Thursday, March 14, 2013

Film Review-Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Dear Reader,

Historians frequently discuss the historical value of films. Usually, we get hung up on a few historical inaccuracies which prevent us from enjoying the film as a whole. However, many films, such as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, display fictitious events in an extremely historical fashion.  For those who have not yet seen this film, and don't want to know how things turn out, stop here.

The film takes place in the waters of Brazil, Cape Horn, and the Galapagos Islands. The film draws from the Aubrey and Maturin naval series, by author Patrick O'Brian, but does not take the plot points from any particular novel. Rather, the series draws on a smattering of these novels to make an interesting and exciting plot line.

The main storyline of the film follows the crew of the 28-gun HMS Surprise, commanded by Jack Aubrey (Russel Crowe), as they attempt to stop a massive French warship/privateer (the movie is unclear). The movie opens with a textual description of Aubrey's admiralty orders, which inform the viewer that the French ship, the Acheron, is attempting to destroy British shipping in the Pacific.  The Acheron is a heavy 44-gun American built frigate. In the course of the movie, the viewer finds out that the Americans built the Acheron in Boston before the outbreak of war with France.

The Brits eventually overcome all odds through a mix of courage, ingenuity, and surprise. Russel Crowe gives an excellent performance as Aubrey, and Paul Bettany equals him while portraying Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon.

Master and Commander and History

The movie accurately portrays the HMS Surprise, an actual ship from the period, (built in France as the Unite' and captured by the British) although, by the year which the movie is set in, the Royal Navy had already decommissioned the HMS Surprise. 

However, the Acheron give historians a bit more trouble. The character of Sailing Master Allen gives us the most information regarding the Acheron. Upon seeing the Acheron for the first time, Allen comments, that the ship is a "Two decker more than a frigate." For an explanation of ship types in this period, click here. As the officers are discussing the Acheron, Lt. Pullings remarks that, "you have to wonder about the nature of her hull, our shots wouldn't penetrate."  A little while later in the movie, two of the seamen present Aubrey with a model of the ship, which one of them saw being constructed in Boston before the war. When Aubrey shows his officers the model, Allen remarks the Acheron must be a 44-gun ship. From this information, we can glean that the Acheron is a 44-gun American built frigate, with excellent heavy timbers in her hull. These type of ships did exist, they were the original six ships of the United States Navy.

During the War of 1812, these ships often fought and defeated smaller British frigates, like the HMS Surprise. The designer of these ships, Joshua Humphreys, planned frigates large enough to overpower any other frigates, but fast enough to flee from ships of the line. In a way, Master and Commander attempts to redeem British honor in the War of 1812.

Overall, the film does an excellent job of portraying life in the Royal Navy at the end of the Kabinettskriege period, and is extremely enjoyable.


  1. And also - the music is great...:-)

  2. Yeah, love that music. The whole movie was fantastic indeed.