Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Hook: As a brilliant adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Aubrey/Maturin series, this movie is unusual in a number of areas, not least in its non-formulaic tone and plot. Nevertheless, it follows the requirements of structure to a T, beginning with its stark opening, showing the morning ritual aboard the man of war HMS Surprise. Aside from arousing our natural curiosity about the unique setting, the hook doesn’t appear until a minute or so into the film when one of the sailors spots what might be an enemy ship. The film never slows to explain the situation to the reader. It carries them through a few tense moments of uncertainty and indecision, then, almost without warning, plunges them into the midst of a horrific sea battle. Viewers are hooked almost before they see the hook coming.

Inciting Event: The Inciting Event actually takes place in the opening scene: when the Acheron attacks the Surprise. The ensuing battle takes up the full first half of the First Act, and the turn in the plot comes with the end of the Inciting Event and the recognition by Captain Jack Aubrey that the Acheron must have been looking for them. He then reveals to his officers his decision to refit at sea and pursue the Acheron. The rejection of the Call to Adventure comes from the officers, as they push back against Jack’s plan.

First Act: After the initial onslaught of the furious opening battle, Weir slows his movie down considerably to allow viewers to get to know the main characters—the captain and the surgeon—and the several dozen minor characters, featured from among the crew members. The opening battle already showed us the stakes were high, but the characters’ reactions to it, particularly the captain’s intense desire to refit the ship and reengage the enemy, help us understand why they’re fighting and what will happen if they fail. As the crew works to repair the ship’s battle damage, we’re also given an inside view of the ship itself, which will play such an irreplaceable role throughout the rest of the story.

First Plot Point: After refitting the Surprise and heading back out to sea to look for their opponent, the French privateer Acheron, Captain Jack Aubrey is confident everything will go according to his plans. But he (and the viewers) are thrown for a loop by the First Plot Point. Instead of the Surprise finding the Acheron, the captain abruptly wakes to discover the enemy bearing down on his much smaller ship. Suddenly, he’s not only not assured of an easy victory—or any victory at all, for that matter—he and his crew are also in dire danger of being captured. They scramble to escape, and the game of cat-and-mouse that will comprise the rest of the film begins in earnest.

First Pinch Point: Captain Jack Aubrey and his crew spend the first half of the second act reacting to their second sighting of the Acheron. After turning the tables on the enemy ship, Jack subsequently loses her during a tragic accident at Cape Horn and is forced to come up with new plans and new ways of managing his crew until they reach the Galapagos Islands—and the Midpoint.

Midpoint: After losing the Acheron as a result of the lethal accident at Cape Horn, Jack has no choice but to spend the rest of the first half of the second act reacting. But when the Surprise rescues a group of marooned whalers whose ship was sunk by the Acheron, everything changes. Jack immediately goes on the offensive and begins plotting ways to track down and capture the Acheron before she can again disappear.

Second Pinch Point: After finally finding himself in a position to track down the Acheron, Captain Jack Aubrey’s series of actions in the second half of the second act take him down a surprising road, when his best friend, surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin, is accidentally shot. For the first time in the film, Jack chooses to break free of his obsessive pursuit of the Acheron, in order to take Stephen to dry land where he can be operated on in order to save his life.

Third Plot Point: When a convalescent Stephen, set loose upon his long-anticipated and long-delayed Galapagos expedition, accidentally discovers the Acheron at anchor on the far side of the island, the Third Act launches in a flurry of preparations.

Third Act: Jack formulates his plan to lure the enemy privateer in close enough for the kill, and his crew hurries to get everything ready for the battle we’ve all known was coming since the very first scene.

Climax: The final climactic battle between the Surprise and the Acheron takes up a lengthy section of the third act.

Climactic Moment: Even lengthy climax sequences must rise to a single red-hot point. In this instance, the climax of the Climax is the moment in which Jack enters the surgery to find the captain, his long-pursued enemy, dead. He takes the captain’s sword from the surgeon and begins organizing the mopping up.

Resolution: In this movie, we find perhaps the least resolved of all our resolutions. Whether the movie was angling for a sequel (as its subtitle suggests) or just paying tribute to the continuing nature of its source material, the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, it still works on every level. After tying off all existing loose ends from its plot’s overarching conflict, it ends with a surprising scene in which Jack realizes the Acheron’s captain wasn’t dead as he supposed, but instead masquerading as the ship’s surgeon in order to attempt a takeover of the ship once it sailed away from the Surprise. The final scene, in which Jack orders his ship to change course and pursue the Acheron, while he and Stephen continue to play their rousing duet, gives us both a definite sense of continuation and a perfect summation of the movie’s tone.

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