Movie Review - Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This movie has been reviewed in our new format and rating system.  To see the new review, click here.

Peter Weir
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Mirimax Films, Universal Pictures
for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language.

When a man undertakes to do something truly significant, despite the odds and never mind the cost, in order to advance a greater cause, there is always the danger of failure, or of success that comes with just too great a price. When British naval captain Jack Aubrey set out to capture the scourge of the seas, the French privateer Acheron, and determined to take it no matter what the cost, it was not just a crazy idea. It was loyalty to his country, resolve to stop Napoleon from conquering the South Seas; and it was Admiralty orders... But Jack was only commissioned to pursue the Acheron as far as Brazil. And he chased her to the Galapagos Islands, on the farther side of South America. With no legitimate orders to back his decisions, a ship that is outgunned by the Acheron, and a cast of mortal characters—none of whom have the luxury of being indispensable to the plot—Jack’s “Whatever the cost” begins to sound like pride, and Master and Commander, more like a good war movie than just another pirate flick.

Of course, like those glorious, forget-the-odds endeavors, good war movies like this one have costs to weigh—especially (for the movies) when some form of realism is involved. On one hand, realism is what separates the great movies from the so-so ones. It’s everything from the barely-noticeable details like Jack’s shirt being a wrinkled mess when he’s wakened by a call to quarters, to the more thematic concern of whittling down the time it takes to fire and reload the canons. It’s making your heroes less than perfect, while demonstrating the necessity of men—and boys—of character. On the other hand, realism in war movies often means blood—a good deal of blood.

Violent and Intense Content:
Great war movies never show you more than is appropriate, but they never show you less than is appropriate, either. The images are graphic, but usually in an emotionally intense way, rather than a gory or disturbing way.

The battle sequences are full of men—and boys—being shot, run through, blown into the air, trying to get up again with their faces splattered with blood. Decks, rails and masts blow up into splinters, which kill several men and injure several more. It’s all fairly fast-paced, so you’re not lingering on gruesome imagery, but the blood’s still there, and a good deal of it’s still close up. One of the boys is shown dead, with his eyes open.

The medical side of the intensity includes a few surgeries (almost everything taking place just out of sight), including a more emotionally intense scene in which a young boy’s arm is amputated (the actual cutting is just below the screen, and the sounds are not especially grisly or intense). Men slip on a bloody floor, and, in quite a different setting, the ship’s surgeon is seen dissecting a fish.

Much of theemotional intensity has no blood involved. One of the men goes overboard and is lost in the rough seas. An insubordinate sailor is flogged. The slain are sewn up in their hammocks in preparation for a burial at sea. The most disturbing scene, by my own reckoning, is a suicide by drowning, when the man can be seen looking up through the water as he sinks.

The involvement of thirteen- to fifteen-year-old boys in the violent segments adds an extra degree of intensity.

Name the profession that is best known for its offensive vocabulary. That would be sailing. War movies don’t have to have language issues to be realistic, but Master and Commander has them nonetheless. There are reference points available for the objectionable language*, but this movie is getting pretty close to the limit of how much language can reasonably be muted by hand.

God’s name is taken in vain at least 5 times (a few other times—also mentioned in the reference points—may have been sincere). Some form of “d--n” is used independently 8 times. “F---ing” appears once.

British vulgarity “bloody” is uttered a couple of times, and someone says, “By all that’s holy!”

Sexual Content:
During a visit to the South American coast, the sailors trade with natives in their canoes alongside the ship—the native men being almost naked, and the women a bit less than modestly dressed. The sailors evince their delight at seeing women again, and even a married sailor kisses his hand to one of the native girls. One of the men is, off screen, reminded that the ship is not a floating bordello, and later on, two sailors seem very disappointed to discover that there are no women on the Galapagos shores.

The sailors are frequently shown without shirts, though not in a sensual manner, and conversely, one of them is briefly seen with nothing on but a long shirt.

Captain Jack repeats the unfortunately traditional navy toast, “To wives and sweethearts… May they never meet.”

