O Captain, My Captain: 'Master and Commander' 20 Years On

O Captain, My Captain: 'Master and Commander' 20 Years On

5 min read

A powerful testimony to the love of country and friend

A few spoilers here and there.

Several years ago, I was dismayed to learn today’s children are a feral lot with no sense of propriety or decorum.

I was talking to my teenage son about his friends, which led to thoughts of me and my own when I was his age. “Do you call each other by your last names?”

“No.” His tone was more eloquent: What a dumb idea.

“Really? That’s always how I referred to my friends when I was growing up.”

“Hmm.” I’m not engaging because I don’t care about when bread was a nickel and women were forbidden to wear trousers.

“Do you use first names? Or do you just say, ‘hey, you’?”

“Why are you making this weird.”

I couldn’t help myself. I was going through all the stages of grief at once. When had the use of last names fallen out of fashion? 

I’ve always felt a great deal of pride in three things I had no hand in: my height, my laugh, and my last name. I was therefore happy to pass on such qualities to my own son. It’s not really that different from the three wise men and their gifts. 

In a sea of Smiths and Johnsons, Pierce is a clear cut-above. To learn my son was not using it to its fullest potential — that he was, in fact, disregarding it completely— would be like finding out Jesus decided he could do without the frankincense.

Given my last name fetish, I clearly missed my true calling as an 1800s sailor aboard a British warship. There’s a lot to like about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World — other than that title, which somehow manages to be both clumsily verbose and completely generic — but chief among its many fine qualities is how everyone is referred to as Mr. Such-and-such. Even the guy swabbing the deck or dumping out chamber pots is afforded that level of respect.

It’s all very genteel in a way that feels both timeless and forgotten. When the characters actually use someone’s first name, it’s a sign of intimacy. A right one earns.

Master and Commander is a film about war, obsession, and dudes being bros. It’s a study in grace under fire and the terrible weight of duty. It’s a postcard to a long ago when men relaxed by jamming on stringed instruments and the world was full of undiscovered wonders. 

The film takes place in the early 1800s, when all of the world trembled at the name Napolean. Russell Crowe stars as Jack Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise, a British frigate with orders to hunt down a French heavy frigate called Acheron. What ensues is an epic adventure as hunter becomes hunted, where ingenuity and courage are often the only difference between a clever retreat and a crushing defeat.

Imagine The Hunt for Red October with more salt spray and less vodka, and you’ll be close to the mark.