If there’s something old fashioned about the opening of Peter Weir’s Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World it has less to do with the Napoleonic Wars and much more to do with Star Wars. Like in the opening of A New Hope, we start with a ship. In the opening shots of both, we trace the impossibility of them: for Lucas, that’s expressed in scale, in how huge that Imperial Star Destroyer is. But Weir expresses the same idea with detail and rhythm. The camera weaves from below decks as though it’s been roused to go up on watch, and we pass the impossibly close together hammocks of the men, the achingly little touches of home or care in a pair of shoes stacked neatly or a nickname carved into a gun carriage, the methodical turning of an hourglass, the flashing eyes of the animals also stuck inside this (very creaky! Is it supposed to creak that much?) floating hunk of wood. By the time we beat to quarters and prepare the deck for a potential fight with a mysterious ship sighted in a fog, we understand the ship as both a testament to mankind’s incredible adaptability and as a precarious fragile beating heart, its chambers expanding as a new set of hands climb aloft.
Like A New Hope, too, we go nearly 20 minutes or so before its main heroes appear on screen together. Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey strides out on deck at about the seven-minute mark, called up because of the sighting of an unknown vessel that might well be nothing (it isn’t)…and at the outside could be the French privateer he’s meant to intercept before it can cause havoc on British shipping in the Pacific (bingo). We only glimpse Paul Bettany’s Doctor Stephen Maturin at the 12-minute mark, unrolling his surgeon’s tools in case of an attack. It comes, and we get our first taste of action: the thrillingly unique rhythm of ships exchanging broadsides which somehow combines the suspense of a chess match and the carnage of a car crash. We finally get a conversation between the two men at around 16 minutes, and it’s a devilishly clever one: for every piece of information exchanged between Captain and Surgeon, we get an inkling of their established friendship, the familiarity they have with one another as they discuss the attack they just narrowly survived.
That conversation between Aubrey and Maturin feels as lived-in as the Surprise herself because Weir has spent all this time studiously peering into the world of Master And Commander, the bells and calls and salutes, the rhythm of life aboard an English warship. But then Weir connects the impossible survival of this ship to these two men, getting us to invest deeply in them and the ways in which they challenge and compliment each other. By the time the French frigate Acheron appears again, we intuitively understand that the Surprise’s survival is, really, down to these two guys and the choices that they are going to make to either support each other or to use each other to pursue their own ends.
Scenes in the movie are sometimes like a tennis match, bouncing back and forth between Aubrey and Maturin, and then coming together. After the Surprise has escaped the French ship (by rowing into the same fog bank their opponent emerged from), we get a post-game scene in the captain quarters where the officers debate the capability of their foe and Maturin acts as the audience proxy, asking for the vocab word definitions and saying the quiet part out loud: the Surprise is the underdog in this fight. We get a couple sequences of Aubrey making decisions and commanding the respectful obedience of his crew. We get a couple sequences of Maturin doing complex surgeries and mightily impressing the men. We get a couple key moments that explicitly tie Aubrey to the ship—the Captain makes the most obvious comparison himself, saying she’s no more over-the-hill than he is—and also a couple key moments of Maturin’s skepticism of the Naval service. He’s no Bonapartist, but you do get the sense that in different times and circumstances the good doctor probably would’ve voted for Elizabeth Warren.
Then, finally, we get a scene with just the two of them, and there’s an electric shift. Movies that take place aboard a ship—from Curse of the Black Pearl and Captain Blood to Life Of Pi and L’Atalante—tend to cheat by setting aside a big chunk of screen time for scenes that don’t take place on a ship. It’s understandable why. A spaceship can have all sorts of visual variation, but if you’re working with a big hunk of actual wood and tar and canvas…everything looks the same. The ocean looks like the ocean, unless there’s a gigantic CGI kraken bursting forth from it (and even that can get a little same-y, too). This is why you give Bill Paxton a fake earring and the most convoluted get-rich scheme of all time: it creates visual variety, and makes your movie feel more dynamic. But Master And Commander doesn’t cheat, really. It’s remarkable how strict Weir is about only travelling to places and seeing sights that a British frigate would see in the early 1800s. It’s equally remarkable how he creates that sense of dynamism and suggests variety.
