Story Structure: Master and Commander,
the Far Side of the World (2003)
Screenplay by Peter Weir & John Collee Based on the novel by Patrick O'Brian

Introduction:  This is one of those rare films that actually gets better on repeated viewings.  Chief among its pleasures is going somewhere you've never been before: the adventure story of a British fighting ship during the Napoleonic War.  The compelling and complex relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey and ship's doctor Stephen Maturin is an essential subplot that serves to convey the film's principal themes of duty vs. friendship as well as politics vs. science.  But, in addition, there are so many other interesting subplots woven throughout the story that are impossible to appreciate by watching the film only once or twice.  It is through repeated viewings that this film rewards, with the depth and complexity of its characterizations through numerous compelling subplots.  Structurally, Master and Commander is another good example of how a three act structure can be adapted to tell many different kinds of stories.  

Who’s Story Is It? Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe)
Act Structure: 3 Act

Act I Basic Action:
During the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Jack Aubrey, Captain of the British ship HMS Surprise has been ordered to find the French ship Acheron and either "sink, burn, or take her a prize."  But the captain of the Acheron turns the tables on Aubrey by attacking first out of a morning fog and seriously crippling the HMS Surprise.  Aubrey and his crew fire back at the Acheron, but their cannon fire has little effect on the stout hull of the French ship.  With the ship's rudder shot away, and the helm also damaged, it is all Aubrey can do conceal his ship in a fog bank avoiding capture by the crew of the vastly superior Acheron.  

Inciting Event: The surprise attack by the Acheron, crippling the Surprise leads to the decision by Captain Aubrey.  

Act I Turning Point: Aubrey's Sailing Master John Allen (Robert Pugh) recommends returning to port in England for repairs. Aubrey instead makes the daring decision to repair the ship at sea while continuing the mission to find and sink the Acheron.

Act II Basic Action: Act II concerns the quest of the Surprise to find and sink the Acheron.  Along the way, there are a number of twists and setbacks.  But the Act II Struggle is clearly Aubrey's quest to find and sink a ship that he knows is a better warship than the one he commands.  Along the way there are a number of significant events:  There is a second attack by the Acheron, which Aubrey’s ship escapes in the night by using a dummy buoy.  They then follow the French ship around Cape Horn losing the mizzentop, and unfortunately sacrificing Warley, a valuable crewman in order to prevent the Surprise from sinking.  They also lose the trail of the Acheron.  They head south toward the pole to escape the storm, then when the storm finally breaks, they change heading for the Galapagos where Aubrey hopes to find his opponent.  Soon, they lose their wind, locked "in irons" for many days, and find no rain to quench their growing thirst.  It seems the ship is experiencing a run of bad luck.  The crew turns their fears on a midshipman, Hollom, who is believed by the crew to be the Jonah causing their bad luck.  After much anguish, Hollom decides to end their plight with his suicide.  The next day, the wind returns.  Then, approaching Galapagos, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who had hoped to go exploring as a naturalist, is disappointed when they find the crew of a whaler taken by the Acheron who tells them where it was headed.  Aubrey sets sail after the enemy ship.

Hero's Low Point: Dr. Maturin is injured when Captain Howard of the Royal Marines (Chris Larkin) accidentally hits him with a bullet while attempting to shoot a bird from the deck of the ship. Aubrey makes the decision to give up his quest of the Acheron in order to land on an island and see that the doctor is operated on properly.  He plans to sail for home, discouraged and defeated by bad luck.

Act II Turning Point: While exploring the far side of one of the Galapagos Islands, Dr. Maturin sees the Acheron moored on the other side of the island.  With this new information, Aubrey decides to go after the Acheron by using a surprise trap.

Act III Basic Action: Aubrey lays a trap for the Acheron by disguising the Surprise as a British whaling ship named the Syran.  The gun crews are readied and when the Acheron attempts to take the Syran, Aubrey springs the trap.  The main battle of the story takes place in Act III between the two ships, with Aubrey's ship finally having the upper hand.  With its mast felled by cannon fire, the Acheron is boarded by Aubrey's crew and the crew eventually surrenders.

Hero’s Outer Need: Aubrey needs to find, capture or destroy the French ship Acheron.

Hero’s Inner Need: Aubrey needs to prove that he is worthy of command and that his command decisions are made logically and without pride.

Subplots: There are any number of rich subplots, most particularly the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin often leads to conflicts when Aubrey's mission takes precedence over Maturin's scientific studies.  Other subplots include: the story of the young midshipmen learning the ensigns of command, in particular Midshipman Peter Myles Calamy (Max Benitz) and Midshipman Lord William Blakeney (Max Pirkis) who loses an arm in the first attack by the Acheron, the trials of Midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby) who can't measure up and is accused of being a Jonah (a jinx) on the ship, the two young mates, Joseph Nagle and William Warley who aid Aubrey in a strategy of fighting the Acheron, and finally Able Seaman Joe Place, who undergoes brain surgery and later recovers giving advice about the Jonah.

Theme:  Stout hearts and clever strategy can prevail against a superior foe.

Denouement: This is the emotional "wrapping up" of the story.  In this story, it takes place following the battle, first, as Aubrey buries the dead from his crew, then hands over command of the captured ship to his first officer.  Finally, the story ends as Aubrey and Maturin once again play music together while pondering their future. 

Central Question: Can Aubrey defeat the far superior French ship Acheron?  Can he hold his crew together during this dangerous mission?

Opponent: The opponent in this story is chiefly the French Captain who kept mysterious through virtually the entire tale.  This gives him an otherworldly quality as a ship commander of the first order, and a noble competitor. 

The MacGuffin: the Acheron.

Posted: 08.27.13

In the other files in this section, I have done an analysis of the story structures of several feature films.  My hope is that if you've learned something from this dialogue that you will show your appreciation by picking up my newest novel (link below).  And then let me know what you think of its structure! 

Houdini & Lovecraft The Ghost Writer