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Wine flows rather freely in a few scenes, resulting in some loud and unsteady behavior among the officers—not presented positively, but not presented negatively, either. The young midshipmen are seen with wine glasses in their hands at dinner. Extra rations of rum are given, and when the surgeon suggests throwing the ship’s grog overboard, after a drunken sailor fails to salute an officer, Jack refuses, appealing to all the years of privilege and tradition.

Cigars and pipes appear throughout.

A couple of sailors are briefly seen vomiting during a storm, between 49:25 and 49:35, approximately*. Also, the occasional rolling back and forth of the camera to simulate the roll of a ship may make motion-sensitive viewers uncomfortable.

The cultural Christianity, at least, is fairly strong, as far as funerals and phrases like “Godspeed” go. The Lord’s Prayer is recited all the way through, and the order of the funeral includes, “looking for the resurrection of the body… through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Considering the flippant uses of God’s name in other parts of the movie, though, it’s hard to tell how much of this is spoken with personal sincerity, rather than just respectful solemnity. One prayer asks the Lord for forgiveness both of the living men, and of the man who had just died.

“Lucky” Jack casually refers to “the weather gods” once, and tells the young midshipmen to turn around three times and say, “May the Lord and saints preserve us!” before rounding Cape Horn. A subplot highlights the superstitious ideas among the crew about the Acheron being a phantom or “the devil’s ship,” and their recent “bad luck” being caused by a sailor whom they suppose to be cursed. Someone claims that Jack would follow the Acheron “to the gates of hell.”

The ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, is something of a naturalist—in both vocation and philosophy. He teaches one of the boys that certain insects have disguised themselves, in order to survive. When the boy asks, “Did God make them change?” he replies, “Does God make them change? Yes, certainly. But do they also change themselves? Now that is a question, isn’t it?”—setting up a false dilemma between the acts of God in creation, and the acts of creation itself, and advancing a theistic evolution. Stephen also briefly appeals to the order of nature when he states heatedly that he is “opposed to authority” which brings “misery and oppression.” He occasionally makes isolated comments about authority corrupting—a point of contention between him and Jack.

The theme of the captain having exceeded his orders, claiming that duty required it, may be a matter for discussion.

Jack’s, “It’s leadership they want. Strength. Now, you find that within yourself,” seems to point primarily to personal responsibility, but might be perceived as a comment on the source of moral strength.


Master and Commander comes with a cost. You know the cost now. There is the occasional drunkenness, a few worldview problems to reject, language to be muted, and there is the realism—blood, death, and emotional intensity. Now, what about the prize? Captain Jack Aubrey wouldn’t have pursued his Acheron if it hadn’t been worth the cost, and you can be sure I wouldn’t call Master and Commander a good war movie if I didn’t think it was one.

What is the prize? In Master and Commander, you find a really well-made movie with a good, ups-and-downs kind of plotline. Great directing and cinematography, and characters so well played that the familiar faces are the only things that keep you from forgetting they’re only actors. Themes of courage and leadership, men who are committed to live or die for a greater cause, and boys who are committed to live and die like men. A worthwhile villain, clever naval tactics and plot twists, exciting battle sequences, and stunts and hand-to-hand combat that don’t feel contrived… and realism.

For men, from a mature twelve years and up, I think Master and Commander is Recommendable—perhaps even more so for young men who have grown up on the romanticized and perhaps a trifle individualistic version of war presented in our nineteenth-century, G.A. Henty kind of novels… or for those who have grown up on pirate flicks. The battles in Master and Commander are intense and realistic enough to remind us that war is a necessary thing, but an ugly, bloody, and personal thing, too. The hand-to-hand combat is great precisely because it isn’t spotlighted individuals dancing with shiny swords, but a group of soldiers fighting their opponents for the glory and preservation of the unit, not the individual.

For women, a lot is going to depend on the level of intensity that can be handled, either visually or emotionally. The scenes involving the young boys, especially the amputation scene, are probably going to be more intense for mothers. Master and Commander is not so graphic as to be defiling, but fifteen and up is probably a better age recommendation for the ladies in the audience.

* The running times provided in this review, or in the accompanying Language sheet, assume a period of about 1 minute, 5 seconds between the start of the running time on the disc and the appearance of the first title card of the movie. For later or special editions, check the length of this interval and adjust the running time notes accordingly.



Learn More about
The Gospel of Jesus Christ >>