Holding Out For A Sequel: Master and Commander

Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World was released late November 2003 and was a relative box office failure, paling in the shadow of a much bigger, more family-friendly sea-faring adventure known as Pirates of the Caribbean released earlier in the summer. Whilst the buccaneering exploits of a young blacksmith on a quest to save his lady love from a ship full of ghost pirates became an unexpected success, audiences were apparently less inclined to see the real perils of naval warfare on screen.

Set in 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander follows the ordeals of the HMS Surprise after it is attacked by the much larger French ship Acheron. Led by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) the Surprise pursues the Acheron round South America, testing the strength of his ship, his crew and his friendship with the ship’s Doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Sitting firmly on the side of historical accuracy, Master and Commander omits ghosts and curses for the gritty reality of naval surgery and exploding frigates. And whilst the actualities of life on board a ship may at times appear less spectacular than un-dead pirates, Master and Commander is peppered with a Boys Own confidence that forgives these moments all the way to an exciting climatic battle.

Unlike Pirates, the film doesn’t act as an origin story for its heroes. Aubrey is an old hand at warfare, a steadfast figure of bravery, sometimes carried away by his own intelligence and pride. The only one on board the Surprise that matches these qualities is Maturin, who questions Aubrey’s decisions with the respect only the oldest of friends could command. You don’t know how their friendship developed; you only know that it is textured and pragmatic. Crowe and Bettany play beautifully off of each other (and not just in scenes where they play the cello) reminding us that in a lot of ways they are underrated as actors. With these two we only just touch the surface of the characters, which can at times leave Master and Commander adrift in motivation-less sea, but in truth actually leaves a lot of room for them to be revisited.

Perhaps the only downfall here is that whilst the characters are interesting there are periods in the film where they just sit around looking thirsty, or are simply hauling ropes. One thing you could never call Pirates is minimalist in its action, as each sequence is constantly revving up for the next big spectacular moment. Pirates has a youthful, cheeky energy that is absent in Master and Commander and which sets them poles apart. Whilst it is obvious that they are made for different audiences, and Master is not what you would consider a ‘blockbuster’, that does not mean that it is required to be dour.  It is after all entertainment, no matter how much you strive for historical accuracy. Maturity, (though commendable in almost every other facet of the film from the direction to the photography) should not be something exclusive from fun, especially when the plot revolves around chasing a ship across the Pacific Ocean.

There was of course a point when the fun was lost from Pirates, where too many plot threads and overwrought battle scenes became tangled in a storm of whirling disappointment. Not even Jack Sparrow could save them from mediocrity; the most recent film in which he starred was somewhat lifeless, ironic considering they were searching for the fountain of youth. What Pirates came to lack was strong characters you were invested in, and whose actions you could champion. This is where Master and Commander needs to step in and steer the high seas genre back into friendly waters. There is a spot for a sophisticated naval adventure which is begging to be filled and the stories of Aubrey and Maturin are perfect for the job.

It may be a case of transferring these stories to a cable network like HBO, AMC or Showtime or working in conjunction with the BBC. If Band of Brothers and The Pacific are any indication of the type of military series capable of being made on television there is no reason something such as Master and Commander would not work equally well. Evidence is in the successful adaptation of the Hornblower series (similarly based upon novels set during the Napoleonic Wars) ITV produced in the late 90′s early 00′s. Whilst it would be probable that the original cast would not return, the characters of Aubrey and Maturin are meaty roles for any fine actor to take on. Currently we are bereft of a historical war stories not set before the First World War, and as much as I love Birdsong or tolerate Downton Abbey, men and women did fight before the invention of the motor car.

There are over twenty books chronicling the journeys of Aubrey and Maturin by the commendably authentic author Patrick O’Brian so it’s not as if studios are lacking material. Sure the box office receipts weren’t great domestically, but internationally the film performed fairly well. It’s also been almost ten years since the film came out, with word of mouth always growing about the quality of the film. With the success of cable drama series’ like Game of Thrones, Homeland and Mad Men there is obviously an audience for grown up storytelling that would be equally great to see on the big or small screen. It’s not often that I actually want to see a sequel to something, and it’s not often that a film deserves one, but with Master and Commander you get the feeling there is still more to give. For me,  it’s about time the HMS Surprise came out of retirement and set sail once more.

