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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.


Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 04:09:12

    Oh, swoon. I loved all these. Discovered some on A&E Sunday morning a few years ago, took out the rest from my library. Even made me read the C.S. Forester books. Ioan Gruffudd goes from a seasick stripling to a man of honor personified. Just a fabulous series. I’m now officially a Ioan Gruffudd fangirl, although I cannot sit through The Fantastic Four.

  2. Jessica
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 05:18:32

    Great review!

    Horatio and Sharpe’s Rifles are on constant rotation at our house … one of the risks of being married to a British historian.

    If you like the TV series, I highly recommend the 1951 film starring the wonderful (and gorgeous) Gregory Peck.

  3. ShellBell
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 05:26:20

    I thoroughly enjoyed this series. It is definitely well worth watching. The eye-candy of Ioan Gruffudd and Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica and Law and Order UK) is a lovely bonus.

    As is Sean Bean’s Sharpe – can’t wait for the next one to come on TV in New Zealand.

  4. Jayne
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 05:28:45

    Yes, yes. The Sharpe series is lovely too though I wish they had had the budget that the Hornblower series had. The battle scenes in Sharpe really show the lack.

  5. Sandy James
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 07:49:03

    I saw one episode on A&E and had to buy the series. Of course, I could watch Ioan Gruffudd do nothing but read the phone book and I’d still be entertained. If someone ever made my Murphy’s Law into a movie, he damn well better be cast as Seth Remington.

  6. Sandy (Strlady)
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 08:00:58

    I LOVE Horatio Hornblower!! Still to this day if I see Ioan Gruffudd in any other films (Fantastic Four) I call him Horatio! This series is Fabulous!

  7. Jill Sorenson
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 08:24:57

    I enjoyed the series, but I would have liked more women and romance in it. Wasn’t there a scene where Horatio doffs his uniform and dives overboard? Mmmm. Ioan Gruffudd is hawt. I love his earnest face.

  8. Rosemary
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 08:30:10

    Hi Jayne!

    I too, love Cherie Lunghi–if you can find it, check out the 80s BBC version of Much Ado About Nothing with her and Robert Lindsay as Beatrice and Bendick–it’s just lovely.

  9. Terry Odell
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 08:31:47

    I taped this series when it first showed up on PBS. But I’ll have to get the DVD’s — once we actually upgrade to a DVD recorder. We plan to do it when we move, but first we have to sell the house, etc., etc., Meanwhile, it’s Netflix for movies.

    (I heartily recommend Captains Courageous, which was one of our recent movie night viewings)

  10. Jacqueline L.
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 09:19:46

    Lovelovelove! I have the books and the 8-disc boxset. :)

  11. Jayne
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 09:30:00

    Wasn't there a scene where Horatio doffs his uniform and dives overboard? Mmmm.

    YES! Episode two of the original 4 that started the series. And don’t forget the “shower” scene while they’re sailing the the Caribbean – that’s either in “Mutiny” or “Retribution” – can’t remember which one right off hand. Hawt indeed. ::fans self::

  12. Dave Doyle
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 09:32:11

    I loved the series as a whole myself and bought the full box set. Having read the books I really was hoping they’d keep it going. Hopefully Gruffudd manages to do one when he’s a little older too.

    That being said, I found the last two not as enjoyable as the first bunch.

    David Warner has a turn as a deranged captain that Hornblower has to contend with and I enjoyed that but found his character to be just a little too over the top for my tastes. That being said, I enjoyed a more confident Hornblower. Sawalha did capture the character pretty well but I think it’s a hard one to translate to the screen without seeming too pathetic. Paul McGann was simply exemplary as Lt. Bush. His chemistry with Gruffudd really came through.

    The last two I admit were a bit of a trial to me. The budget had obviously been cut further and I can’t say anything more than they felt wrong to me.

    Paul Copley and Sean Gilder as the older more experienced able seamen Matthews and Styles were one of my fondest parts of the series. Matthews was a fantastic old-hand and mentor in some ways to Hornblower as well as unflagging support for our young officer. Styles was always good for a laugh as well as a steadfast fighter and companion. Their chemistry with each other and Hornblower always brought a smile.

