The idea that it could be fulfilling to live and work on the HMS Surprise—again, a 19th century ship, with all that entails—is also part of the allure for the modern viewer. I recently rewatched Master and Commander early one morning and found myself overtaken by wistful bonhomie. Wouldn’t it feel satisfying to spend each day doing industrious and meaningful ship work, I thought, and then retire to candlelit dinners and violin-playing each night? As New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane put it in his review, “we feel ourselves to be in good company with these men, and strangely jealous of their packed and salted lives.”
Grossman pointed to the friendship crisis among American men. “When you’re in your thirties, you’re looking for this sort of community. This is the age when settling down starts to happen,” he said. “Friends start to drop off and you have to take more active steps to find a community of male friends, and more guys report loneliness. I guess seeing that rich community strikes some as, ‘yeah, that’s what I want—just to be on a ship with 150 other guys.’”
Any nostalgia stirred up by Master and Commander is also nostalgia for a different era of Hollywood. This sort of richly detailed, big-budget historical epic rarely gets a chance in today’s movie landscape. And even if the action isn’t the point, the battles absolutely kick ass, using practical effects that would probably be weightless CGI these days. (They bought a ship in Rhode Island and sailed it through the Panama Canal and a hurricane to a six-acre filming tank in Mexico!)
Nando Vila, the head of studio at Exile Content Studio, told me, “I think why a lot of guys are liking it now is because Aubrey is so charming and swashbuckling and swaggery. You believe that all those sailors are into Lucky Jack and they’ll follow him to the far side of the world. You don’t see that kind of brawny, ‘We’re just going to fucking go to the far side of the world. Who’s with me?’—that’s not a movie that gets made anymore.”
Tom Rothman, the current chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group, was the chairman and CEO at Fox when Master and Commander was released. The film was his personal project: a longtime fan of the books, he had been attempting the project for 15 years. “I had to become the chairman of a major motion picture studio before I could get it made,” he told me.
“Why the books, I believe, endure is because they combine the epic and the intimate. They have epic action and daring in them,” Rothman said. “And I’m like any guy. I love that shit. ‘Oh man, they’re going to take that ship’ and all that stuff. That’s fucking great. Right? But they’re also very intimate and personal. They combine the epic and the intimate, and that’s what great historical movies do.”
And though Master and Commander may be a film set in 1805 and made in 2003, its themes are eternal.
“It’s about how men (and boys) behaved in that time and circumstance,” director Peter Weir told me in an email. “How they understood concepts like ‘duty’ and ‘courage’. Perhaps that has some relevance today. Times change, and with them fashions, but some things remain imperishable. This film touches on those imperishables.”