Master and Commander’s box office failure was a harbinger of the cultural decline to come.
I like to think that I first saw Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World under near ideal circumstances—ideal to both appreciate the film’s numerous qualities as entertainment and edification, and to grasp why the film failed to engage audiences 20 years ago.
My first experience with the film was at a press screening shortly before its wide release in November 2003. I was already an admirer of the source material, the sequence of novels by Patrick O’Brian that rousingly and amusingly recounted the exploits of, and kinship between, Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey (played, in the film, by Russell Crowe) and his surgeon, musical companion, and all-around sounding board, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). As Weir’s almost two-and-a-half-hour film unfolded, I might have nitpicked over a characterization here or a line of dialogue there, but on balance, I felt that the much-honored director of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, and The Mosquito Coast had, unsurprisingly, gotten the big things right: the joyous sense of duty that spurs Aubrey, the studious curiosity that propels Maturin, the hardship of life at sea, the agony and necessity of war, and, above all, the irresistible romance of an age in which Lord Nelson was a figure men and boys longed to emulate.
In those comparatively innocent days, I did not stop to think that these elements were particularly unusual, let alone controversial. The film was based on a widely popular literary franchise—I knew people who swore by O’Brian’s novels—and it was produced by three of the largest studios in Hollywood: 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Miramax. This was not a niche release; its makers assumed the existence of an audience who would comprehend its celebration of gallant gentlemen in service to king and country.
As far as I was concerned, the first sign that the producers had misjudged the mood in the room came from the reaction of some of my fellow critics after that press screening two decades ago. In the lobby afterwards, I expressed my enthusiasm for the film to a few colleagues; one responded, in a flippant tone I still remember, that the movie had left him cold—that it lacked passion or excitement or some such thing. “So what?” or “What’s the big deal?” was the gist of his response. I was flabbergasted: Even if he had not liked the movie, he should not have dismissed it so cavalierly—as though courage, honor, and brotherhood, all values trumpeted by the movie, were something to shrug one’s shoulders at.
As it turned out, my colleague’s reaction foreshadowed the reception the movie got among the general public. The movie, which cost $150 million to produce, was a sluggish box-office performer: on its way to grossing about $93 million in the U.S., it spent weeks on the charts languishing behind such undistinguished titles as Elf, The Cat in the Hat, and The Haunted Mansion. Here was a leading indicator of the infantilization of American society: An Aubrey-Maturin movie could not beat out movies aimed at six-year-olds.
In all fairness, the movie went on to make $118 million internationally. Yet it was not enough to induce Fox to make any of the sequels that the movie—with its hopeful inclusion of a subtitle that suggested further Master and Commander adventures, on the order of Master and Commander: The Surgeon’s Mate or Master and Commander: The Letter of Marque—seemed to promise.
It wasn’t that the movie was hated or detested. It simply was not understood. Perhaps it was even beyond the understanding of the American public at that time. It cannot have been the intellectual capacity or educational shortcomings of moviegoers—surely the Napoleonic Wars are no more exotic than the historical settings of popular series like Bridgerton, Dangerous Liaisons, or Outlander. Instead it was a lack of instinctual feel for the values enunciated by Weir and company.
Even at the time, it did not go unnoticed by me that this film, with its realistic, nuanced, but ultimately accepting attitude about men at war, was released during the first year of the Iraq War. Conservatives have by and large made peace with the opposition to Bush’s war, but the cultural damage done by the antiwar left—the Cindy Sheehans, Noam Chomskys, and Michael Moores—proved lasting. They were opposed to a specific conflict, but they also guaranteed that any subsequent conflict would be judged suspect. And, as we have seen with the perpetual attempts of the woke to rewrite American history, past historical conflicts are fair game, too.
Master and Commander is a picture reconciled both to the inevitability of warfare—in the context of the story, Aubrey, Maturin, and the rest of the souls on the HMS Surprise are instruments of the British Empire attempting to halt the tyrannical Napoleon—as well as the necessity of the military apparatus. The film delights in the vernacular of sailors—“beat to quarters” and “run up the colors” and the rest—and accepts, sadly but stoically, the costs incurred by those sailors. During the opening battle, we are shocked to hear, for the first time, of the need for sand in the surgeon’s quarters—to soak up and make less slippery the blood that has already begun to pool on the floor from procedures. Young Max Pirkis played a boy midshipman whose arm, shredded by that first battle, must be amputated by Maturin. Aubrey receives word on the lad’s condition with a mix of calm and empathy: “His father would have understood. He knew the life. His mother, however—.” Crowe played Aubrey as a gentle giant: a dogged taskmaster and ruthless tactician who nonetheless is unstinting in rewarding his men with extra rum or more rations.
Although Aubrey’s fixation with the Acheron is at one point questioned by Maturin, the captain’s command is never doubted. No ship—“this little wooden world,” Aubrey calls it—can function with dissent. When a carpenter’s mate glaringly insults Midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby), Maturin rages—at the carpenter’s mate for his disrespect, but also at Hollom for failing to inspire leadership and encouraging mutinous behavior. Unable to summon the required qualities within himself, Hollom commits suicide, an episode Weir films with the same delicacy as the suicide of the aspiring actor in Dead Poets Society. Yet Weir does not use the episode to call into question the institution of the Royal Navy itself. After Hollom’s death, Aubrey invites the men to pray for forgiveness for the way they treated him; later, after many lives are lost following a battle, he leads the men in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer—heard, in a rather extraordinary indulgence on the part of secular Hollywood, in full.
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Looking at the movie again now, I was struck by countless moments that were likely to have been incomprehensible to audiences two decades ago and would not even be attempted today. Maturin’s interest in collecting specimens of exotic beasts on the Galapagos Islands would surely draw accusations of colonialism; Aubrey’s fearsome command, tempered though it is by genuine compassion, would undoubtedly be just another example of toxic masculinity.
The industry rewarded Master and Commander with two Oscars out of 10 nominations, but the cake was baked by the indifferent audience. There would be no sequel, and the gifted, well-liked Weir—who films the fixing up of the Surprise after it has started to bear battle scars with the same respectful attentiveness as the barn-raising scene in Witness—only made one more movie, 2010’s The Way Back.
At the end of the film, Aubrey and Maturin once more make music as a pair—one on cello, the other on violin—as the Surprise sails off for another confrontation. The image of the ship disappearing into the distance is a metaphor for this movie and the ethos that underlies it: both gone forevermore.