  13. Jayne
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 09:32:25

    I taped this series when it first showed up on PBS. But I'll have to get the DVD's -‘ once we actually upgrade to a DVD recorder.

    I taped one or two during the TV presentations on A&E, then bought the original 4 as VHS tapes but had never gotten the last two. When I saw the total series offered as a box set at a good price, I bought it.

  14. Jayne
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 09:39:53

    I too, love Cherie Lunghi-if you can find it, check out the 80s BBC version of Much Ado About Nothing with her and Robert Lindsay as Beatrice and Bendick-it's just lovely.

    I’ve already got it in my Netflix queue and am looking forward to it! I’ve enjoyed watching Lindsay in the “My Family” series and as Inspector Jericho.

  15. Janet W
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 09:42:36

    Great books, great series, amazing actors … think I know what I’ll be re-watching this weekend. Such a painless way to re-visit history too. I’d love a romance books + great movies curriculum for say the Napoleonic wars. Make history live :)

    Excellent review.

  16. Ros
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 11:49:58

    Hornblower is not a BBC production. I know this in part because I watched it here in the UK on ITV, and in part because when I got to go to the ITV Centre one time, I saw a lifesize cutout of Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower and spent the whole time trying to work out how I could smuggle it home in my handbag. He is, I think undisputably, the most beautiful man I have ever seen.

    Read the books. They are wonderfully written, even for those of us with less than no interest in naval history. The most romantic is The Happy Return, though the happy ending doesn’t come immediately. Hornblower is just an amazing, complex character, who embodies so much of the British class system, with his natural reserve, his massive insecurities, his stiff upper lip, his tactical brilliance, and his desire to always appear totally in control.

  17. Jayne
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 11:54:35

    I saw a lifesize cutout of Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower and spent the whole time trying to work out how I could smuggle it home in my handbag.

    I take it you didn’t work out how to smuggle it home? Bummer….

  18. SonomaLass
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 13:11:59

    My DP is a big Hornblower fan — he has all the books. He introduced me to the series — I already had a huge fan-girl crush on Robert Lindsay, and I quickly developed one on Ioan Gruffudd, too. His “swimming scene” was almost as good as Colin Firth’s as Darcy! We have all the episodes on DVD and enjoyed them; we have also loaned them out a lot, to hook others. Not much romance (true to the books in that respect), but great action adventure and wonderful performances.

  19. Stephanie
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 13:42:17

    I very much enjoyed the Hornblower series, which reminded me of the classic British miniseries of the ’80s and early ’90s. Kind of amusing how attempts to give Hornblower a female love interest only reinforce how much more chemistry Ioan Gruffudd has with his male co-stars, especially Jamie Bamber and Robert Lindsay.

    I’ve read the novels too, though book-Hornblower often frustrates me as a character because he’s so full of insecurities, neuroses, and apparent self-loathing. CSF wanted to explore the Napoleonic naval officer as the quintessential Man Alone; he succeeded but it’s not much fun reading Hornblower’s self-flagellation sessions, which are both lengthy and frequent.

  20. Ros
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 14:08:57

    Jayne, no I didn’t. Ioan went to school with a friend of a friend of mine and I have also spent quite a lot of time angling for an introduction, to no avail.

  21. Estara
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 14:15:20

    I’m old-fashioned, I guess: Horation Hornblower on screen for me will always be Gregory Peck. And the love story in that movie worked very well, too.

  22. Connie
    Aug 29, 2009 @ 02:03:41

    First of all, to Jayne, I just want to say how I love your reviews. Mainly for the reason that my taste is similar to yours. OMG The Tenth Gift was so good (despite the moment of creepiness at the end) and I’ve also started People of the Book. I have no doubt I’ll love it.

    I watched Horatio Hornblower a couple years back. Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander built me up for this show. Borrowed the whole thing from the library (yay for great library systems that has everything!). Totally loved Hornblower despite his somewhat over-zealous sense of duty (especially when he married out of duty). At the time I remember thinking how I really liked the series despite a lack of long-term romance. But I felt like it fit since Hornblower is such a dutiful man and the sea-faring aspect is just as interesting as the romance. I almost couldn’t sit through fantastic four…I still did because there was Gruffudd and Jessica Alba…and the guy from Charmed.

