Master and Commander

by | Jul 15, 2023 | Film Review

Master and Commander paradoxically wants to be both Moby Dick and a rollicking adventure about great British men. You can't be both.

I never intended to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. When it came out, it just looked cheesy. Then my stepfather told me it was fantastic, so I knew it had to be crap. This was a man who thought Pearl Harbor was the greatest film ever made. But then a filmmaker I respect recommended it to me. Said it’s his favorite film. He’s ex-Navy, so I was suspicious that the appeal of a high-seas adventure clouded his judgment. It most certainly did.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the most brilliant stories ever told. If you haven’t read it, you should do so now. Don’t waste your time reading my silly film reviews when you haven’t supped from this literary masterpiece. You could die tomorrow, and if you die without reading Moby Dick, you may die without knowing what it means to live. Reading Moby Dick is like reading a religious text. It offers transcendence.

Not far into Master and Commander, I began to suspect I was watching an adaptation of Moby Dick. Our protagonist, Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), pursues a French frigate only to discover he is outgunned. His ship, lucky to escape its first encounter with the frigate, cannot physically match up with its opponent. The French frigate is bigger, faster, made of tougher material, has more guns, has bigger guns, and has a captain who frequently befuddles Aubrey. What does Aubrey do? In true Ahab fashion, he pursues the frigate with even more determination.

His crew begins to lose faith but he leverages his strength and forceful personality to avoid a mutiny. His best friend, the ship’s doctor (Paul Bettany), pleads with him to turn around. Can he not see that he chases a mighty white whale? That ambition and pride will destroy everyone involved?

No! Of course not! Why? Because Jack Aubrey is English and British narratives always involve her majesties’ subjects overcoming any obstacle to protect the integrity of the crown. Essentially, any British protagonist involved in an international conflict resembles James Bond. Christopher Nolan made Dunkirk, a film about one of the largest retreats in history, and the British director spun it as a great victory. “Look at us, we’re British, no one retreats more successfully or bravely than us!” Shakespeare framed Henry V’s invasion of France over a pedantic interpretation of lineage as a great example of English excellence. In Henry VI, the French only manage to expel the English on account of Joan of Arc’s witchcraft. It was a victory for the English to be on the side of God!

Recently, I read an article about Scandinavian detective dramas—Nordic Noirs—that have become quite popular internationally, including in Britain (sorry, couldn’t find the link). The British have no shortage of detective mysteries but they’re practically all garbage. Why? The Nordic Noir, like American Noir, looks at the social conditions that create crime, it looks at the ugliness of humanity. After all, what else could crime reflect? But the British, much like American network shows (CSI, Law and Order), present a manichaean worldview where good squashes evil. The British crime drama tells the story of how a brilliant detective—brilliant on account of being so supremely British—always saves the day.

It seems that the only time the British can provide an honest account of their place in this world is through comedy. Only through comedy will you see the British admit their foibles on camera. Of course, that’s just all in good fun and never results in any serious reflection. But I digress.


What? You thought this entire piece has been nothing but a long digression? Not at all. You see, Master and Commander fails because it has the gall to copy the plot of Moby Dick, replacing a sperm whale with a French frigate, but then Ahab defeats the whale and takes his crew to a vacation on the Galapagos Islands to celebrate. Where, of course, they will advance science and—oh, did we happen to mention that Charles Darwin was English? Okay, they didn’t make it back to the Galapagos because a lame cliffhanger for a sequel that never arrived interjected, but my point still stands! For good measure, they went to the Galapagos two other times in the movie to remind us that if Darwin hadn’t articulated a theory of evolution, some other Brit would have.

There are many other dumb things about Master and Commander. Although isolated at sea, the crew appears to be variable in number as the scene requires. In the fight scenes, the French appear to be completely inept while children and the doctor recovering from a gunshot wound are master swordsmen. A subplot involving a mistreated officer who becomes a scapegoat happily ends with his suicide. Catastrophic destruction to the ship can be easily fixed without porting or spending much time.

Master and Commander, like so many British dramas, feels masturbatory and delusional. It privileges nationalism over humanism, presenting heroic caricatures rather than believable characters. If the film didn’t lift so heavily from Moby Dick my reaction might not have been so negative. After all, it’s shot well with adequate acting. But it refuses to truly acknowledge the horrors of life at sea. Instead, it strategically acknowledges them at key moments as if self-aware of how this all too often it feels more like Pirates of the Caribbean than a film with any period fidelity. It wants to have it both ways: to have that Pirates adventure and the Moby Dick truth. You can’t wink at tragedy every once and a while to negate cartoonish plotting.

Life at sea was terrible, especially for those in the British Navy. Sea battles were brutal and unforgiving. I’ve always wanted to a high seas film with a fidelity to realism but I suspect one will never be made. It’s too macabre and gross and depressing for audiences to stomach, especially in the British Navy. Moby Dick is a tale about life. Master and Commander is mere diversion dressed with a few elements ripped from Melville.

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