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16 thoughts on “Holding Out For A Sequel: Master and Commander

  1. larry says:

    Loved this movie, the time period makes for fascinating story, the sharpe series comes to mind. I would love to see another, guess the books will have to do.

    • I’m glad you agree! The film only gets better with age and the time period more interesting. Why has this not been made already?!

      • DerekD says:

        $93M domestically on a $150M budget is why a sequel hasn’t been made.

        I think it’s one of the best movies ever made in that genre, I wish they would make a sequel. There may be an issue with owning the rights to the books, as the movie Far Side of the World bore almost no resemblance to the book whatsoever, seriously, about the only story line that was kept was that they did go around the horn. They rolled up small pieces, characters and stories from all 20+ novels into the one movie but created a new storyline out of whole cloth, accurate to the overall feeling of the series but not from any one book.
        Honestly it’s almost like they said, oh, here’s the Aubrey/Maturin world, now let’s just write a new story for them and set it in 1805. I think they did a great job and I really loved it, but it’s not like they were starting at book 1 and then book 2 like Harry Potter or something (Far Side is the tenth novel I think).

        I would have greatly preferred Crowe had done M&C2 instead of Les Mis.

      • Sadly box office receipts still rule even when there are healthy DVD and Blu-ray sales.
        Personally I’ve never been a slave to original material, so I don’t really have a problem how they adapt them. Following chronologically might suit television better then film for obvious reasons, but I don’t think it’s crucial that every single plotline or thread is included. The books have a very specific character to them, which is great, but when you license your work to be adapted it becomes a whole other beast with it’s own character.
        And as for Les Mis, I think we all would have preffered that. (Not that he was completely terrible tbh, Javert is kind of a thankless, one-note role, bit like Cosette)

  2. Timmy says:

    I have been watching this movie regularly for the last 10 years and it simply doesnt go away from my watching-list. Its undoubtedly the most mature, fun, and exciting sea adventure movie ever made and would always HOPE for a sequel and more of the story

  3. Andy says:

    With the paucity of great quality period sea going films and television, I find myself having to steal myself, and NOT WATCH Master and Commander time and again. I save it like a little jewel, only to be watched on special occasions. I’ve been hoping for a sequel since the closing credits of the film.

    • Beatrice says:

      Yes Andy, as I write, I hear the great ship in peril, with her T’gallant severed and Wharley adrift…. this film is a precious account and a view into life aboard a war ship in the age of sail…the music leads one into memory, as when exploring Galapagos for the first time.. and the love of friends, comrades~~

  4. Greg says:

    I can watch this film over and over again. It is one of my favorite escapes and I’ve also been waiting for a sequel since I first saw the closing credits. I guess I’ll have to keep waiting.

  5. Tina says:

    Still holding out for a sequel too! One of the most amazing movies i’ve ever seen and i’d love to see more.

  6. John says:

    I have watched Master and Commander countless times. It is a great film. Someone PLEASE make a sequel.

  7. Ancient Fuzz says:

    Oh, absolutely! I started reading the series again this summer, and just relishing in O’Brian’s language. The movie did a wonderful job at providing the ‘feel’ of the books — I was just talking about this overarching aesthetic of the movie with my wife. There truly should be a sequel, and whether there is fidelity to a particular storyline or not, I could see another episode…Perhaps beginning with Jack ashore, and harboring some female support this time around.

    Indeed, the movie is like a fine wine, and the superb soundtrack did the film justice as well. Would love to see a sequel. There’s not a moment to lose!

    • Lester says:

      I too am near the end of the collection. I am happy in a way, as I’m sure I will enjoy the series again from the very start!
      Lester

  8. S. Stark says:

    Here’s hoping that #2, and beyond, sail onto the big screen whilst #1 remains required viewing in English history.

  9. Zoi says:

    I have seen this movie three times and very time it is better! Pity it was not a success at the box office…Zoe

  10. Arthur says:

    Desperate to hear a sequel announced! Loved this film. Very comparable to the Hornblower series and even the 1950′s Gregory Peck film version of the same character. Russell Crowe himself has even expressed his keenness to continue Master and Commander. Come on Hollywood! Heed the call!

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