Master and Commander (film)

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

For the Aubrey-Maturin series of books, of which Master and Commander is the first, consult the main page.

Epic nautical piece (2003) based on the Aubrey-Maturin series of Historical Novels by Patrick O'Brian set during the Napoleonic Wars. Starring Russell Crowe as Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, and Paul Bettany as ship's surgeon, naturalist, and dear friend Stephen Maturin.

Known for being one of the more accurate depictions of Wooden Ships and Iron Men on film, true to its source.

The plot of the film references several books in the series, including Master And Commander (1969), and The Far Side Of The World (1984). It was intended to become the first installment in a series of films.

Full title: Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World.

This page is for the 2003 film. For Master And Commander by Patrick O'Brian (book/series), see Aubrey-Maturin.

Master and Commander, the name of the first book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, currently redirects there.

Tropes used in Master and Commander (film) include:
  • Adaptation Distillation: Snippets from dozens of books are thrown in (The title alone comes from two of them.) There is only a brief mention of Stephen being a spy, and the enemy ship is American-made (and thus advanced and well-built) but French-aligned.
  • A Father to His Men : Aubrey treats his men in a fatherly way notably the Midshipmen who are away from their fathers.
  • Alone in a Crowd: Hollom. Doesn't fit in well with the officers due to his perceived lack of leadership, and can't fit in with the regular crew because he's an officer. The fact that he's shunned basically by everyone makes him the prime target of The Jonah label.
  • Badass Adorable: Several midshipmen, but cute little Will Blakeney takes the cake.
    • Female audience members in their late teens onwards may experience varying degrees of I'm Taking Him Home With Me. Please note that All The Tropes does not condone kidnapping.
  • Badass Bookworm: Maturin can't just hold his own in battle; he can do it while nursing a fresh gunshot wound he treated himself without so much as alcohol to numb the pain. If digging a bullet out of your own gut isn't badass, I don't know what is.
    • "I think I'd like to be... a fighting naturalist."
  • Band of Brothers: When they are not fighting they are singing together, joking, and doing sailor dances together.
  • Butt Monkey: Hollom. Not played for laughs.
  • Coming of Age Story: For all the Midshipmen growing into men. And sometimes losing an arm in the process.
  • Cool Boat: The Acheron is newer, faster, stronger, and better-armed than the Surprise, by some accounts an "aging man of war".

Aubrey:The Surprise has a bluff bow, lovely lines. She's a fine seabird: weatherly, stiff and fast... very fast, if she's well handled. No, she's not old. She's in her prime.

Aubrey: My orders were to pursue the Acheron as far as Brazil. I exceeded my orders some time ago.

  • Doom Magnet: Hollom is believed to be this by the crew, which results in him being Driven to Suicide.
  • Driven to Suicide: The aging midshipman Hollom, who has no prospects of promotion, is completely lacking in leadership ability, and to top it off gets labeled as a curse on the ship's luck.
  • Easy Intelligence: "The French have their spies in England and elsewhere... as do we." ...What? You mean a French spy all the way back in Portsmouth when he saw Surprise put to sea, ran out across the ocean to warn the French Captain so he could lay an ambush at just the right time and place?
    • Possible though, as there could have been agents located in South America or other ports where the Acheron could have stopped by. These agents would not necessarily have seen the Surprise put out to sea, but they would have been aware of English man-of-war movements in the area.
  • Empathic Environment: As soon as Hollom is buried at sea, the wind picks up. Depending on how you look at it, either Hollom's spirit has forgiven the crew for their lack of fellowship, or driving him to suicide removed his curse on the ship and they can get on with their duties.
    • Or it was a complete coincidence. This exchange right before Hollom's suicide:

Blakeney: The Captain says we'll get our wind tomorrow.
Hollom: I'm sure of it.

      • Which could have meant Hollom had already decided to suicide and break the curse he had placed on the ship.
      • Ambiguity about such things is a common plot device. The Bellisario brothers love it for instance and it does fit into Real Life because most uncanny events are probably ambiguous in this way.
  • Eureka Moment / Chekhov's Gun: "Let me guess. A stick?"

Blakeney: "It's a rare phasmid, sir... It's an insect that disguises itself as a stick in order to confuse its predators.
Captain Jack: (later) A nautical phasmid, Doctor... I intend to take a greater interest in the bounty of nature from now on. I had no idea that a study of nature could advance the art of naval warfare! Now to pull this predator in close and spring our trap.
Stephen: No, Jack. You're the Predator.

