‘Master and Commander’: 15th Anniversary of the Franchise That Never Was

Peter Weir’s seafaring film turned out to be the last gasp for a bygone genre: the historical epic

master and commander the far side of the world
20th Century Fox

In the annals of 21st century blockbusters, there is a film that stands out among the slew of superheroes and wizards and Jedi that have come to define modern Hollywood tentpoles. It’s a film that in the 15 years since its release has earned a small but passionate following of cinephiles ready to champion it, but was meant to become something so much more.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which opened in theaters on Nov. 14, 2003, was Peter Weir’s detailed, gripping adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novel series. Taking its name from two of the 20 novels released by O’Brian in the second-half of the 20th century, the film tells the story of Jack Aubrey, a captain in the British Royal Navy played by Russell Crowe, who was still riding the heights of his “Gladiator” action star popularity.

And it was intended to be the first in a series of films.

Aubrey is the captain of the HMS Surprise, a ship that has been tasked with apprehending the French privateer ship Acheron during the Napoleonic Wars. His main companion on the ship is Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon, played by Paul Bettany. After the Acheron not only evades capture but repeatedly ambushes the Surprise, Maturin confronts Aubrey over the possibility that he’s continuing the chase out of ego as much as duty.

The film alternates between engrossing dialogue, brought to life by Crowe and Bettany, and some of the most intense maritime battle scenes ever filmed. At sea, there is no such thing as a hasty retreat. The chaotic, indiscriminate death that pervades war is compounded by the claustrophobia of being on a ship bombarded with cannonballs that, even if they don’t kill you, can still send the watercraft on which you trust your life to the bottom of the sea.

Upon signing on as director, Weir decided that the film needed to take that sense of being on a 19th century Navy ship that O’Brian evoked in his books and translate it to film. That would require a painstaking, high-budget production with several months of shooting on a tank soundstage, 10 days of shooting on a replica ship at sea, and extra attention to detail in the design of the film’s ships, costumes, and the sounds of war. The price tag to reach this goal? $150 million, a budget larger than the $139 million spent on the first “Spider-Man” released a year before.

But Tom Rothman, then the head of 20th Century Fox, believed deeply in “Master and Commander,” seeing the books as the start of a potential franchise.

“Tom had been trying for years to make ‘Master and Commander’ into a movie at Fox,” said Duncan Henderson, one of the film’s producers, in a recent interview with TheWrap. “When he became CEO, that was the opportunity for him to finally make it happen, and he put all the studio’s support behind the project.”

The film’s battle scenes were filmed on a full-scale warship replica mounted on gimbals in a tank at Baja Studios. According to those at the shoot, Weir preferred to film in “organized chaos,” giving the cast and extras general guidelines on the scene, letting them improvise, and gathering footage of what unfolded.

“Weir specifically said during pre-production meetings that he wanted many of the scenes to feel a bit like a documentary,” said Henderson. “He committed himself to immersing the audience in the day-to-day life of that ship and the horror of being in battle. And the focus wasn’t just on the lives of the officers, but on the crew as well. You had these officers who were basically boys, but a crew with these grizzled older guys that had to listen to these lieutenants far younger than them.”

One cast member that really had to adjust to Weir’s style was James D’Arcy, the future star of “Agent Carter” and “Broadchurch.” In “Master and Commander,” D’Arcy, then 27 years old, played Aubrey’s first lieutenant, Jack Pullings. After spending several years making a name for himself in British TV films, working on a big-budget film for a global audience was a major step up.

“One thing I really remember from the action shoots is one scene where we are jumping onto the Acheron,” D’Arcy recalled in a recent interview with TheWrap. “Weir was shooting the scene from a crane high over the ships, and I had to run to the ship’s stern. At the back were these five stunt extras who didn’t speak English. Peter had gone out of his way to find guys who looked like they belonged on ships 200 years ago, so he got a lot of them from Poland,” added the actor.

“I just remember looking at these guys and trying to warn them, ‘Don’t try to actually fight me!’ My sword was made from real metal. It was blunt, but one wrong move and someone is going to get really badly hurt.”

It was a nervous situation for D’Arcy, but it was better than the days where the doldrums set in. Weir, in his quest for perfection, only shot at certain times of the day. The result for D’Arcy was a shooting experience similar to life aboard the HMS Surprise: long, dreary days on the water punctuated by bouts of relentless battles.

“I was used to doing TV shows where the shooting was constant. In this movie, there were days where we’d only get two or three shots done, and Weir and the crew would be really happy and I’d just be thinking, ‘Huh?!’”

D’Arcy added: “But the action scenes took a really long time to shoot. I’ll put it this way: there was a call sheet that came out towards the end of the shooting, and the first scene of the day was listed as ‘The Surprise crashes into the Acheron.’ It took up one-eighth of the call sheet’s page… but that sheet didn’t change for three weeks!”

Along with the tank stage shooting, “Master and Commander” filmed for 10 days at sea in order to film shots of the entire ship, and also became the first non-documentary to film on the Galapagos Islands. While the Galapagos scenes only had a minimum number of crew members — Weir, Bettany, and some cameramen — the sea shooting required dozens of extras aboard a scale replica of a 19th century ship that is now docked in San Diego, California.

