Master and Commander at 20: how a film about men fighting at sea is actually a safe harbour of positive masculinity

At 20, Peter Weir’s 2003 masterpiece Master and Commander remains a captivating historical drama – and an emblem of wholesome masculinity.

A deeply detailed film set in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander follows Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his men aboard HMS Surprise. Accompanied by the eccentric amateur naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the crew are hunting the French ship Acheron through the Pacific Ocean.

Its depiction of life at sea is gritty and brutal: intense battle scenes; Maturin performing surgery on himself; Hollom’s suicide. And yet Master and Commander delivers a nostalgic, idealised lifestyle that still has many men dreaming of ditching their office jobs and sailing the high seas.

But it is not necessarily the masculine, nautical adventures that appeal to men so much as the film’s healthy and loving male relationships.

Gentle, subtle and lifelike

Jack Aubrey is a classic masculine hero. In the face of apparently impossible odds, he simply remarks: “well then, there’s not a moment to lose.”

Fighting against the tyranny and oppression of the French, his is the classic underdog tale. Acheron has twice the guns and twice the men. Taking it on is a test of nerve, discipline and courage.

The performances of the protagonists are gentle, subtle and lifelike. Crowe gives a rugged and charismatic performance as the tradition-loving Aubrey. Bettany as the charmingly lubberly Maturin is the perfect complement to Aubrey, even as he differs from his book counterpart, his role as an intelligence agent being conspicuously absent from the script.

The portrayals of these two men and their friendship – their abiding love for each other overcoming differences of politics and personality – carry the film. At times, Weir’s film seems to be a pure character study; the Acheron’s chase and capture matter much less than the development of this key male friendship.

Director Taika Waititi has called it his comfort film as well as his favourite romance movie, saying their relationship is “palpable”.

It is this aspect of the film, among a surplus of amputation, hard tack, hierarchy and public flogging, that has great appeal to men.

The dangers of the manosphere

Men are increasingly facing issues of loneliness, mental ill health and disenfranchisement.

The online “manosphere” can seem like an opportunity for some men to deal with their very real issues of hopelessness and isolation. These online communities say they are looking to combat feminism and restore the role of traditional male dominance in society, offering men a space of connection and comradeship.

Read more: The draw of the 'manosphere': understanding Andrew Tate's appeal to lost men

But this online masculine ideal is rigid and conservative, emphasising toughness, hypersexuality, aggression, control and self-sufficiency.

Rather than offering a positive community, these online spaces have been increasingly associated with toxic masculinity characterised by violence, hostility to women and emotional repression. These ideals create harm towards men themselves and those around them.

Read more: 'Toxic masculinity': what does it mean, where did it come from – and is the term useful or harmful?

The HMS Surprise offers an alternative picture of male camaraderie. On board Surprise, the masculine environment is a supportive one. It allows men to feel their differences while still inspiring and caring for each other. From gentle, scientific sorts to burly able seamen, all take pride in their community on board their “little wooden world”.

Online, 20 years after the film’s release, many men are finding comfort and inspiration in this contrasting picture of what masculinity can look like.

Wholesome masculinity

Master and Commander’s intimate study of male friendship makes the film a touchstone of wholesome masculinity. Memes abound attesting to audiences’ yearning for a life of honest work and male companionship.

One meme captions a heroic picture of Jack Aubrey standing against the sea asking: “is the cure to male loneliness sailing the high seas with your bros?”

A tweet announces the “hot new bachelor party activity” is historic gunnery exercises, with the “boys hooting and hollering as they drink grog firing three broadsides in two minutes”.

One Reddit commenter, explaining its popularity, describes it as a “wholesome bromance, which is the ultimate catnip for straight dudes”.

This admiration of the Surprise’s masculine community, where different kinds of men are celebrated, serves as a positive counter model to the angst and toxicity of the manosphere.

At sea, men like Jack Aubrey enact traditional masculine values without the fear of losing power and without restrictive gender norms: they share joy, grieve together, and play music together.

Despite epic battles and award-winning cinematography, by far the most iconic scenes in Master and Commander are quiet examples of our protagonists’ friendship: Jack and Stephen playing a duet, or doubly delighting and exasperating each other with various puns.

By the closing frame, the HMS Surprise and her men are no closer to capturing their prize than when they started out. And yet, as Jack and Stephen strum their instruments companionably, the Surprise’s endless drift into the future is a promise of an unending life of adventure, community and companionship.

It is this promise that keeps men returning, two decades later, to Master and Commander. Much like Stephen’s flightless bird, it’s not going anywhere.

Read more: Building healthy relationship skills supports men's mental health

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Matilda Hatcher, Australian National University.

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Matilda Hatcher receives funding from an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship.