novels, specifically the Aubrey-Maturin series written by Patrick O’Brian. At the time of his passing in 2000, there were 20 completed novels and one that remained unfinished. The series chronicles the adventures of Aubrey and his companion, Stephen Maturin, who is a doctor, scientist, and secret agent, during the Napoleonic wars as they rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy.

O’Brian created a complex universe, providing a detailed portrayal of naval battles during the 18th and early 19th centuries, filled with mystery and excitement. Weir captured this world on film, both on and below the deck of a (replica) British frigate, the Surprise, as it engaged in a game of chase with a French vessel, the Acheron, around Cape Horn.

Weir’s cast brought life to the characters in that world. Crowe portrayed Lucky Jack as a confident and confrontational man, a traditional conservative with many talents. Bettany captured Maturin’s conflicting personalities, showing his fascination, frustration, and horror towards his friend’s actions. After the battle, they both played the violin and cello, serenading their ship into the sunset. The supporting actors were perfectly chosen: D’Arcy as 1st Lt Tom Pullings, Aubrey’s skilled and scarred protégé who earned his first command. Pugh as Mr Allen, the skeptical Master who sat at the captain’s table. Boyd as Barrett Bonden, the coxswain. Pirkis as Lord Blakeney, the midshipman who tragically lost his arm.

Unfortunately, there is only a single female appearance in Master and Commander, and it is a lovely one. This occurs when the ship is near the coast of the Americas and Lucky Jack gazes at her from the railing, taking in her beauty long enough to establish his role as the leading man. Weir’s film includes elements of rum and punishment, but the presence of women is not as prominent.

Critics may argue that Master and Commander is too focused on male characters and lacks diversity to be considered a true masterpiece. However, I would counter that my own mother, an English literature teacher and fan of Eliot and Austen, reveres O’Brian’s novels and holds the film in high regard, just like myself. I must admit, I have not personally read O’Brian’s books. When I attempted to read the first novel, Master and Commander, at the age of 16, I quickly lost interest and instead opted to read Flashman. In hindsight, I realize this was a foolish decision.

However, I have a great appreciation for the film.

While the crew of the Surprise takes a break and prepares for battle, the scene shifts to the Galápagos, providing a welcome sight for any British onlooker who may have been missing home while watching Hollywood films. Here, Maturin is able to briefly indulge in his passion for nature, resembling a proto-Darwin as he carefully packs up birds and iguanas. But just as he is enjoying this moment, the Acheron appears once again, entering the scene much like the infamous shark in Jaws. The game is back on. Lucky Jack devises a clever plan to trick the French ship, pretending to be a helpless whaler and using Maturin and Blakeney’s knowledge of camouflage in nature to his advantage. The Acheron falls for the bait.

At Crowe’s cue – only three years after taking on his other significant historical heroic part, Gladiator, which began with a fight in a German forest at sunrise – his soldiers unleash chaos. The ultimate skirmish is a burst of smoke and tar: energetic, thrilling, and frightening. As intense as the ship’s decks as cannonballs and swords wreak havoc. “More sand over here!” Maturin shouts, wielding blades and cutting tools. In another instance, he even performs surgery on himself, extracting a bullet. He also uses a coin to perform a graphic trepanation.

Master and Commander is an action movie with a brain. Its thrills are never mindless. Weir’s recreation of life in the close confines of a warship in 1805 is meticulous, fascinating and sometimes, rightly, nausea-inducing. Crowe and Bettany’s interpretation of a friendship between two men matches such artistry precisely. As Gabriella Paiella said for GQ earlier this year, much of the film’s lasting appeal springs from that portrayal of male closeness.

In a post on social media, Paiella humorously referenced the famous opening title card of the film, transitioning to different perspectives of a warship sailing at night.

“Napoleon has conquered all of Europe, with the exception of the British fleet. The oceans have become the new battlegrounds. Surprisingly, a moderately successful film from 2003 has now become a popular choice for streaming, representing the type of movies that are no longer produced by Hollywood and promoting positive masculinity.”

As a middle-aged man, I can attest that my closest male friends all live 3,000 miles away across the ocean. And yes, I do own a T-shirt with the title card of Master and Commander. This film truly showcases the importance of relationships for our well-being and happiness.

scene from master and commander

Why did this impressive film only achieve moderate success at the box office? And why haven’t there been any follow-up films in a time when universes and franchises are based on material that is far less literary than O’Brian’s? Not to mention, there is an entire Ridley Scott movie solely focused on “that scrappy Napoleon” that I am eagerly anticipating.

The film Master and Commander received positive reviews and received multiple nominations, including 10 Oscar nominations for categories such as best picture and best director. It ended up winning two Oscars for its technical aspects. However, the film was costly to make, with a budget of $150 million due to filming on a replica ship and on the open sea. As a result, it did not generate a significant profit, earning only $210 million globally.

In 2005, during the rise of superhero franchises, Weir stated in an interview with the Seattle Times that a sequel to his film “Master and Commander” was highly unlikely. Despite its decent performance at the box office, the film did not generate enough profit to warrant a follow-up.

Despite Russell Crowe’s desire to reprise his role as Lucky Jack, he ultimately did not. It is highly unlikely that he will in the future, even though it is not inconceivable for him to portray Rear Admiral Aubrey in “Blue at the Mizzen,” the final novel in the O’Brian series which takes place after Napoleon’s downfall.

However, due to the movie’s quick transformation into a meme – a more tolerable option for grumpy individuals like myself, if it leads to younger audiences discovering the film – the potential for something to go viral online provides a glimmer of hope.

News about a prequel film has been circulating for a long time. In the previous year, a photo surfaced claiming to reveal the plans for an “Aubrey-Maturin Saga” with set release dates, starting with Master and Commander: Post Captain in spring 2023 and ending with Master and Commander: The Reverse of the Medal in spring 2027.

According to Garth Franklin, the editor of, this is clearly not genuine, but I certainly wish it was.

  • Godine has published the book, Brotherhood: When West Point Rugby Went to War, authored by Martin Pengelly in the United States.


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