"MASTER AND COMMANDER" SWORDS
After reading Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey-Maturin" series of Royal Navy Napoleonic War novels (from which MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD was adapted to film in 2003) I became interested in the swords of the era, specifically the ones used in the movie.
I learned that during the film's preproduction, Director Peter Weir haunted London dealers of antique militaria, purchased several obscenely expensive original Napoleonic swords, and pored over reference books such as Annis & May's "Swords for Sea Service" and Gilkerson, Morss and Comfort's "Boarders Away: With Steel".
Still photo from MASTER AND COMMANDER. On the wall of Jack Aubrey's cabin are seen (first at top) a sabre supplied by LA custom swordmaker Tony Swatton. Below it (second from top) is Aubrey's "Gentleman's Cutlass", (third from top) the "Capt. Broke" spadroon used by HMS SURPRISE's first lieutenant Tom Pullings, and (bottom) Aubrey's naval dirk -- supplied by Craig Nannos.
While trying to track down the origins and present whereabouts of the MASTER AND COMMANDER swords, I contacted sword collector James S. Aldrich. I'd been told that he'd seen and handled these weapons. His response, edited for clarity ---
The guys (I know) are in the business of first-quality repro gear of various kinds. They tend to be "protective" of their sources, shall we say.
Last year at Mississinewa (a Civil War Re-enactor's gathering), a friend introduced me to his friend, Beauregard, whose surname I disremember but can obtain if you wish. Beauregard had some hand in the design and selection of weapons for the film MASTER AND COMMANDER, but I gather his main endeavor was getting them made and delivered.
I can say with confidence that (Capt. Aubrey's) "Gentleman's Cutlass," the (senior lieutenant Pulling's) RN-hilted spadroon, and likely most of the other bladed weapons were manufactured on the Indian subcontinent. Beauregard specifically saw to it that they didn't have INDIA or such stamped on them, a la Windlass, etc. My friend is also confident of Beauregard's ability to get something made to spec and with a decent standard of workmanship.
A story related by the mysterious Beauregard: it seems that whoever was advising the MASTER AND COMMANDER production crew (likely Craig Nannos of THE SENTRY POST) intended the "Gentleman's Cutlass" for the senior lieutenant and the large spadroon, which was actually modeled after a unique piece owned by the real Captain Broke of HMS Shannon fame, for Jack Aubrey.
When the movie mavens saw the cutlass, their eyes lit up and they proclaimed it the only choice for the leading man. Apparently curved blades have quite a cachet among the adventure film crowd.
The quality and workmanship of the movie swords strike me as a cut above the best INDIA stuff I have had up to now, the better Windlass products, for example. I was especially pleasantly surprised to see that the blade has an actual edge. Wouldn't take much to make it downright keen, if a guy so desired.
It seems clear that the rather large and unwieldy "Captain Broke" spadroon intended for Russell Crowe was instead used by the actor portraying Lt.Tom Pullings in the film. The shorter "Gentlemen's Cutlass" was used by Crowe's character, Captain Jack Aubrey. This fact was confirmed by Luke LaFontaine, a Los Angeles-based fight choreographer employed by the film company.
Custom swordmaker Tony Swatton's Burbank, CA shop THE SWORD AND THE STONE lists among its credits a handful of swords made for the film. I guessed that one of these may have been employed as "set-dressing" in Jack Aubrey's cabin. I was right. I received this note from Tony Swatton's shop...
A bit of further info for you... The image in Jack Aubrey's cabin displays
the ivory grip sabre based on an antique piece here in the showroom. It had
originally been made for use by Russell Crowe. He had just finished making
Gladiator and was too used to the technique for fighting with a gladius to
be able to properly wield a curved sabre. Hence that particular sword
wasn't used as Jack Aubrey's main fighting weapon.
The Sword and the Stone
Following some leads, I discovered that Pennsylvania military historian and film consultant Col. J. Craig Nannos of THE SENTRY POST contributed his expertise and functioned as contractor for the film's edged weapons. So the mysterious "Beauregard" was likely a sub-contractor hired by Nannos to oversee the manufacture of the swords. (Below, an excerpt from THE SENTRY POST promotional brochure)
It's standard procedure for a movie production to have several duplicates or "doubles" of a key prop on hand for use in stunt rehearsals, still shots, and to replace any that are lost or damaged. Perhaps six copies (each) of the principal swords used in MASTER AND COMMANDER, (as well as a number of dirks, pikes, and axes) were created for the film via Nannos and Beauregard's efforts.
This was confirmed to me by an email from the no-longer-mysterious G.C. Beauregard:
Yes, (the swords) came through Craig Nannos (Sentry Post). He runs the business end and I handle the design and manufacturing arrangements. We have worked films, in this way, since the first major film (Taps), over twenty years ago.
There were about six of each as well as that number for the dirks, except for the cutlasses, which were ordered in greater quantity. The crew used the common cutlasses (US 1797 for the French and the British Model 1804) and the boarding pikes. The officers got the swords and the mid shipmen got the dirks. The gun crews got the cannon tools. The Marines got the bayonets and other items of personal equipment.
The "Gentleman's Cutlass" came as rather a surprise to us. We really thought that the Broke Sword would go to the lead but after seeing the film and the desperate combat that Crowe had, at the end of the film, the cutlass was the perfect choice.
We deal with several manufacturers in Asia but these particular swords were, in fact, made in India. We deal with three different suppliers in that country.
While we did supply a fair number of swords for Master & Commander, the far greater number of swords were provided to the film "Patriot" with Mel Gibson. A good action film (Patriot) but absolutely terrible history.
Lt. Colonel G.C. Beauregard, AUSA retired
U.S. Sword & Uniform
After the film's completion, whatever remained of these custom-made props reverted to Craig Nannos and/or ended up in the hands of Beauregard. Beauregard had contacts in the Civil War re-enactor community, and a number of the cast-off MASTER AND COMMANDER edged weapons found their way to a Civil-War Re-enactment "sutler" business (uniform and equipment vendor), SMOKING IRON ALTERATIONS located in Indiana. James S. Aldrich put me in touch with owner Mike Dollinger. Mike offered to sell one of the last copies of the "Gentlemen's Cutlass" for $200. I couldn't say no.
(Above) Today it hangs on my wall together with a reproduction of an 1850's-era Royal Navy midshipman's dirk.
(Above, top), the unique circa-1800's British "Naval Hanger" in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England that Craig Nannos based Jack Aubrey's "Gentlemen's Cutlass" (beneath it) on.