Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate

Kirsty Asher

Since my day job now consists of post-production work, my idealised cosiness of the industry has become more informed by the comradeship I find there. In the time of cookie-cutter blockbusters and Taika Waititi framing the failures of his own direction as gainful publicity, the days of actors and crew reminiscing about the sheer joy and creativity of a major project seems doomed to become a fleeting thing of the past. Just recently I was lucky enough to hear Ian McShane regale the audience about his times getting pissed with Ava Gardner on the Scottish borders for the filming of The Ballad of Tam-Lin (1971) at its Hallowe’en screening and Q&A. It proved a soothing antidote to clips of celebrities peeling back velcro on Google predictive searches and asking each other inane ‘would-you-rathers’ (Negroni Sbagliato obviously gets a free pass here). But the one film which I return to for that comfort of camaraderie; for what felt like the 21st century’s last grasping attempt at a major blockbuster action film made with all the finesse and dedication of a Bach cello suite is Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).

Master and Commander was made with the intention of kickstarting a franchise (the original Aubrey-Maturin book series by Patrick O’Brian spans twenty novels), but Weir had always been cautious to create a cinematic adaptation, despite being a fan of and reliable authority on the books. When the production eventually took place, he decided on adapting the tenth book, The Far Side of the World (1984). The premise as adapted for screen concerns Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) being charged with intercepting a French heavy frigate far bigger and faster than his own HMS Surprise (a real frigate which was broken up in 1802). An inter-oceanic chase begins, peppered with shanties, superstition, and stories told amongst friends and officers. The ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) offers a cerebral view of warfare which, when combined with his keen naturalist knowledge, leads to innovative tactics for capturing the bigger vessel. 

As detailed in the making-of film Behind the Seas: A Filmmaker’s Journey (2004) the deftness of Master and Commander’s production design, the rigorous immersion of the cast in the period setting, and the lengths this production went to to achieve historical accuracy was nothing short of extraordinary. Not only did they buy a replica frigate the HMS Rose at auction in Canada and make suitable adjustments, but when they realised they needed a second ship for static shots, they constructed their own HMS Surprise using the original plans kept at the Admiralty House in Whitehall since the 18th century. Weir, at this point a charismatic figurehead of filmmaking and, described in the Behind the Seas as “film’s pied piper”, constructed a boot camp for the cast, or “crew” as they were to become. With colour-coded t-shirts connoting their rank (this was actually Russell Crowe’s idea) the midshipmen and able seamen were taught the ways of cannon fire, in lessons that also acted as rehearsals for blocking the scenes. Weir also created a break room to boost morale for a cast a long way from home and family, which reflected a gentleman’s club of the early 19th century “designed for the express purpose of developing friendships and camaraderie”. While directors have often been compared to a ship’s captain, there’s no denying Weir took the notion to heart with these additions. Devoid of television, the cast were encouraged to chat and play chess or snooker, or read books. What was being crafted in Baja California under the meditative watch of Peter Weir wasn’t just a film, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience of historical immersion. The cast, from the extras playing ordinary sailors to the officer class, consented to taking part in a unique cinematic experiment. The dedication to historical accuracy, to production design brim with artisanal skill, to costumes which sealed the actors into their characters, all contributed towards a film that totally immerses the viewer into the Napoleonic era. 

Sadly, 2003 turned out to be the worst year for an Antipodean-led blockbuster to attempt both award and box office supremacy with Peter Jackson’s Return of the King looming large. Master and Commander was a stately maritime venture that came out the same year as a rollicking, deeply silly maritime adventure in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. While Return of the King won for all its nominations, Master and Commander limped home with just two wins. On a $150 million budget, it barely scraped a profit with $211 million internationally. Operating within the framework of cinema as big business and the art crafted therein as capital, it seemed at the time as if the painstaking craftwork, attention to detail and historical accuracy was little deserved. Why continue with this dated filmmaking style when the new reality of blockbuster filmmaking was on the horizon: bloated projects with misaligned budget priorities, consistent abuse of VFX workers’ rights, films and shows further destined to streaming debuts in lieu of theatre premiers, social media calcifying in the arteries of daily life leading to films and shows more frequently framed and written with a subtitled screenshot in mind.   

Yet a small but dedicated core of fans have remained loyal to the film. Like ‘Brazil mentioned’, it only takes one person posting something related to Master and Commander’s opening text “OCEANS ARE NOW BATTLEFIELDS” on Twitter for a legion of devoted fans to respond with their undying adoration for the film. The great efforts that went into crafting this dedication to the Age of Sail and its camaraderie has itself inspired a camaraderie amongst those who hold this film dear.

Concerned as we are at CYZ with being perched on the edge of history, we are nevertheless always looking forward to ask how on earth anything can progress from here. We who indulge in cinema, and by extension Film Twitter, are always concerned that juggernaut profit-machines and social media’s relentless dynamism will metastasise into a dreaded ouroboros, gorging on nostalgia and profit in a never-ending cycle. But I see reason for hope. Eschewing the Coca-Cola Christmas fantasy, I look instead to a pagan vision of winter hope for cinema’s future – that from the moment the darkest night has fallen, we have not long to await the green shoots of spring. After years of languishing in the bilge water of development, it looks as though a sequel to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is finally in the works for those of us who have stood unfalteringly by Weir’s maligned masterpiece. Perhaps, after the unbearable glut of Marvel supremacy this will herald the return of the action-drama film, and with it the return of legendary productions that both cast and crew can take genuine pride in.