D’Arcy remembers that Weir and many other members of the crew got seasick, but Crowe, a seasoned veteran when it comes to demanding shoots, was willing to take risks D’Arcy said he himself never would: “There was one helicopter shot that required me and Russell to climb to the crow’s nest of the ship. I had a harness that I wore when climbing the rigging, but he didn’t want to be filmed wearing the harness while climbing. So he went up without the harness — and if he fell he would have been really hurt — and then put on the harness when he got to the top.”

“But when we got to the top he asked, ‘James, can you see my harness?’ I told him I could sort of see the belt, and he just said…’Take it off.’ And I told him that they could just remove it from the shot with computers, and he just gave me that Russell Crowe look and said ‘Take. It. Off.’ And as I’m taking it off I’m wondering, if Russell falls…does that make me an accomplice?”

For all of the struggles and seasickness, both Henderson and D’Arcy said they had a sense of pride and accomplishment when shooting wrapped. Both men commended Weir for going the extra mile to create fighting scenes that almost felt like a war documentary, showing the physical and mental cost that Aubrey and his men suffered in their quest to capture the Acheron. Fox set the film for a mid-November release, hoping that it would pick up interest from adults at the peak of award movie season.

Instead, D’Arcy found out through the producers at the film’s London premiere that “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” failed to reach No. 1 in its opening weekend in the U.S. Despite acclaim from critics, the film opened domestically to $25.1 million, finishing behind the second weekend of the Will Ferrell Christmas comedy “Elf.”

Worldwide, the $150 million blockbuster only grossed $212 million, barely making back its production and marketing costs. To add insult to injury, the film was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, but only won two for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing. It lost the rest to what was, by far, the biggest film of 2003: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Ironically, many of the technical Oscars for “Return of the King” went to Weta Workshop, the New Zealand-based effects and prop design studio that designed the world and outfits of Middle-Earth. Another assignment for the studio that year? Designing the uniforms and interior of the ships in “Master and Commander.”

“I remember Tom [Rothman] was really disappointed. He envisioned that this was going to be a film that would launch a bunch of sequels,” said D’Arcy. “To this day, I’m not quite sure why the film didn’t do so well.”

The top ten list for the 2003 box office likely provides a clue. Along with “Lord of the Rings,” other live-action films that topped the charts were “X2: X-Men United,” the “Matrix” sequels, “Terminator 3,” and another film that takes place on the high seas and sports a long title, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

But unlike those films, “Master and Commander,” while similar in scale and budget, had none of the escapism or fantasy that those films offered. The fight scenes, while epic, were also very gruesome, with shots of Maturin tending to wounded soldiers while the swaying of the ship caused him to slip and slide on floors slicked with blood. When there wasn’t fighting, the quiet conversations between Aubrey and Maturin, while beloved by critics, were possibly too heady for general audiences looking to spend the holidays with a fun movie.

“There’s also the possibility that audiences didn’t get what the film was about,” suggested comScore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “All the top films had name recognition. Most people probably didn’t know about the books ‘Master and Commander’ was based on.”

But “Master and Commander,” while aiming to become a franchise, was a different type of blockbuster than the one that has come to dominate the summer in our Age of Superheroes. Weir’s film was from a genre that had gone out of style by 2003: the historical epic. During the 20th century, Hollywood studios were known to spend top dollar on larger-than-life historical tales, starting with “Gone With The Wind” and going on to classics like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Spartacus,” and more recently, “Titanic” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

And while 2003 did yield a successful historical epic with “The Last Samurai,” the genre died out after the disappointing numbers of “Master and Commander” and “Troy,” a $175 million blockbuster meant to be a major summer hit for Warner Bros. in 2004. While it made just under $500 million worldwide, it was dwarfed on the charts by sequels for “Shrek,” “Spider-Man,” and “Harry Potter.”

Audiences had spoken, and Hollywood soon listened. In the years following “Master and Commander,” $100 million-plus budgets would become the domain of fantasy and escapism, while historical films like “Lincoln” settled for mid-budget levels.

And yet, in the era of streaming, D’Arcy says he has been approached by fans who finally saw “Master and Commander” after being pointed to it by their friends, and is amazed by the love they have for the film.

“Not many people talk to me about the movie, but when they do, they talk about it with this passion and intensity,” he said. “It’s really gratifying that all these years later that there was an audience that really appreciated the work we all put into it.”

Though Russell Crowe has made vague teases of a sequel over the years, the HMS Surprise will all but certainly never return to the big screen again. Bettany has moved on to play Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Crowe is planning to direct a “Gladiator” sequel,” and Weir has only directed one more film in the past 15 years.

But Henderson, who is currently working on the sequel to Disney’s “Maleficent,” said he was pleased when he heard that someone wanted to talk about one of the most ambitious projects of his producing career, one that he’s still fond of a decade and a half later.

“This is definitely one of my favorite films to work on. Even when I was getting ground down during filming by the process of keeping the picture going, I would go down to the edge of the tank where we were shooting and looking at this giant replica ship… and I realized I was standing next to my dream of what I always wanted to do in making movies. I’ve never forgotten that.”

He added: “I had one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. I had one of the best directors in the world at the time. I had over $100 million to shoot on location on a real ship and on a giant model ship. My dream of filmmaking was right there in front of me.”