Fans of historical fiction have long treasured the novels of Patrick O’Brian, most of which are set during the Napoleonic Wars and feature as central characters English naval captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s physician Stephen Maturin. In 2003 Peter Weir’s hit movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World brought O’Brian’s fictional universe to even broader public attention. Because such attention was paid to period detail in the film, it’s natural to wonder how accurately the film depicts conditions on a warship of the period, and what (if any) historical facts lay behind the personalities and actions depicted in it.
The Smithsonian series The Real Story is designed to answer just those types of questions, and one episode is devoted to Weir’s film. It’s just 46 minutes long, but packs a lot of information into that time through well-chosen interviews and demonstrations, plus clips from the film and other sources including the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.
There are three main topics in this episode of The Real Story. The first focuses on the naval battle between the English ship the H.M.S. Surprise and the French ship The Acheron; the latter was actually modeled on the U.S.S. Constitution, a.k.a. “Old Ironsides,” but the nationality of the ship as well as the year of the battle were changed to avoid offending American backers and American audiences. This segment includes a Mythbusters-type investigation led by wood scientist Alex Schreyer into the properties of live oak, a type of wood only available in the U.S., Central America, and Cuba, as compared to white oak, which was used to build most ships in the period.
The second topic could be summarized as “Who was the real Jack Aubrey?” The character (played by Russell Crowe in the film) is based on Lord Thomas Cochrane, noted for his daring and success as a British commander during the Napoleonic Wars. Fun fact: he went on to help organize navies in several other countries, including Brazil and Chile, and served as inspiration not only for the character of Aubrey but also for Horatio Hornblower in the C.S. Forester novel series. The third focus is on shipboard medicine of the day, which is possibly even grimmer than you imagine. Besides having to do without antibiotics and anesthetics, the medical staff had to work in low light, stoop while they worked, and deal with the motion of the ship. Under such conditions, a bullet wound in a limb generally meant an amputation, and the procedure is demonstrated in this documentary using part of an animal corpse. The trepanning operation performed by Maturin in the film is also demonstrated, right down to the silver coin used to close the hole in the skull after the operation.
Fans of Master and Commander and of the Aubry/Maturin book series will enjoy this documentary, as will people with an interest in naval history and warfare. It’s also a good film for students (high school and up, unless they have a specific interest in the period and/or film), because it not only conveys information efficiently and with style, but also models procedures like testing historical claims for accuracy.
The Real Story: Master and Commander is available on DVD and on various streaming services, and is also available through Smithsonian Channel Plus. You can see some clips from this documentary and others in the The Real Story series on the Smithsonian Channel website. There are no extras on the disc other than English-language subtitles. | Sarah Boslaugh