Home away from home for Capt. Jack Aubrey and the 196 men in his command is no Hyatt or Hilton. It’s not even Motel 5. Maggots, weevils and rats infest the food. It’s either freezing cold or boiling hot. And the floor never stops moving. It’s the HMS Surprise that is that home, a British frigate off the coast of Brazil with orders to intercept the French privateer, Acheron: “You will sink, burn or take her a prize.”
Easier ordered than carried out, Aubrey quickly discovers. The Acheron is bigger, faster, stronger and more heavily armed than he. So, after a disastrous first meeting, Aubrey decides to make Surprise live up to her name, orchestrating a deadly game of open-sea cat and mouse (replace 19th century sailing ships with WWII submarines and it’d be U-571 all over again).
Napoleon has conquered most of Europe, and all that’s left between him and world domination is the British Navy. And as Aubrey puts it to his men, “Even though we’re here on the far side of the world, this ship is home. This ship is England.” He’s prepared to die defending her.
Honor. Duty. Valor. Discipline. Aubrey is a skilled sailor, a finely tuned captain and a compassionate human being. He strives to balance the need for respect, discipline and order with the need for personal contact and encouragement. His struggle to make right decisions regarding his duty to his country and his duty to his crew forms the heart of Master and Commander, and turns “yet another period war flick” into a study of character and personality. The “fight for God and Country” is depicted not as an emotional cloak pulled on and off like a military uniform, but a constant endeavor (on and off the ship’s quarterdeck) to discern the best path, plot the proper course and execute the best plan.
Aubrey and his men exhibit a cultural (not personal) attachment to spiritual things. They recite the Lord’s Prayer before burying dead comrades at sea. Aubrey invokes Jesus’ name in his eulogy, saying that he’s looking forward to the “resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead … through our Lord Jesus Christ.” On another occasion, he’s given a Bible opened to the book of Jonah (he hands it back without reading from it). After a run of bad luck, the Surprise’s men begin to talk about the idea that there might be a “Jonah” among them who is causing it. Aubrey prays aloud, asking the Lord to forgive anyone among them who might have thought or spoken ill of a deceased comrade, but you get the sense that his heart’s not fully behind his petition. One old sailor always refers to the Acheron as a “devil ship.” The ship’s surgeon, Stephen, considers himself a naturalist, and spends a great deal of time studying and documenting new species of animals and insects. Struck by the environmental adaptability of certain creatures, he gives God credit for “helping them change,” then muses whether they might be able to do so on their own as well.
Comments are made about hoping to see women on the Galapagos Islands. At another port, a soldier is told to “put that woman down … this is a naval ship, not a bordello.” Aubrey toasts “wives and sweethearts,” then jokes, “May they never meet.”
Cannon fire blasts through a great deal of the movie. The destructive force of iron balls flying back and forth between ships is felt and seen over and over again. Hulls splinter. Bodies fly. Blood flows. Small arms fire and swordplay round out the combat sequences, and while the camera often flits from image to image before you can absorb how terrible each scene is, sometimes the pace slows and audiences get a second and third look. Gaping wounds are seen on more than a few bodies. Men are shot, stabbed, sliced and bludgeoned. As the battles rage, the dead and dying litter the ships’ decks.
When Stephen is shot in the abdomen, he solicits the help of Aubrey and others, then proceeds to operate on himself with the aid of a mirror. Elsewhere, he amputates an arm (the camera focuses on the victim’s face, not the severed limb), and repairs a skull (images are narrated by a conversation about what part of the visible gore is the man’s brains).
Capt. Aubrey orders a sailor to be flogged for disrespecting one of the officers. The man is tied and then whipped until his back bleeds. A man jumps overboard with a cannonball to commit suicide.
One f-word and about a dozen milder profanities. “Bloody” is used several times as an interjection. God’s name is abused nearly 10 times (once it is combined with “d–n”).
Aubrey and his crew consume rum and wine on a regular basis. When Stephen suggests dumping the alcohol overboard to keep the seamen from becoming inebriated, Aubrey says he’d rather have tipsy subordinates than sober mutineers. He also uses extra rations of rum as rewards for excellent service. Several men smoke pipes or cigars.
A rough sea gets the best of a few sailors, who lose their lunches.
Once moviegoers decide to enlist in Capt. Aubrey’s crew, they aren’t allowed to leave for two hours and 20 minutes. The plot doesn’t include powwowing generals back in merry ole England. It doesn’t include worried and lonely wives waiting for their seafaring sweeties. It doesn’t include information about the enemy. It stays focused on Aubrey and his men. So once you settle into your seat, don’t expect to be able to get off the boat.
At times, you won’t want to. That cinematic captivity provides vivid glimpses of what life might have been like for naval officers 200 years ago (Master and Commander is based on fictional novels, not actual events). It opens a window to a world driven by valor, loyalty, patriotism, honor and respect for God. Likewise, the subtleties of Aubrey’s character are intriguing and thought provoking; as are his war strategies. But there are times you’ll be wishing for a gangplank to shore, especially if you’ve brought your whole family along for the excursion. Raging battle scenes and their bloody aftermaths are both intense and prolonged.