Master and Commander
England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the
world, this ship is our home. This ship, is England. So it's every hand to his
rope or gun, quick's the word and sharp's the action. After all... surprise is
on our side.
In 1805, in the midst of the Napoleonic war, the Royal Navy Frigate, HMP Surprise, commanded by Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, is off the North coast of Brazil, acting on orders to intercept and capture or destroy the French Privateer Acheron, bound for the South Seasand the Pacific “intent on carrying the war into those waters”. In the opening scene, the Surprise is bound by fog and low visibility. At just after five bells of the morning watch, midshipman Hollom is told that a bell is heard striking. Hollom sees a ghostly shape, resembling a three-masted ship, in the distance. but when he looks again, it has vanished into the fog. Hollom hesitates to clear the ship for action, unwilling to disturb the officers unnecessarily. The deputy watch officer, Midshipman Callamy, calls the men to Quarters himself.
Senior officers 1st Lieutenant Pullings, Dr. Stephen Maturin, and Captain Aubrey rouse. Upon arriving on the forecastle, Aubrey is unconvinced by Hollom’s poor description of the ghostly ship, and sends the men back to their posts, but does not stand them down. At six bells, the ringing echoing out over the water, the Surprise is raked by grapeshot from an unseen cannon. Luckily, Aubrey noticed the telltale flashes in the fog moments before, and shouted to the crew to lie on the deck to avoid harm. The enemy appears out of the fog, a large three-master flying the French tricolore flag. It is immediately obvious that the Surprise is outmatched by this larger ship, which carries twice her complement of cannons. The Surprise raises her own colors, the Naval Red Ensign, and Captain Aubrey orders his ship into battle.
The battle goes ill for the Surprise. In the first few minutes, she is hit three times by enemy fire before her own guns are in range, injuring Hollom and Pullings. Callamy sends a younger Midshipman, Blakeney, to fetch the Captain to command the gun crews. When Surprise is finally in firing range, the result is daunting; the French ship’s hull appears to be impervious to gunfire. Meanwhile the British ship is hit again and again, inundating Maturin with casualties, the spilt blood making the decks slippery.
The Surprise is finally overwhelmed by the French ship, now revealed to be the Surprise’s target, the Acheron. But with her hull breached, flooding the cargo holds with seawater, and the rudder damaged beyond immediate repair, Captain Aubrey has no choice but to flee, ordering his officers to use the ship's boats to tow it into the fog. The ploy is successful, and the Acheron loses sight of the Surprise.
Hours later, night has fallen. The Captain is inspecting the damage to his vessel. The flooding is under control, but the ship is crippled. There are nine dead, and 27 wounded, including young Blakeney, who has a broken arm and appears to be developing a fever, and the captain himself, revealed after Stephen pulls a splinter out of his neck. Later in the Captain’s cabin, the officers and the Doctor discuss the battle, claiming that it was an unfair match and not in the least bit dishonorable, when Sailing Master Allen informs Jack that the Surprise can likely make it back to Portsmouth with little more than basic repairs. It is then that Jack surprises his officers with his intention to carry out his orders, refit the ship as best they can at sea, and pursue the Acheron themselves.
Over the next few days, the crew works to shore up the ship to ready her for voyaging again. Blakeney’s arm turns gangrenous, forcing Dr. Maturin to amputate. The Doctor also provides ‘entertainment’ for the deck hands in the on-deck trepanning of Able Seaman Plaise’s skull, which was fractured in the attack.
The Captain visits Blakeney, who has recovered from his ordeal, and gives him a biography of Admiral Lord Nelson, describing the Battle of the Nile. The gift raises Blakeney’s spirits visibly, possibly because it reminds him that he can still be a hero with only one arm, just as Nelson was. Once the ship is repaired and underway, Jack is visited by two of the sailors, Warley and Nagle, who present him with a model the Acheron, which Warley apparently witnessed being built in Boston. Aubrey thanks the pair, rewarding them with an extra ration of rum, to the chagrin of the Captain’s steward, Killick.
Jack later shows the splendidly accurate model to his officers. They now know what they are up against; they could not defeat the Acheron through regular tactics, as her revolutionary design allows her hull planking to be much thicker than usual, though Jack notes that she is still vulnerable at the stern, like all ships at that time, though the officers are less convinced. A few days later, the Surprise receives her first news of the Acheron while taking on supplies from a Brazilian sea settlement. The news is not good, as it would seem to predict that the French ship is more than three weeks ahead of them, damping Jack’s spirits.
A day or two later, the crew is having a night-time 'shindig' on the main deck, watched over by the officers, standing separate on the Quarterdeck. Joe Plaice finally regains consciousness at this point, causing great merriment among the men. They fall silent suddenly, as Midshipman Hollom unexpectedly attempts to join their songs. This makes them uncomfortable, as this is unusual behavior for an officer of any rank. As the men take up their songs again, unbeknownst to them, the Surprise is being watched through a telescope from a distance.
The next morning, the Captain is awakened by shouts from above that a ship has been sighted astern, following the Surprise. It is quickly recognized as the Acheron, who once again has an advantageous angle of attack. Jack orders every one of the sails set, in a hope to outrun the enemy until at least nightfall. He ponders on the motives of the French captain, wondering if the man bears a grudge against him for some unknown reason. Stephen comments, “He fights like you, Jack.”
As night falls, Acheron has advanced on Surprise enough to begin firing ranging shots at her. Jack, however, has a plan to both escape their guns, and gain a tactical advantage, by placing lights on a decoy ‘float’, resembling the lights of the Surprise, to fool the Acheron while they turn and come up behind her, a long shot at sea, especially at night.
However, in the morning, Jack’s luck is proven again; as the sun rises, the Acheron’s sails can be seen in the distance ahead of them. The Surprise finally has the advantage.
By the time they reach Cape Horn, the Surprise is gaining on the Acheron steadily, though at severe risk to the damaged old frigate, as the chase proceeds through a fierce storm. As the Horn is sighted, the Surprise loses sight of the "Acheron" as she is forced to bring in sail to avoid capsizing. The mizzen topmast is torn off the ship by the wind, even as Mr. Hollom is sent to assist in the lowering of the sails. Warley is taken away with the sail. The ship is threatened and Jack is forced to cut the ropes which are Warley’s only way of rescue. He orders Warley’s best friend, Joseph Nagle, to assist him. The Surprise is saved, but Warley is lost at sea to certain death, to the dismay of the crew, causing Jack considerable guilt. While trying to comfort him, Stephen gently suggests that the chase has gone on too long, and that Jack may have become blinded by his own pride, wounded by the constant success of the French ship, which has now vanished completely.
As Surprise turns north, entering the South Pacific, Aubrey gives his officers the ship’s new destination, the uninhabited Gelapagos Islands, where he is certain the Acheron will be headed, given that it is the position of Britain’s rich whaling fleet. The men appear to be more taken with the idea of seeing new shores again after weeks at sea. The Doctor later reveals his own desires to Jack, as the Galapagos are legendary to Naturalists such as himself, calling them ‘Las Encantadas’, the Enchanted Isles, full of never before seen birds and beasts, providing a possibility of fame and fortune for Stephen as their discoverer. Jack promises his friend that he will be granted several days of wandering on the islands.
When the Surprise reaches the islands, the crew is elated by the sight of land again, and the Doctor engages young Blakeney in a viewing of the amazing new species, visible even from the ship’s deck. Jack seems uninterested until he spots wreckage, and then a raft approaching, flying a white flag. The men on the raft turn out to be the surviving crew of the Albatross, a whaling ship, burned by a “big, black three-master”, which also captured many of their crew, and stole their valuable cargo of oil. Energised, Jack orders all hands to make sail, to the annoyance of the Doctor, who angrily claims that Jack has become blinded by his desire to conquer the Acheron. Jack retorts that his ship is not a private yacht, and that “We do not have time for your damned hobbies, sir!”, insulting the Doctor, who leaves the cabin in silence, causing Jack more guilt. Stephen's spirits are later raised slightly by the efforts of young Blakeney, who presents him with a curious beetle he found on the deck, calling it a ‘Galapagos beetle’.
Some days into their continued voyage from the Galapagos, Surprise is met by a dead calm in blistering Pacific heat. Jack is infuriated by this setback, which in turn affects the mood of the crew. Murmurs have begun in the lower decks concerning Midshipman Hollom, whom many believe to be the cause of Surprise’s bad luck. It was on his watch that the Acheron appeared both times, he who went up the mast before Warley fell, and he who hesitated to alert the captain when the Acheron was first sighted. The crew called him ‘Jonah’, one of the worst stigmas aboard a Nineteenth Century ship. Still bitter at the loss of his friend, Nagle is disrespectful, eventually openly insubordinate towards Hollom. Jack witnesses this and orders that Nagle be flogged for disobedience, and later chastises Hollom for failing to order this himself. Stephen and Jack have a disagreement over the need for corporal punishment to maintain order and discipline onboard, with Jack angered by Stephen's criticism. However, Nagle’s punishment only spreads the distrust of Hollom among the rest of the crew, until Jack himself calls him ‘Jonah’.
Finally, unable to cope, and believing himself to be cursed, Hollom commits suicide by jumping into the ocean. At his memorial service on the deck the next morning, Jack is subdued, and asks God to forgive his and the crew’s failure to respect Hollom, causing his death. A silence ensues, all the crew bowing their heads, during which a faint wind begins to ruffle the sails.
The chase begins again, the first rain since before the calm elating the crew, though Jack is still frustrated that there is still no sign of their foe.
