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Working titles for the film were Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World. The following written prologue appears in the onscreen credits: "April-1805 Napolean is master of Europe, only the British fleet stands before him. Oceans are now battlefields. HMS Surprise, 128 Guns, 197 Souls, N. Coast of Brazil. Admiralty orders to Cpt. J. Aubrey: 'Intercept French Privateer Acheron en route to Pacific intent on carrying the war into those waters ...sink, burn or take her a prize.'" The script combined elements of the first and tenth novels (Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World)that are part of the twenty-book Aubrey/Maturin series written by Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000). The popular series has been noted for its historical accuracy and specific detailing of seafaring life in the 19th century British Navy. In December 1993, the Samuel Goldwyn Company optioned the first book in the series, Master and Commander, but the film moved on to Disney/Touchstone Pictures. A September 1996 Hollywood Reporter item notes that John McTiernan was under consideration by Touchstone to direct and write the script. A November 1998 Daily Variety item notes that when Touchstone dropped the project, Twentieth Century Fox picked up the feature rights with Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. mentioned as producer. Fox also acquired rights to all twenty of O'Brian's novels, the tenth of which was The Far Side of the World. After the film's release, some news items and reviewers suggested that additional books in the series would also be turned into films.
Numerous reviews and articles on the film commented on a major change from the two books, in having the enemy that "Jack Aubrey" and the crew of the Surprise pursue changed from American to French. Some journalists suggested this May have been due to the strongly pro-American political climate in the U.S. at the time of the film's production and release just two years after the terrorism attack on New York and Washington in September 2001 and the rise of anti-French sentiment over their refusal to support the 2003 U.S. conflict with Iraq. In production notes, however, Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman stated that the change was made in order to avoid lengthy explanations of why America supported Napoleon during that period. Additionally, some of the later books in O'Brian's series centered solely on the British-French conflict. As noted in various reviews and feature articles, the "PG-13"-rated film avoided certain elements of the novels (disputed by some modern historical sources), including homosexuality within the British Navy, violent conscription of crewmen and extreme hardships endured by the men.
The film marked the debut of Max Pirkis as "Lord Blakeney." Stars Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany previously appeared together in the 2001 film, A Beautiful Mind. Director Peter Weir worked with fellow Australian director of photography Russell Boyd on several of his early films, including Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). Costume designer Wendy Stites, who is married to Weir and often credited as Wendy Weir, has collaborated with the director on numerous films. The film was shot on location in Baja, California, Mexico using the four tanks constructed by Fox Studios in 1996 for James Cameron's 1998 production Titanic. In addition to using numerous model ships, constructed and filmed in New Zealand, an authentic tall ship, the Rose, a former sail-training ship in Rhode Island, was overhauled and doubled as the Surprise. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was also shot on location in the Galpagos Islands, which, according to production notes, was the first time a feature film shot there.
In the closing credits, the producers acknowledge numerous individuals and naval associations, including the United States Department of Navy, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U. K., the Historic Naval Dockyard & HMS Victory, Portsmith, U. K. and Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was selected by AFI as one of its top ten films of 2003 and also selected by the National Board of Review as one of the ten best films of the year. The picture received two Academy Awards, one for Best Cinematography (Russell Boyd)and one for Best Sound Editing (Richard King). The picture also received Academy Award nominations in the following categories: Picture, Director, Film Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. Additionally, the film received Golden Globe nominations for Peter Weir for Best Director, Best Picture-Drama and Best Actor-Drama for Russell Crowe. Weir was nominated by the Directors Guild for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for 2003. Weir and producers Samuel Goldwyn Jr. and Duncan Henderson were nominated by the Producers Guild for the Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures.