Early in June 2021, 20th Century Studios announced that they would be producing a prequel to the critically acclaimed (and often criminally underappreciated) film Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. The film is being written by A Monster Calls scribe Patrick Ness and will take place before the events of the Russell Crowe film, meaning that a new cast will likely take to the high seas in this adventure. As Master and Commander was the first book in the Aubrey-Maturin book series (the 2003 series based off the book Far Side of the World), this means that Ness will have the potential to try and relaunch this franchise. But the question is, does anyone care?
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is set during the Napoleonic Wars and follows Jack Aubrey, Captain of the HMS Surprise and his mission to intercept the French Naval vessel, Archeron. The French’s ship is vastly superior to Aubrey’s Surprise, forcing the Captain to outflank and outsmart the larger and deadly ship while navigating the open sea near Cape Horn, South America.
Despite receiving ten Oscar nominations when it released in 2003, Master and Commander isn’t remembered so fondly, with many people calling it a long, boring movie. This debate actually resurfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic, when one user on Twitter called the movie just that and tagged the film’s star, Russell Crowe in his tweet. Upon seeing this tweet, which encouraged moviegoers to watch the movie in order to find something to fall asleep to, Crowe dunked on the user, stating:
“That’s the problem with kids these days. No focus. Peter Weir’s film is brilliant. An exacting, detail oriented, epic tale of fidelity to Empire & service, regardless of the cost. Incredible cinematography by Russell Boyd & a majestic soundtrack. Definitely an adults movie.”Russell Crowe
I think Crowe is smack on the money with his description of Master and Commander. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s an extremely detailed and meticulous movie that shows what life was like for sailors during the Napoleonic Wars. So despite its less than glorious legacy with fans, it’s wonderful news to see that the studio is going to give the series a second chance and hopefully one that doesn’t conform for unfocused audiences.
Master and Commander, while maybe lacking a bit in the character department, is a technical and historical achievement. As such, this is the kind of movie you have to commit to, sit down and watch with your full attention dedicated to it, much like a sailor at sea. If you have the patience for it, you’ll be rewarded for a technically stunning feature with fine performances from the leads, including Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and James D’Arcy (the latter two ironically both played Jarvis in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).
This is a film that doesn’t hold the audiences hand and I find that since it respects the audience, it actually elevates the content, especially in 2021. The film explores not only the insanely accurate naval combat sequences, but what class and rank meant aboard a ship in the 1800s, the role the youth played on a ship, medicine, science and more. It’s a pretty respectable look at what naval combat was like during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century.
That being said, I’m not so sure modern audiences could handle a movie like Master and Commander in this day and age. Considering most audiences didn’t gravitate towards the movie (I didn’t appreciate the movie until my 20s) when it first came out, I can’t imagine most modern audiences would appreciate a similar styled film today.
The Aubrey-Marturin book series spans 20 novels and offers a wealth of potential for storytelling. When Master and Commander released in 2003, 20th Century Fox made it with the intent of turning it into a series of films. But the box office was just too modest ($211 against a budget of $150) and word of mouth didn’t encourage the series to go forward.
My worry for this prequel film is that the studio, in an attempt to cash in on a franchise, will dumb the series down in order to gain mass appeal with audiences. This is what could break the charm of the Napoleonic Naval series for me. That and the way the movie could be filmed. The 2003 Master and Commander used miniatures, a replica ship for filming in open water and a 1:1 set of said ship for filming in a controlled environment. Much of this could be done with CGI and green screen today. Though the technology was used on the 2003 film for many shots, to have the cast on a boat out on the water for real lends a certain credibility and realism to a film that’s trying so hard to be historically accurate, perhaps to a fault and at the cost of character (note: I’ve yet to read the books).
Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is a film made for a particular audience and should be commended for not watering down and altering history, like many other historical epics. It’s ironic that the film, and books it’s based on, are so true to history when the characters and engagements are in fact fictional. With Ness on board adapting the first novel, the studio now has a second chance to turn this naval epic into the franchise they initially dreamed of. Let’s just hope it’s faithful to the source material, and the Peter Weir adaptation. Not dumbed down using a plethora of CGI for mainstream audiences to get there.