Coincidentally, during the film's pre-production, the replica of Captain James Cook's ship, HMS Endeavour, was circumnavigating the globe. The production was able to fly 2 cameramen to the ship as it was about to sail round the bottom of South America, a route the HMS Surprise takes in the film. Thus, the footage of the stormy seas from that part of the voyage is genuine.
Although the book is set in 1812, the film is set 7 years earlier. This afforded the writers the chance to make the enemy of the piece not the United States but France, England at the time having declared war against Napoléon Bonaparte.
About 27 miles of rope was used on the rigging of the replica Rose. Most of the rope had to be made especially, as modern day rope has a right hand lay (the direction the strands run in) whereas it would have had a left hand lay in Napoleonic times.
The production used two ships. One was the replica Rose, dressed up to be the HMS Surprise, which could be put to sea within 45 minutes at any time. The other was a replica of the replica, built on a gimbal in the giant tank at the Baja Studios, Mexico. Construction of the replica took approximately three and a half months.
In the quest for authenticity, the props team working on the movie, called on the resources available from luxury watchmaker company Breguet. The Breguet company designed and supplied the period timepieces featured in the film.
The movie combines two novels - "Master and Commander" and "The Far Side of the World". Both deal with chasing down a privateer and the movie combines the long chase of the latter with the furious climactic battle of the former.
The original HMS Rose (the replica of which became the HMS Surprise for the film) was actually a French ship, captured by the British in 1757. When it was in dry dock in Hull, England, it was modified along British lines and saw action under the British during the American Revolution. It was scuttled in 1779. The replica, based on the same plans as the original which were housed at the Admiralty in Whitehall, London, was built in Nova Scotia in 1970 by Rhode Island historian John Fitzhugh Millar. It was the only remaining working frigate in the world when Peter Weir came across it at a maritime festival. When he learned that it was for sale, Weir concluded that he was fated to make "Master and Commander" after all, a project he had previously turned down.
Russell Crowe wanted to form a sense of authority on set, so he had all the actors wear shirts according to their characters' rank. Officers wore a dark blue, midshipmen wore a light blue, the marines wore red and everyone else wore white. The actors also had to sew their own name tags on each shirt, a tank top, a short-sleeved shirt and a long-sleeved top.
To create an authentic sense of camaraderie among the cast they were all housed in special quarters, away from the rest of the crew. Designed like a gentleman's club there was no TV and no crew member was allowed in without being invited. It was nicknamed "The Monkey Bar".
A 50-gun HMS Surprise was at the shelling of Fort McHenry in September 1814. This was the famous bombardment that resulted in Francis Scott Key writing "The Defence of Fort McHenry" later to become "The Star Spangled Banner".
After filming, the HMS Surprise was purchased by the San Diego Maritime Museum for an undisclosed sum, and with the proviso that the ship be loaned back to 20th Century Fox for any future film productions.
The real HMS Surprise accompanied HMS Isis up the St. Lawrence river to relieve Quebec in May of 1776, in the wake of Benedict Arnold's failed attempt to capture that city. It ended the American rebels' invasion of Canada during the American Revolution.
At one point, Stephen flexes his fingers as he is beginning to play the cello. This is a reference to the books, where Stephen is captured as a spy by the French and tortured. Among other things, they broke all his fingers. Jack leads a rescue mission and saves Stephen before the French agents can kill him.
The name of the French vessel "Acheron" comes from the name of a river in Hades in Greek mythology. The other river was the Styx. Both rivers could only be crossed by boat, touching or drinking from the river would cause the victim to lose their memory.
In contrast to the competitive studio days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, this project had three major companies team up for production (Fox, Universal and Miramax, by then a creature of Disney) plus a leading indie (Goldwyn -sort of standing in for the MGM of old).
12 of the extras comprising the crew were drafted in from Poland as they had a "lived in" look and quite clearly hadn't been enjoying the life of plenty that most Westerners do. Peter Weir was attracted to this as it would emphasize the privations and hardships of serving on a frigate.
The movie contains many elements recognizable from the novels: Two cannons are shown with the names, ("Jumping Billy" and "Sudden Death") but the camera pulls up before the name of the next cannon can be seen. All fans know the next cannon would have been "Willful Murder" (Barret Bonden's gun), although never mentioned. Killick is preparing toasted cheese for Jack and Stephen for after their music sessions.
The French frigate "Acheron" was modeled after the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides"). The film crew spent quite a bit of time taking pictures and filming the Constitution. The images were then digitized to make the movie. Originally based in Providence, Rhode Island, The HMS Surprise was actually the HMS Rose, a reproduction tall ship built in 1970 at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia by Smith and Rhuland Ltd. The film crew made several alterations to its design to match the 1802 design of the HMS Surprise. The Rose/Surprise has been at the Maritime Museum of San Diego since 2004, but in previous years the HMS Rose was available for tall ship cruises.
At the exhibition of HMS Victory's surviving sail from the battle of Trafalgar in the Historical Dock Yard in Portsmouth, there is a film showing which is an edited compilation of the battle scenes from the film, which was used due to its authentic representation of a sea battle in the 1800s
The sails for the small scale model version of the Surprise were woven in Hong Kong. Their weight was calculated to be proportionately accurate to the real thing (although the real sails probably didn't contain Lycra).
Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, James D'Arcy plays Howard Stark's butler Edwin Jarvis, who is the tutor of Howard's son Tony Stark, and therefore namesake of Tony's artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S., voiced by Paul Bettany.
Stationed at Newport, Rhode Island during the American revolutionary war under command of Captain James Wallace, HMS Rose patrolled Long Island Sound from 1774-1776, where she was considered by the colonists to be a fearsome presence.
The ship's boats on board HMS Surpize were Russian Navy yawl boats (one 4-oar and one six-oar) of the same type as used in the A&E Hornblower series. They were provided by Central Coast Charters of Sausalito, California. One of the long boat trainers for the production in Rosarito, Mexico was a commissioned Lieutenant in the Russian Navy.
Both James D'Arcy and Paul Bettany play a version of the character Jarvis in the Marvel Cinematic and Television Universe, James as the butler for Howard Stark in the television show Agent Carter and Paul as the AI named Jarvis (and later the character Vision) in Iron Man and Avengers movies, named probably as an homage to the former butler who raised him.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When Capt. Jack Aubrey and his crew disguise their ship to lure in the French frigate "Acheron", the name of The Surprise is changed to "Syren", a play on the word "Siren", a sea nymph from Greek mythology, who lured sailors to their doom.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", a ship encounters an albatross which the sailors believe brings the breeze and gives the ship good luck. The Mariner kills the albatross and he and the ship are cursed with bad luck. In the film, one of the seamen remarks to Maturin, the doctor, that a bird flying close to the HMS Surprise may be an albatross. A Royal Marine trying to kill this bird of good faith accidentally shoots Maturin, certainly an omen of bad luck for the crew.
After Midshipman Hollom commits suicide, and the crew gathers on the deck. Killick hands Captain Jack the bible, pages open to the book of Jonah. In the Old Testament, Jonah attempts to escape his mission/duty from God - clearly an allegory for Holloms escape from duty for King and country. Also by the mid 1700s 'a Jonah' is also an established sailors superstition as someone who brings bad luck (a belief held against Midshipman Hollom in the weeks preceding his death).