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MASTER AND COMMANDER

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The coast of northern Brazil, 1805. The British warship HMS Surprise, commanded by the boldly impetuous “Lucky Jack” Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is under orders to capture or destroy the French privateer Acheron, sent by Bonaparte to threaten British ships in the area.

With Surprise shrouded in a fog bank, the nervous midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby) thinks he spies a sail in the distance. After scrambling to battle stations for what seems like a false alarm, Aubrey peers once more into the fog and sees the flash of cannon—the Acheron attacks with a full upwind broadside, leaving the Surprise rudderless and seemingly at the mercy of the Frenchmen’s superior guns and speed. Aubrey’s wily seamanship saves the ship when he orders the crew into small boats to row Surprise into a nearby fogbank. Aubrey later assesses the damage with his good friend Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) the ship’s brooding, intellectual surgeon.

Among the wounded is the schoolboy midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis), who loses his arm, and Plaice (George Innes), whose life is spared thanks to Maturin’s brilliance as a surgeon.

Overruling his officers, who assumed Surprise would return home for repairs, Aubrey insists on refitting at sea in order to continue his increasingly personal pursuit of Acheron. But once again the French captain gains the advantage, pursuing Surprise from the upwind "weather gauge". Knowing he has no hope of outgunning the Acheron, Aubrey hopes to keep Surprise far enough ahead of the French ship until night can hide them. With Acheron pulling within cannon range and darkness falling, Aubrey attempts a desperate ruse:

He sends the teenage midshipman Calamy (Max Benitz) out onto a small towed raft fitted with lanterns which match the lights on Surprise’s stern. Calamy lights the lanterns and is hauled back as the raft is cut free. The plan works: Aubrey escapes as the Acheron blasts its cannons at what it thinks is Surprise’s stern.

Through skillful navigation, Aubrey now gains the weather gauge over Acheron and begins chasing her southward through heavy, stormy seas. During the chase, a sailor is tossed into the sea when part of the rigging collapses. The crew shouts to the man to swim to the wreckage, still attached to the ship. But just as he reaches it, Aubrey reluctantly orders the lines hacked free before the drag from the broken rigging causes Surprise to broach.

Having lost the Acheron, Aubrey heads for the Galapagos Islands to restock and repair the damage. He promises Maturin, who is a serious naturalist, several days ashore to study the strange new species he has already sighted from the deck. But just before the crew can go ashore, a small boat is spotted. It contains the survivors of a whaler whose crew and cargo were captured by Acheron several days earlier. To Maturin’s bitter disappointment, Aubrey orders the ship back to sea to continue the hunt.

But Surprise is soon becalmed for days on end. Led by Plaice, the frustrated and thirsty crew begin blaming their bad luck on Hollom, whom they believe is a “Jonah,” a cursed figure who can bring destruction to the entire ship. When Aubrey observes one crewman overtly challenging Hollom’s authority, he orders the man flogged, and tries unsuccessfully to teach Hollom about the essence of leadership. Instead, Hollom suffers an emotional and physical breakdown. Maturin explains to the captain that Hollom himself believes he is cursed. To the surgeon’s disbelief, Aubrey doesn’t dismiss the possibility. Shortly afterward, a strangely serene Hollom appears on deck, thanks Blakeney for his past kindness to him, and jumps overboard holding a cannonball. The wind soon returns.

The Acheron is once again spotted, and Aubrey is confident that he may finally bag his prize. But when Maturin is accidentally shot on deck by a bird-hunting marine, Aubrey must decide whether to continue chasing the Acheron or reduce the risk of operating on Maturin’s wound by bringing him ashore. The scene cuts to Maturin being carried to a tent back on the Galapagos. Aware that his assistant is not capable of the delicate surgery, Maturin extracts the shot himself, assisted by a woozy Aubrey. Recovering quickly, Maturin finally gets his chance to study the island’s animal life. Climbing a hill on the far side of the island, Maturin spots Acheron anchored in a cove. He rushes back to warn Aubrey, sadly abandoning his specimens on the way.

Surprise puts to sea and Aubrey develops a plan inspired by the insect camouflage he learned about from Maturin—he will repaint and alter his ship to disguise it as a whaler. Sure enough, Acheron takes the bait and pulls up close to its would-be prize. When the French ship is in range, Aubrey orders his crew to “let fly!”. The British colors are run up, the gun ports fly open and the cannons fire, dismasting the Acheron and evening the fight. A furious broadside battle follows, with Aubrey, his first lieutenant Tom Pullings, and the young Calamy leading boarding parties onto the French ship. The French rise up in waves but are cut down by snipers in the Surprise’s rigging. After fierce hand-to-hand fighting during which the captured whalers are freed, the French strike their colors. Aubrey is slightly wounded as he seeks out the French captain to obtain his personal surrender. To his disappointment, he finds the French captain dead in the Acheron’s infirmary, but has the satisfaction of receiving the captain’s sword from the Acheron’s doctor.

With the French crew in irons and a large division of spoils ahead, a satisfied Aubrey sends Acheron to Valparaisa under the command of the newly-promoted Captain Pullings. As he heads back to England on Surprise he learns from Maturin that the Acheron’s doctor had died of fever several months before. Realizing who had really handed him the captain’s sword, Aubrey orders the Surprise to turn about to intercept the Acheron.

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