For everything that could’ve gone wrong with it, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was inevitable. Peter Jackson was two movies into what was already being called an all-time trilogy, and by the time Return of the King hit theaters in December of 2003, the reaction was closer to a coronation than anything. Then the Academy Awards came about and the narrative was written in ink: Peter Jackson and the cast and crew deserved recognition not just for the concluding chapter of Lord of the Rings, but the entire saga. That’s how you bring home 11 Oscars from 11 nominations, the greatest sweep in Academy history.
But Return of the King’s unmatched prestigious success left a lot of casualties in its wake. Now, we probably underrate how excellent a year 2003 was for movies because Return of the King cast such a large shadow. That same year saw Finding Nemo, X2, Elf, Mystic River, Lost In Translation, School of Rock, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Love Actually and 28 Days Later all hit theaters, plus a risky Disney movie called Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and critical darlings Big Fish, Cold Mountain and City of God.
That year also saw the awards-season release of an all-time great action-adventure movie called Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Have you heard of it? Commander is a jaw-dropping movie, a triumph of both period drama and sweeping action, but since it came out within a month of a certain other all-time great action-adventure movie, its legacy has been lost to time.
Now Master and Commander is one of the great what-ifs in cinema history. Meant to spawn a franchise from the popular Patrick O’Brian novels upon which it’s based, the movie cost a cool $150 million to make. The Napoleonic epic flopped, however, making only $93 million domestically and $212 million worldwide, far below what it might have cost to advertise the movie on top of its production budget.
You knew this already, but there were no more Master and Commander movies after 2003. It’s a shame. Commander is stunning.
There probably wasn’t a more painstaking period piece in the 00s than Master and Commander. About the plight of a Royal Navy vessel in combat against the French in 1805, Commander took great lengths to recreate 19th-century seafaring life. It was shot on a full-scale replica of a period-accurate ship both at sea and in a tank (the same tank where Titanic was shot), and every detail from the costuming to the ship’s decoration to the warfare is given minute attention. It’s almost documentary-like.
For that, Master and Commander has a sense of character that goes beyond the actors. The HMS Surprise, the ship of our heroes, has a literal transformation over the course of the movie, and the Acheron, the Surprise’s French opponent, is as threatening a villain as any Marvel antagonist. The rich visuals add to that tangible, life-like quality, and the sound design—procured from a bevy of real cannon fire and splintering, creaking, groaning wood—is nothing if not authentic.
Master and Commander boasted nothing but the best in all areas, in fact. The movie is headlined by a peak-of-his-powers Russell Crowe (fresh off A Beautiful Mind) and it’s directed by Peter Weir (fresh off The Truman Show). The supporting cast includes Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy and Billy Boyd. When the crew needed footage of a storm, they went out into a storm at sea and captured footage. When they needed footage of the Galapagos Islands, they became the first feature film ever to shoot there. Master and Commander was an endeavor of a movie. And then it flopped.
Did a poor box office turnout doom Master and Commander? Perhaps in part. When it hit theaters in November 2003, Commander fell victim to a wave of mint kids’ movies: Elf, Cat In the Hat, Looney Tunes: Back In Action and The Haunted Mansion. With Matrix: Revolutions also out the week before, it was clear no amount of prestige could hang with franchise dominance and family popcorn fare.
But Hollywood is full of movies that went commercially unrecognized but found retroactive success thanks to critical praise, awards recognition or a passionate cult following. Roger Ebert gave Commander 4/4 stars, saying it was an “adventure with uncommon intelligence.” It has an 85 percent mark and a “masterful” moniker on Rotten Tomatoes, and its 81 Metacritic score indicates “universal acclaim.” Oscar nominations, at least, seemed like a shoe-in.
And they were. Master and Commander landed a staggering 10 nominations at the 76th Academy Awards, second only to — uh-oh — Return of the King’s 11 considerations. From there, the fun ended, and Commander was boarded, looted and taken as a prize. It took home only two Oscars–Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing–and in every other category, from Best Picture to Director to Visual Effects, it lost to Return of the King. As one became one of the most heralded epics of all time and entered cinema history, the other faded into the fog of history’s ocean, fated to be the great movie no one saw and — worse — no one remembered, thanks to an unprecedented awards-season rival.
No doubt, Return of the King is a tentpole of popular culture and one of the great modern cinematic achievements, yet pieces of its legacy (the emphasis on practical effects, the grueling location shoots, the large-scale war scenes and spectacular set pieces) are all reflected in the filmmaking of Master and Commander. This isn’t to say Return of the King is overrated or receiving unearned praise. It’s certainly not. But it is to point out that the final Rings movie was so great in scale and impact that it rendered other movies of the same idealistic cloth completely culturally insignificant.
Yes, 2003 was an amazing year for movies, but that is another feather in the cap of ROTK. It was so titanic it reduced an exceptional slate of co-releases to a footnote, or, in the case of Master and Commander, something left out of the movie history books altogether.