Master and Commander

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Ronnie Tharp-Garber

Script Analysis rating: 7
Action/Adventure/Drama billing on imdb.com

The outstanding story element in Master and Commander is the Story World. Unlike real life, the Story World is a reflection of the Hero’s flaws. His pride gets the better of his good judgment, as he pursues the “phantom ship” that is bent on destroying his ship –

The phantom ship is a French ship-
We are told in a screen overlay at the very beginning that England vs. France in 1805 is the historical epic story element of Master and Commander. The French have the upper hand as the story opens, but we are shown with a book that the Hero cherishes that he fought with Nelson, the famous British Commander. And therefore, the Hero is a patriot and a warrior figure, whereby he fights first and foremost for his country.

The story delves deeply into the trials of seagoing men in 1805: How wounds are treated; how amputations are performed; how food is cooked; how men celebrate and sleep together in close quarters, and how a ship is armed for battle; weapons and tools that are employed; training and life death immediate decisions for survival on the high seas.

This is the “story gold” of the story – but it cannot overcome some flaws in the script.

One of the flaws in the script involves the Opponent. Who is the Opponent? It needs to be a human. In Master and Commander, the phantom ship is the Opponent. A human opponent has weaknesses, needs, and abilities that obstruct or block the Hero’s Desire Line. It is the Opponent or lack thereof in this story that weakens the Narrative Drive.

The compensation for weak Drive is the never ending weather as part of the Story World that acts in opposition to the Hero. But again, the weather is not a human opponent. The problems inherent with the weather and the “phantom ship opponent” are that there is a Narrative Drive problem in the script. One storm after another; one bombardment after another, and what happens is a predictable and tedious story line. Slaying many dragons, one after another, with the Hero still intact and ready to take on the next dragon leads to predictability.

Even with the incredible Story World, which includes detailed land, material, man-made structures, and tools that describe for the audience a time that is unique to 21st century viewers – even with the rich Story World as compensation, the story still lags and lacks the punch-counter-punch of an Action genre.

Adventure is a sub-genre of Action – This better describes the genre for this story. Also, Drama, whereby opponents are intimate, does not fit believably here. Again, with no strong human opponent, the Drama genre is therefore weakened. A strong moral argument is part of the Drama genre – And the Captain/Hero’s decision to honor his friend/ally/point of view character- provides a twist to the otherwise difficult to swallow Drama genre elements in this story.

The Captain’s friend/ally/point of view character points out the moral depravity of the Hero. He is the mouthpiece to the audience in film for what the Hero is thinking. Instead of the Hero saying, “That last battle was really tough, but I did my best to save my men,” the point of view character speaks to the Hero and says, “You did your best. You are our leader and our inspiration.” The point of view character informs the Hero of what he needs to focus on when the chips are down. He acts as a type of “alter ego” to the Hero, and therefore is an important character. In Master and Commander, the Hero spars throughout the story with the ship’s doctor/ally/point of view character. This plays well in the Drama genre. And there is a twist in the story in which the Hero must make a huge moral decision regarding his friend/ally.

But the main point here, and a point that the screenwriters lost on the way: The Ally/Point of View Character does not suffice as the Opponent in an Action/Adventure genre. This might sit well in a Drama genre and certainly, in Romance genre. In order to test which genre should take precedence in this story, we need to look at the Desire Line of the Hero: To defeat the “phantom ship,” a.k.a. the French, on the high seas. Defeating a ship with no known Opponent on the ship is a problem that the script writers faced, yet did not solve.

In Drama genre, the Desire Line is to defeat an intimate opponent. So, if we say that the main genre here is Adventure, what is the goal/desire of the Hero? To defeat the ship. Is the ship blocking the Desire of the Hero? In a manner of speaking, yes. But without a human opponent, the Line is not believable and is confusing to the audience.

Had these elements been dealt with, a good script could have been a superb script.

I still would highly recommend seeing this film. The arena of the ship provides a type of pressure cooker Story World with very colorful, unique character web. And this is a detailed Story World that includes a rich tapestry of land, people, tools, and a miniature “phantom ship” that most of us are not familiar with in the 21st century.

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