    When a series lack obvious romantic heart-wrenching/warming moments, however, I tend to not re-visit the show. I own the Scarlet Pimpernel series starring Richard E. Grant and I still review it now and then just to savour the moments between Percy and Marguerite but could not persuade myself to buy Hornblower.

    Another great surprise was recognizing Jamie Bamber when I first watched Battlestar Galactica…which prompted me to review his performance in Pimpernel and Hornblower again. BBC recognizes great talents early.

  23. Jayne
    Aug 29, 2009 @ 06:42:14

    Thanks, Connie. I hope you like “People” as much as you did “Gift.”

    I usually adore Richard E Grant in about everything he does…except the “Pimpernel” series. I tried the first episode and couldn’t finish it. Elizabeth McGovern just seemed so miscast to me. Though I know it has plot holes and problems galore, the Andrews/Seymour edition will always be my favorite.

  24. KristieJ
    Aug 29, 2009 @ 09:54:21

    I loved this whole series and watched it almost holding my breath. And I cried when Archie Kennedy – aka Jamie Bamber met his end.
    And where is your link to Captain Blood? I missed it somehow and would love to read your review for it too.

  25. Jayne
    Aug 29, 2009 @ 11:21:49

    Here’s a link to the “Captain Blood” review. You can also go up to the tags section of the review and click on “Friday Film Reviews” and that should pull up all the ones we’ve done.

  26. Jo Leigh
    Aug 29, 2009 @ 11:39:23

    I’ve read Hornblower since I was a child. Many, many re-readings, and I’ve collected quite a few first editions, two of them signed. I think the makers of the series also loved the books and understood a great deal about the complex character of Horatio (who, along with Atticus Finch are my favorite fictional characters). They got the heart of Hornblower beautifully right. One of the things that made me love HH was his insecurity, and his determination to do what was right despite not believing in his strengths. His truest relationship in the books was always Mr. Bush, and their friendship was a thing of wonder. I’ll have to re-watch the series, and/or read the books again as even a mere mention of the name pulls me like a moth to a flame.

    I remember when I was a kid, Hubert Humphrey as VP was introduced by some big reporter as Hubert Horatio Hornblower, which cracked me up and utterly delighted me.

    Thanks for the review.

  27. ShellBell
    Aug 29, 2009 @ 15:14:05

    The Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour version has always been my favourite too! The chemistry between them was much more believable to me. Richard E Grant and Elizabeth McGovern just didn’t seem to have any.

  28. Sandy James
    Aug 29, 2009 @ 17:36:16

    @ Jayne

    Though I know it has plot holes and problems galore, the Andrews/Seymour edition will always be my favorite.

    One of my favorite shows! I also couldn’t watch more than an episode of the Richard Grant version because he didn’t pull off Percy at all. With Anthony Andrews, you believed he was a hero pretending to be a fop. With Grant, he just WAS a fop, and I couldn’t believe him as a hero.

  29. Karla
    Aug 31, 2009 @ 10:36:10

    LOVE this series & don’t mind the lack of romance at all. Despite the fact that I read lots of romances, I prefer my movies to be action-y and romance-less — or “romance” in terms of Sharpe’s Mattress Mate of the Week.

  30. Jayne
    Aug 31, 2009 @ 10:43:39

    ROTFL, Karla. Sharpe’s Mattress Mate of the Week indeed. It seems that way, doesn’t it? Was there a single woman in any of the books or TV episodes he didn’t go to bed with? Other than Harper’s main flame.

  31. Rocky
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 10:23:15

    @Dave Doyle:

    Also a fan I found the last 2 challenging and abrupt. Considering budget cuts and the seemingly indefinite halt of the series I can forgive an otherwise perfect production.

    3 cheers for the Captain!!!

  32. mikikakaew
    Mar 04, 2011 @ 08:21:09

    :) thanks

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