A few days later, disaster strikes when, in an attempt to shoot down a gull, Marine Captain Howard accidentally shoots Dr. Maturin in the abdomen. The assistant surgeon informs Jack that unless the bullet can be removed it will cause horrific infection, but, while he assures the captain that he will do his best, it is clear that, unless he is on dry land, it is unlikely that the inexperienced man will succeed in removing the bullet. Just hours after this incident, a sail is spotted on the horizon ahead. Most believe it to be the Acheron again. Jack is now faced with a difficult choice; follow the ship he has chased almost a quarter the way around the globe, or save his closest friend.
Stephen regains consciousness as he is being carried on a stretcher from the Surprise’s boat to a flat spot on the side of a hill, where a tent has been erected. He realizes with shock that they have returned to the Galapagos.
As he is now conscious, the Doctor refuses to allow his assistant to perform the surgery, claiming that he will do it himself, with the aid of a mirror. Though it causes him great pain, he succeeds and is well enough to stand by the time he wakes next morning. He speaks to Jack on a promontory, looking out over the bay in which the Surprise is anchored, and is astonished to hear a change in his friend, who seems to have given up his chase with little trouble, intending to remain at the islands for at least a week. Grateful, claiming that Jack has “burdened me with a debt I can never fully repay”, Stephen realizes that he now has the opportunity to explore the famous Galapagos. Traveling the island with Blakeney and Padeen, he is able to make many discoveries, including a type of flightless cormorant and an amphibious iguana, which he is keenly interested in capturing to present to the Royal Society. From the top of a hill, as he examines a beetle, Stephen notices a large three-masted ship sailing into one of the island bays, a ship flying the French flag. The Acheron has returned. During the hurried return to camp, Stephen's bullet wound slows him down, forcing Padeen to release the captive specimens and carry the Doctor back to camp.
On the trio’s return, the Surprise immediately prepares for battle, though it is unclear how they will gain any advantage this time.
Looking in on the Doctor and Blakeney as they unload what specimens they were able to bring along, Jack is shown a stick-insect on a twig, and Blakeney explains that it is disguised as a stick as a defense, to confuse its predators. Jack is intrigued…
That night, Surprise is transformed to ‘Syren’, a whaling ship, a disguise that Jack knows will attract the Acheron when she sees them. The Acheron is sighted shortly afterwards, and quickly takes the bait, turning to chase the Surprise, which quickly makes a panicky display of fleeing, seeming an easy target to a ship as powerful as Acheron. As the battle approaches, Jack gathers the crew on the gun deck, outlining their plan, and reminding the men of their obligation and duty to their country, and that "Surprise is on our side!”
It is only a matter of hours before Acheron catches up with the disguised frigate, demanding that they stop, or be destroyed. As the unsuspecting French ship comes alongside, Jack orders the ambush unveiled; cannon and musket fire strike the Acheron. The guns succeed in toppling the Acheron’s mainmast, and as the enemy ship draws ahead, they fire into her stern, cannon shot racing down her length and dislodging many of her guns.
Victory in sight, and leaving the "Surprise" under the command of young Blakeney, Jack and Lieutenant Pullings board the Acheron in separate parties but are quickly ambushed themselves as the French sailors fight to defend their ship. Battle ensues, in which Master Allen, Nagle and many others of the Surprise’s crew are killed. The tide is turned when Callamy, promoted to acting Lieutenant, succeeds in freeing the captive crew of the Albatross, who swell the Surprise’s numbers.
The battle over, and the Surprise victorious, Jack searches the defeated Acheron for her captain, directed to the infirmary by a French sailor. When he arrives, a man introducing himself as Docteur de Vigny tells Jack that the French captain was killed, which saddens Jack, as he had wished to meet him. More sad news awaits Jack, as he finds Stephen standing over the body of young Callamy. A funeral service is later held on the deck of the Surprise, and Jack pays his respect to Callamy by posthumously naming him a lieutenant.
The Acheron and Surprise repaired, the British ship now returned to her former appearance, Jack gives command of the Acheron to Lieutenant Pullings, naming him ‘Captain’ Pullings after ordering him to take the French ship to Valpariaiso, while the Surprise returns to the Galapagos.
As the Acheron sails away, Stephen to Jack that he hopes they reach shore safely with only his "poor unfortunate" assistant surgeon to provide medical care for them, surprising Jack. Jack tells of his meeting with de Vigny, becoming angry with himself when Stephen reveals that Doctor de Vigny had actually died months ago, meaning that Jack had likely fallen for a rouse concealing the still alive French captain. As Jack gives orders to once more give chase to the Acheron, Stephen is again frustrated to be denied the chance to further explore the Galapagos. Jack notes that since the bird he seeks is flightless, it "isn't going anywhere."
With that, the HMS Surprise sails off into the distance, her adventures apparently far from over.
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