  • False-Flag Operation: The HMS Surprise literally flies a false flag as part of its disguise to lure the Archeron in for the final battle; they do raise the proper flag before actually engaging in combat. Just before, mind you. A second or two, but that's enough for honor.
  • Famed in Story: Lord Nelson; Captain Lucky Jack himself.
    • Who was also famed for knowing Lord Nelson in person. His immortal words to a young Captain Jack? "Aubrey... may I trouble you for the salt?"
  • Fan Disservice: Maturin's Shirtless Scenes are all of him after he's been gut-shot, with all of the unpleasant physiological effects thereof.
  • Foreshadowing: Something bad was bound to happen the second a sailor started trying to kill an albatross.
  • A Friend in Need: Captain Aubrey has to choose between pursuing his quarry and saving Dr. Maturin's life. Stephen also has to choose to abandon his precious specimen collection, to inform Captain Aubrey the Acheron is nearby.
    • Karmic Jackpot: Saving Dr. Maturin's life and letting him wander around the Galapagos like he originally promised leads Captain Aubrey straight to his prey's front door and a tactical idea made out of Mixed Metaphors and SCIENCE NATURAL PHILOSOPHY!
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Lieutenant Pullings' facial scar is much more disfiguring in the books than it is in the film, but since Pullings' actor is Mr. Fanservice, nobody objects too much.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Done when Dr. Maturin amputates Midshipman Blakeney's arm, when a crewman is whipped for insubordination, and when Stephen operates on himself. Avoided at other points.
  • Gundamjack: Aubrey's crew takes possession of the Acheron at the end of the movie. Should be noted also that the Real Life HMS Surprise, the inspiration for the ship in the novel, was originally the Unité, a French corvette in service of the French Navy, which was captured by the British Navy, renamed, and introduced into British service.
    • This was reasonably common in Real Life. Historically, bringing in a captured ship that was more powerful than your own usually guaranteed promotion of the lieutenant who was placed in charge of the prize crew (which was seen as a compliment to that lieutenant's captain).
  • Handicapped Badass: Will Blakeney, a one-armed 13-year old Crazy Awesome Little Lord Badass. Naturally he looks up to Lord Nelson, who also lost an arm.
    • A beautiful moment occurs when Aubrey visits the young Lord Blakeney in his hammock just after he has had his arm amputated. He recommends a book to the young Lord's attention; an account of the battle of the Nile, with several fine illustrations. After some very stiff-upper-lip dialogue, Aubrey departs, leaving Blakeney to leaf through the book, which opens at an illustration of Lord Nelson, minus an arm. Blakeney more than rises to the implied challenge.
  • Historical In-Joke: Dr. Maturin speculates about evolution decades before Darwin.
    • Evolution was already being speculated about years before the film is set, by Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) among others. Darwin's big idea was of natural selection, not evolution. And Knowing Is Half the Battle.
    • In another scene Jack says something along the lines of "heading home before peace breaks out with France, God forbid." He's not being facetious. Should peace break out, he would have been very likely to be on the shore, on half pay, with no prospects for bettering his situation through taking prizes. Peace, for naval officers not amazingly well-connected, tended to mean near starvation.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: You would think that the Captain of the Marines would know better.
    • And he was shooting at an albatross. Remind anyone of a certain Ancient Mariner...?
      • What, from the poem that was published in 1817? They wouldn't have heard of it in 1805.
      • It was gotten from a well-known superstition that albatrosses and dolphins are the ghosts of dead sailors. So, Yeah.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: "The lesser of two weevils". A groaner for Dr. Maturin and the audience, but a Crowning Moment of Funny for Captain Aubrey and the other characters present. Jack pestering Stephen to walk into the joke is funny in and of itself.
    • Also shows the sophistication of the movie and hints that Aubrey has a hidden philosophical side. War-and the authoritarian institutions needed to wage it-are of course always at best, the Lesser of Two Evils.
  • Large Ham: Captain Aubrey.
  • Meaningful Echo: Blakeney asking Calamy to not let them sew through his nose in case he dies. Doubles as a Tear Jerker when Blakeney asks to personally take care of Calamy's body and then asking for help as he, having lost an arm, can't do the job on his own.
  • Nautical Folklore: No luck with a Jonah aboard... or shooting at certain seabirds.
  • Not So Different: When Aubrey finds sheet music and a french horn in the Acheron's captain's quarters. Also the enemy captain is seen to have similar problems of keeping personal hygiene (i.e. shaving and combing).
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Pretty much all the officers including the midshipmen are more or less decent people who know how to be manly while still being civilized.
  • Old Soldier: The old sailing-master is a particular fan of sea-shanties and Lord Nelson.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: Let's all pause this history and war to have a nature documentary about Galápagos Islands. While perhaps jarring to many in the audience, this sort of thing happened in the books all the time.
    • This movie dances between,classical music, sailor dances and songs, Nautical Folklore, maritime architecture,teenage angst and whatever without missing a beat. And of course plenty of Stuff Blowing Up.
  • Papa Wolf: Invoked. Aubrey says that the French Captain fights so hard that you would think he is this.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The whole film.


