That Moment In ‘Master and Commander’ (2003): The Men Must Be Governed
Sea-faring adventure and the nature of rule aboard such a ship.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a 2003 action adventure film about a resolute sea captain who refuses to give up his chase of an enemy vessel.
Say you had no choice and had to quickly name the captain of an old timey sailing ship from a movie in 2003. In a blink, boom, visions of Johnny Depp in a red head-scarf swashbuckles into your brain and “Captain Jack Sparrow” blurts out of your mouth like a 17th century cannonball. Hooray, you’re a winner, his Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl sailing into history as the start of one of the most successful film franchises ever made. You’re a movie genius. But, there was another high seas adventure film looking to kick off a series, and since you are already reading this, well, you know what it is.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a more realistic depiction of life on the ocean, with a grittier, largely humorless take on action in and around an early 18th century war ship. Based on three historical-nautical novels of the Patrick O’Brian series about a ship’s captain and surgeon, the movie was a minor box office hit and was highly-praised by critics but failed to spawn hopeful sequels, even when its star publicly pressed fans to start a campaign.
Directed by Peter Weir, (read more about him here), the story focuses on Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey (Russell Crowe) of the British Empire, who takes his ship, the corvette class HMS Surprise, on a mission to “Sink, burn, or take as a prize” the much larger French privateer, Acheron. His best friend is Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship’s doctor, and the two bicker in good nature over duty, honor and the pursuit of science, especially on a stop to the Galapagos Island that is cut short when their foe is spotted in a bay and a great battle brings two mighty sea captains to a violent and costly head. It’s epic stuff.
Not since 1984’s The Bounty has there been a more satisfying sea-faring adventure about “real” life and death on and below the decks of an 18th century sailing vessel, and the magnificent cinematography and attention detail are striking. The movie is a rich character study of two completely different men under the same service; one bound unwaveringly by an oath to his Navy to captain his men with the discipline and principals set forth by two hundred years of tradition, and the other a man of science and curiosity, dedicated to his surgical skills but inspired by a need to explore and reveal the inherit value in the diversity of the world and the creatures within it. The two are opposites of course but more so, kindred men of great pursuits and respect for the other. The film treats their relationship with unexpected depth, avoiding the clichés of sea-faring authoritarian versus subordinate conflicts. And like any movie, it has one great moment.
Men Must be Governed
Midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby) is an inexperienced officer, a gangly, unproven sailer who fails at every turn to earn the respect of the crew, his hesitant and irresolute demeanor giving them serious concern, thinking he might actually be cursing the good ship as they sail into the unknown. He’s labeled a ‘Jonah’ for bringing bad luck, something no sailor wants hanging around his neck. He’s unpopular, is talked about in the shadows of the ships bowels, and seems unworthy of the uniform he wears. And yet, a uniform he has, and in the British Navy aboard Captain Aubrey’s ship, that means everything.
When a crewman named Nagle (Bryan Dick), a carpenter’s assistant–unaware that Aubrey is watching–nudges Hollom as he passes by, and then not saluting, Aubrey is furious and orders Nagle to be immediately flogged in accordance with Naval regulations for insubordination. It’s a serious call, as Nagle is well-liked among the men, and by Aubrey as well.
As Nagle is confined, awaiting execution of his sentence, Aubry and Maturin assemble in the Captain’s quarters and the two begin a heated discussion on the value–or lack there of–in committing to the rules so vigorously. They debate the harshness of a sailor’s life, and the worthiness of discipline versus compassion in an environment that demands unity, sacrifice, and above all, order. You can guess which side they each take.
Aubrey is convinced flogging is necessary while Maturin offers a different form of discipline, one less corporal, suggesting Aubrey dump the alcohol over the ship’s side, though the captain contends that despite the ferocity of the ship’s laws, they have purpose and by enforcing them, the men respond. These are choices that give him no pleasure but … the men must be governed, and to not do so would weaken his position and endanger the ship. His authority is absolute and strict severity to what the men expect is the master that keeps them honor-bound.
While Master and Commander has a number of outstanding action sequences and moments of great drama and sacrifice, the film is truly about the relationship of these two very different characters, their approach and understanding of what they face amid the wonder and perils of life at sea the barometer for how Aubrey leads his men, and that is the greater significance of moments like this, one that clearly reveals a man who understands the difference and application of governing and leading.
Maturin’s counsel is meant to be in opposition, his voice perhaps one he can’t always side with, but one that is necessary in keeping Aubrey authentic. Maturin is vital in helping to shape who Aubrey is in the viewer’s eyes, and as such, his exchanges with the captain provide Aubrey with opportunities to show the audience that he is a man of principals and direction, even if he might appear less so by his actions.
This moment is crucial in setting up the value of their friendship with the two openly debating the definition of oppression and dictatorships versus honor and tradition a captivating back and forth that divides the two men while at the same time, further bonding their need for each other. The quarter’s serve as a forum for exploration, even if it is heated, and what we learn is that while clear and definitive duties and action shape who they are, understanding why is a troubling and emotionally exhaustive experience.
The aftermath of decisions made in this scene are the real payoff as the film allows the impact of what would seem a minor act of defiance from a crewman on an officer in time of uncertainty to play out with horrifying results, both to Nagle and ultimately for Hollom. The words chosen by Aubrey and Maturin in their debate prior have profound influence on the remainder of the film and creates a dynamic that would seem impossible to find common ground, the nature of man and the imbalance of our place in it forever pitting them against each other, though we will see later in the story, there is opportunity for all things to work together.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a thrilling adventure filled with great action and characters, and while it failed to get a well-deserved sequel, it remains one of the best ever made in the genre. And a challenging conversation on the value of discipline and its role in keeping men bound to the tiny wooden world they live in is one to watch closely. It’s a great cinematic moment.