Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Hook: As a brilliant adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Aubrey/Maturin series, this film is unorthodox in many ways, not least in its non-formulaic tone and plot. Nevertheless, it demonstrates structural integrity, beginning with a stark opening that shows 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 midshipmen spots what might be an enemy ship. The film carries viewers through a few tense moments of uncertainty and indecision, then, almost without warning, plunges them into a horrific sea battle. We are hooked almost before we see the Hook coming.

First Act: After the initial onslaught of the furious opening battle, the movie slows considerably to allow viewers to get to know the main characters—the captain, the surgeon, and other featured crew members. The opening battle already demonstrated the high stakes, and the characters’ reactions (most notably 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 repairs the battle damage, we’re also given an inside view of the ship, the primary setting throughout the story.

Inciting Event: This film’s structure is interesting in that the Inciting Event sequence takes up almost the entirety of the first eighth of the movie. This sequence of scenes features the sneak attack by the enemy ship Acheron upon the protagonist’s ship, HMS Surprise. After this attack, around the 12% mark, the protagonist must repair the ship and decide how to respond.

First Plot Point: After refitting the Surprise and heading back to sea to look for the French privateer Acheron, Captain Jack Aubrey is confident everything will go according to his plans. He is thrown for a loop by the First Plot Point. Instead of the Surprise finding the Acheron, the captain wakes to discover the enemy bearing down on his much smaller ship. Not only is his victory at risk but now he and his crew are in 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 devise new plans and methods for managing his crew until they reach the Galapagos Islands.

Midpoint: After losing the enemy ship due to a fatal accident at Cape Horn at the First Pinch Point, Captain Jack Aubrey had no choice but to spend the rest of the First Half of the Second Act reacting. But when he rescues a group of marooned whalers whose ship was sunk by the enemy Acheron, the new information they provide changes everything. At the Midpoint, Jack 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 enemy ship 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 breaks his obsessive pursuit of the Acheron to prioritize taking Stephen to dry land where he can be operated on to save his life.

Third Act: When a convalescent Dr. Stephen Maturin is set loose upon his long-anticipated and long-delayed Galapagos expedition, he accidentally discovers the enemy ship at anchor on the far side of the island. This launches the Third Act in a flurry of preparations. Captain Jack Aubrey formulates his plan to lure the enemy privateer near enough to make the kill. His crew hurries to prepare for the climactic battle that has been foreshadowed since the opening scene.

Third Plot Point: This film provides an example of a Low Moment timed to take place at the Second Pinch Point, as Captain Jack Aubrey’s best friend Dr. Stephen Maturin is accidentally shot aboard ship. For the first time, Jack abandons his obsessive pursuit of the French privateer and takes his friend to the Galapagos Islands so he can be safely operated upon. The later turning point into the Third Act occurs when the Acheron is sighted nearby, setting up the final confrontation. This is not a Low Moment for Jack, but still sketches the beat’s emotions by being told through Stephen’s perspective and showing his disappointment that he will now have to abandon his long-awaited expedition to the Galapagos.

Climax: The climactic battle between the HMS Surprise and the Acheron takes up a lengthy section of the Third Act, rising to a single red-hot point. The Climactic Moment occurs when Captain Jack Aubrey enters the Acheron‘s surgery to find the French captain, his long-pursued enemy, dead. He takes the captain’s sword from the surgeon and organizes the mopping up.

Resolution: After tying off all existing loose ends from the plot’s overarching conflict, the story closes with a surprising scene in which Jack realizes the Acheron’s captain masqueraded 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 matter-of-factly orders his ship to once again pursue the Acheron, while he and Stephen play a rousing duet—gives us both a sense of continuation and a perfect summation of the movie’s tone.

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