What happens in this magical new scene is this: our two heroes play music together, Aubrey on violin and Maturin on cello. We’ve had moments where only two characters were in frame, but this is the first moment of privacy, with only Jack and Stephen sharing the space. In the same way that Portrait of a Lady On Firebuilds Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” into a (criminally emotional) shorthand articulation of the two lovers’ passion, Master And Commander uses the classical compositions that Aubrey and Maturin play as a shorthand, too. Their duets stand in for the scene any other movie would shoot of them meeting at a society gala in London on the eve of war, for individual moments of Maturin looking at lizards in a greenhouse in the country and Aubrey courting a comely lass at an Admiralty Ball in town. Because the film’s visual remit is so strict and so constrained, the music becomes evocative of Aubrey and Maturin’s shared intellectual curiosity and expertise. Indeed, it suggests the milieu they both emerged from and the ethos they both ascribe to: that of the Man of the Enlightenment™, empowered by reason to conquer the world and in so doing make it a better place.
Many of the classical pieces throughout the film come from Luigi Boccherini’s “La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid” which is actually (shh) a quintet for strings but has a wonderful, rich, spritely quality that embodies Jack and Stephen at their best: sharp, galant, playful, and clever, continually riffing off each other. These pieces arrive to defuse key moments of stress and solidify the strength of the pair’s relationship, as in that first musical interlude after Surprise has escaped Acheron. But they also start appearing non-diegetically to the same effect, as in the moment the ship does reach the Galápagos and treats both Stephen and the audience to its natural wonders. There’s looking at iguanas, and then there’s looking at iguanas scored by Bach’s Prélude in G. It’s through music we get that wider, more appreciable understanding of the world of the film—and because Jack and Stephen are ostensibly “responsible” for it, the music makes us feel a wider, more appreciable warmth in their friendship. There is a moment later in the film where Aubrey looks at an empty chair, with Stephen’s cello lying silently against it, and that image is more crushing than like half of all movie funerals.
As a teen, I read a fair bit of Napoleonic historical fiction, and I admit I much preferred the Horatio Hornblower books to the Jack Aubrey series. It’s not surprising given just how inward-looking, dashingly fatalistic, and, I dare say, emo Horatio is as written by C.S. Forester. Ioan Gruffudd’s TV interpretation is a different kind of snack, but it’s telling that that show kind of had to invent friends for Hornblower and kept putting Jamie Bamber in danger for seemingly no reason. There’s an almost Sorkinesque obsession with genius in the books, that of both Hornblower and the British Navy. Master And Commander author Patrick O’Brian loves a good ship of the line and a devious plan just as much as Forester, but he’s much more interested in comradeship. O’Brian sees the dialogue in everything—between Jack and Stephen, England and France, the social and political questions of the day—because, spoilers, they’re the same questions we have about authority and equality, nature and God. In the film, Weir absolutely nails that rhythm, too.
It’s not just Aubrey and Maturin who play off each other. We see pairs everywhere: best mates Joe and Will, who knock up a model of the Acheron; Calamy and Blakeney, midshipmen figuring out who they are as leaders and human beings; Higgins and Padeen, Maturin’s somewhat hapless help; and Killick and Black Bill, Aubrey’s stewards. There are also pairs in contrast: old Joe Plaice, a hard-bitten sailor who navigates life with the surety of superstition, and Mr. Hollom, a kindly midshipman terrified to realize he might not be cut out for a sailor’s life after all; the coxswain Bonden who exudes decency and the seaman Slade who wears a perpetual scowl. Just before the final battle, Aubrey inspires the crew with a speech saying that, here on the far side of the world, the Surpriseis England. And I know how that sounds. From any other movie, you’d cry out, “Oh, what pitiful stuff.” But in this film? You feel your heart glow.
That’s getting ahead of ourselves, though, and away from Aubrey and Maturin. The real crux of the pair’s friendship, what makes Master And Commander so rich in general, is the way in which the film challenges their relationship and also kind of has an answer for a very a la mode question: how do people with different political beliefs get along? Because while Jack is certainly animated by zeal for the Navy, he’s a proud man, and not used to not being the Master and Commander—the smartest, canniest, most capable person in the room. Stephen, meanwhile, is Irish by birth and a naturalist by training, both of which make him skeptical of authority and the ease with which it justifies oppression. It also makes him annoyingly moralistic on occasion—he suggests getting rid of the ship’s grog as response to a disciplinary infraction and it’s easily the stupidest idea anyone has in the whole movie. These days they probably wouldn’t be friends, not unless they were forced together because of a shared workplace (see: Knope, Leslie and Swanson, Ron).