    • And according to Aubrey, Lord Nelson was the trope incarnate. (Historically accurate; "England expects that every man will do his duty" was sent from Nelson's flagship, after all.)
  • Plucky Middie: Blakeney, Boyle and Calamy. During the climactic battle, Lord Blakeney (around twelve year old) is actually in command of the ship at one point and leads a boarding party of adult sailors onto the Acheron. Calamy is given the mission of freeing prisoners, gets a Heroic Sacrifice moment, and is promoted to Lieutenant posthumously (he died an acting third lieutenant, and his status at death would have been recorded as such on the ship's muster). Boyle is seen bravely accompanying Blakeney's boarding party, hurling water over the French cannons to douse the fuses and prevent them firing.
  • Politically-Correct History: In the book they were chasing an American into the Pacific. The film's producers, being American themselves, couldn't handle that.
    • Averted elsewhere: No one thinks it odd that whalers chase whales, or that they restocked their ship with Galapagos turtle meat (and, at the time, they didn't care that they were wiping out entire species of whales, turtles, and birds to restock ships' larders).
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: In book canon, Aubrey is taller than Maturin and Maturin is described as being fairly ugly and scrawny. Paul Bettany is by no means ugly, and quite a bit taller than Russel Crowe. Aubrey is also supposed to be quite fat, but Crowe couldn't put on that kind of weight and still pull the character off, so he ends up being only a bit stout.
    • From the various descriptions given in the book, it seems that Aubrey is more in the nature of being stout and powerfully built than obese as modern readers/viewers would recognize the term (see the notes on this in the book section above).
    • The enemy ship, in the book the American frigate USS Norfolk was replaced by a French privateer built by the Americans. The design in the movie was based on the USS Constitution [1], and the Norfolk of the book was based on the Real Life USS Essex, which harassed British shipping in the Pacific Ocean during the War of 1812 and seized 15 prizes before she was captured by the British off of Valparaiso, Chile. Presumably the movie's producers had the same concerns that C.S. Forester had when writing the Horatio Hornblower novels: That American audiences would not appreciate the Americans being the bad guys.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Fuckin' pirates."
  • Privateer: The ship the Surprise pursues is a French privateer.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack:
    • Bach - Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major.
    • Boccherini - Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid No. 6.
    • Mozart - Violin Concerto No. 3, 3rd movement.
    • Corelli - Christmas Concerto, Adagio Op. 6 No. 8.
    • Don't forget your old shipmates - Traditional Napoleonic era naval song.
    • Spanish Ladies - Traditional English naval song.
  • Rated "M" for Manly : You better believe it.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Yes, there were black sailors in the Royal Navy. The British Empire had possessions in the West Indies, and later in the Cape of Good Hope, they had refugees from the American South, and there were stateless sailors hiring wherever. Some of them would have been legally free and in any event it is too much time to waste tracking down a fugitive's master when they kind of have a war to fight.
  • Red Alert: "Beat to quarters!"
  • Shaming the Mob: Aubrey to his own crew, and himself, after Hollom's suicide.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Cranked all the way Up to Eleven.
  • Sword and Gun: Dr. Maturin, in the final battle.
  • Take a Moment to Catch Your Death: "Looks like the deed is done, sir." sighs the old sailing-master upon boarding the enemy ship, which is covered with bodies. Then, suddenly...
  • Tempting Fate: See the entry immediately above this one.
  • Twist Ending: Played for awesome and hilarity.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: This film doesn't just have Stuff Blowing Up, but philosophy, Nautical Folklore, shipbuilding technology, and classical music.
  • War Is Hell: The movie certainly glorifies heroism. But a boy loses his arm, a weak-willed but nice officer is driven to suicide, people we like are killed in battle or storm, and lower deck food looks just awful.
  • Wasn't That Fun?: Captain Aubrey grins and says "now tell me that wasn't fun" after retrieving a sailor from the sea.
  • The Watson: Dr. Maturim asks about the weather gauge, and Lofty the child crewman asks about privateers.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: One of the more realistic depictions of the trope in modern cinema.
  • Worthy Opponent: The captain of the Acheron, seen disguised as the ship's doctor, presumably in order to regain control of his ship at a later date. Mixed with Not So Different, when Captain Aubrey enters the man's cabin and finds it littered with sheet music and a battered French horn.
  • Zipping Up the Bodybag: Done the old fashioned way, stitching up the dead bodies up in their hammocks before dropping them over the side.