Friday Film Review: Horatio Hornblower (TV series)
Horatio Hornblower (1998-2003)
Genre: Adventure, War, Drama
Grade: series as a whole, B+
After my review of “Captain Blood,” there was a call for more swashbuckling films. I do plan to eventually do more of these but I thought I’d detour slightly in this direction. It is swashbuckling, it is war, it is the Navy and it’s set just before and during the Regency period which is so popular with romance readers.
The episodes are basically Hornblower and the British Navy vs Napoleon and his allies. The action begins in 1793 and carries through the short peace and into the beginning of the second phase of war. I’ve never read the CS Forester books on which the series is based so I can’t answer to how closely the TV episodes follow them (from what I gather, very loosely). But I enjoyed seeing some aspects of the era, such as the action in Santo Domingo and the Irish/French alliance, with which I’m less familiar.
Hornblower saves the day, often against impossible odds and, sometimes, by going against his expressed orders when he sees an opportunity to turn the tide of action in favor of the British. It’s this eye for the main chance and the daring to pull things off which earns him the admiration of both the officers and men with whom he serves and which propels him up the chain of command in the Navy.
Each episode, or set of episodes, features someone who will be Hornblower’s chief buddy and also a surly fellow or three to act as a foil for Horatio’s nobility and sense of duty. In all cases, by the end of the show or set, the surly ones are either dead or have redeemed themselves, usually through death. Not all the major and, certainly, not all the minor characters will survive each episode but there is a core group we come to know.
Throughout the series, Ioan Gruffudd does a fantastic job as the man upon whom the whole series rests. He’s backed up by a fine series of actors and actresses – more the former than the latter as there are few female roles. This is definitely “male eye candy” viewing.
Robert Lindsay, in the role first of Captain then, by the end, Admiral Pellew, stands in as a mentor and almost father figure to Horatio. He’s tough but fair and uses his influence to smooth troubled waters, dispense justice to backstabbers and see Horatio on his way to a glorious future. Jamie Bamber and Paul McGann play the buddy roles while Paul Copley and Sean Gilder are enlisted men who serve with Horatio during the entire course of the series. There are scads of other top notch actors including David Rintoul, Ronald Pickup, David Warner, Denis Lawson, Ian McElhinney, and Greg Wise who co-star in various of the episodes.
The BBC does right by the series. But I think the presentation was well served by clever camera angles and tight close ups that help to conceal the fact that the Indefatigable wasn’t actually sailing with a full ships company. The model ship work is good and the enthusiasm of the actors during their fight scenes carries our belief in their reality. It looks as if care was taken with the costuming with the exception of Pellew’s unfortunate wig in episodes 5 and 6. Oi, what a horror that was. The Grand Turk, which stands in for HMS Indefatigable, is a wonder.
During the first four of the episodes, Horatio is so painfully honorable at times that I wanted to yell at him to get drunk and get laid. Yet, despite always doing the right thing, even if it initially seems like it might go against his long term advancement, in the end, he always comes about and is proven right for having followed the dictates of his conscience. He also does begin to accept that not everyone is as noble as he and learns not to condemn out of hand – as with the “Duchess” who ensures the safety of the Naval dispatches by means at which Horatio initially bridles.
By the time of episodes 5 and 6, he’s older, wiser and more willing to bend the rules for the ultimate good. And during episodes 7 and 8, he’s thinking beyond the immediate – such as how a traitor’s identity might affect the entire fleet. We also see the pressures of command sometimes weighing heavily on him and he never loses a chance to mentally beat himself up for what he considers his failings of the episode.
We also see his conflict between his duty to his ship and men and to his wife, whom he marries out of duty. His growth as a man and as a leader of men is steady and noticeable from episode 1–> 8. My congratulations to the director and screenwriters who have done an admirable job of conveying this.
There are 4 episodes which feature either a love interest for young Hornblower or strong female role. Honestly, I wasn’t too thrilled with the roles of either the young French woman who is Horatio’s first (brief) love or the young woman he eventually marries, though I understand she is supposed to be seen as a weight around his neck.
Julia Sawalha plays Maria Mason who eventually becomes Mrs. Hornblower. Before seeing these episodes, I was afraid her character would be Lydia Bennet all over again. She’s not, though she’s more cloying than Sawalha is in her role as Saffron in Ab Fab. It’s obvious that he doesn’t love her, nor is he supposed to according to what I’ve read. Had the series continued, perhaps we would seen him eventually find love.
The actress who stands out as the type who might have been a match for Horatio is played by veteran English actress Cherie Lunghi. She’s the Duchess/actress who is as determined to fight for her King and country as any man in the service. She can use flirtation and her fan like weapons and shows Horatio that honor is not only in the upperclasses. But yes, yes, I know she’s not meant for him in the series.
There’s a nice presentation of all eight episodes in a Collector’s Edition with some nifty extras. Though I don’t understand why the first 4 shows are subtitled and not the last 4 (though I believe those last ones have closed captioning). Subtitles definitely help when listening to the accents of the enlisted sailors. There are also some commentary tracks with the director and producer.
Each episode is about 100 minutes which gives almost 800 minutes (13+ hours) of action, adventure and buckling of swashes. Not a bad bargain and one I recommend trying.