As the voyage wears on, all the sheet music in the world can’t paper over the pair’s differences. They have a huge fight over whether or not Aubrey should even be chasing this ship that has so thoroughly outclassed him; over whether or not Maturin’s personal desires to see the Galapagos come ahead of defending the English merchant fleet. The row seeps into the rest of the ship, too. While Blakeney takes special care to be kind to Maturin, Calamy comes fully under Aubrey’s wing. It very much feels like Dad and Dad are fighting.
But then the second act turns, and Stephen is accidentally shot by the marine colonel. Jack has to choose whether to press after the French ship, tantalizingly in sight on the horizon, or go back to dry land so the surgery to remove the bullet has a chance to succeed. This dilemma on its own would be beautiful character work. But Master And Commander is about the way both these men better each other. So after the operation—objectively, the most badass thing anyone does on-screen is Doctor Stephen Maturin pulling the bullet out himself—there’s this glorious sequence of Stephen exploring the Galapagos only to spot the Acheron, and deciding to abandon his collection of specimens in order to warn the Surprise in time. They each put aside a deeply meaningful personal victory for the sake of their relationship. When it really comes down to it, they choose the duty they owe to each other over their own success. That—and not conquest, not victory—is what makes them the Enlightenment Men they wish to see in the world. And how glorious is it to see men whose heroism arises not from some innate badassery/repressed trauma but from the strength of a friendship?
There’s something hard-wired in us that finds the kind of sacrifices Aubrey and Maturin make not just heroic, but deeply moving. It feels like the articulation of what it is even is to be a friend: by having this relationship, caring and being cared for in return, you become stronger, more moral, closer to the best version of yourself. The ambush the Surprise eventually uses to capture the Acheron is the perfect synthesis of Maturin’s scientific expertise and Aubrey’s naval daring. Somewhere at a bar in Heaven, Howard Hawks is nursing a whiskey and nodding in approval.
Hawks never met a bar piano he didn’t want to linger around for a tune, and likewise there are more than classical pieces running through the blood of Master And Commander. There are—and I swear I’m not shoe-horning it in, this is the correct term—also a fair number of sea shanties, sung by both the crew and the officers at regular intervals. It’s the moment the (very soused) officers sing “Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate” that gets me every time. Something about the shared experience of being on the ocean breaks through all the bells and salutes and 19th century stuffiness, all of the rules both the British Navy and Peter Weir have set up. Suddenly these guys are just guys, appreciating the tradition and community to which they belong, the joy and satisfaction of that belonging. Which is a species of friendship, too.
It’s convenient that Sea Shanty TikTok became a thing recently and Psychologist Twitter came out of the woodwork to explain the “communitarian aesthetic” behind a string of eight people and Kermit the frog singing “The Wellerman;” all the ways in which “embodied cognition” help us move through rough seas, so to speak, and how shanties trace back well beyond the British naval tradition, to Atlantic slavery. Master And Commander intuites a lot of this and goes the extra step of binding it to Jack and Stephen’s friendship in particular. Because they express themselves as a unit so musically, the language of the film teaches us to understand the harmony of their relationship in, well, all the harmonies. And—as we’ve all rediscovered on TikTok or elsewhere—music has a way of creating comradeship even in the most confined and isolated of spaces.
I think this is why people who love Master And Commanderreally love it, and why we love Jack and Stephen’s friendship so much in particular. They’re more than just a whacky pair who enable each other, à la Harold and Kumar. They’re more complicated than your Riggs-and-Murtaugh-style regimented type paired with a rebellious maverick. There’s no painful imbalance between them, as there is between Mozart and Salieri. Aubrey and Maturin start as friends and become shipmates. Their relationship is elevated by a shared experience of sacrifice that makes them true equals. But the film is even more generous than that. When we hear the crew sing “Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar, Jack / Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar, Jack,” we’re made to feel part of that same shared experience. Watching our dynamic duo trade string parts as they give chase to their quarry yet again, we can’t help but feel their friendship. We feel it in a way that’s even more immediate than imagery, that’s as constant as the roll of the waves.