A&E // 1999 // 400 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // February 6th, 2000
An epic saga of seafaring adventure comes to vivid life.
The opening salvo of episodes in the long career of C.S. Forester's naval hero, the Horatio Hornblower box set of four discs takes some liberties with the classic literature of the original novels but should please the general audience with its attention to detail and strong suit of actors and actresses.
Written by C.S. Forester in the grim aftermath of World War II, the eleven book saga of Horatio Hornblower spans his career from the rawest Midshipman ("Mr. Midshipman Hornblower") to his tenure as Admiral of the Fleet at a ripe old age ("Hornblower During the Crisis"). It is certainly literature from a different age, where the hero is forthright, concerned with honor and duty, his professional life paramount and all else secondary. No apologies are made for the era and its idiosyncrasies; it is simply presented warts and all. If you like classic adventure and bracing heroism, then this is the series for you.
A&E, in cooperation with British colleagues has embarked upon the ambitious project of bringing the vast story of Horatio Hornblower to life, beginning with these four films drawn from the stories of the first book ("Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.") The creators of Horatio Hornblower are to be congratulated for bringing the adventurous spirit of the books vividly to life with careful attention to historical detail at every turn. This is accomplished with a moderate budget and modest special effects, which maintain the illusion perfectly except for a shot or two which are visibly counterfeit.
A real wooden sailing frigate, constructed by a shipbuilding clan that traces its craft back hundreds of years, was impressed into service as His Royal Majesty's frigate 'Indefatigable.' This, along with deftly handled models and editing work, gives the whole endeavor a reality that convinces and draws the viewer into the story. Apparently we will be treated to at least two more films based on the second book ("Lieutenant Hornblower") sometime in the near future, which I await with great anticipation.
Cast in the critical role of our title hero, Horatio Hornblower, is Ioan Gruffudd, whose previous exposure to American audiences was as Fifth Officer Harold Lowe in the similarly nautical Titanic. You may smirk at the scenes where Hornblower is in small boats rescuing people, but it's to be expected! I hope that he continues to occasionally appear in American movies, so that we can all be treated to this talented actor. He does well to portray a character's growth from a young, very green Midshipman and into a confident, brash young man and commissioned Lieutenant. He feels very real, likable and confident but without being invulnerable or infallible.
The second most important character, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, is portrayed by Robert Lindsay, who is the perfect embodiment of what we would imagine a Royal Navy Captain to be. He is intelligent, stern, tenacious, introspective, and carefully compassionate; every inch the role model for Horatio Hornblower. He plays up the role of father figure much more than is present in the books, and this is one change that I wholeheartedly welcome. As for the rest of the cast, they fill their roles with style and talent; I can't make any complaints about the acting.
The Duel (Disc One) is the very dawn of Hornblower's career in the Royal Navy in 1793. Wet and thoroughly miserable, Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) comes aboard the Justinian as her newest midshipman, sent to "learn the ropes" and make his way in the world. His rough introduction to his new life, despite the help of Midshipman Kennedy (Jamie Bamber) and Midshipman Clayton (Duncan Bell), is made worse by the embittered tyrant senior Midshipman Simpson (Dorian Healy), whose failure to pass his Lieutenant's exam has made him even more the despot. Horatio's natural sense of morality and mathematical brilliance bring him Simpson's terrible wrath, making Horatio's life a living hell. Captain Keene (Michael Byrne, seen in Tomorrow Never Dies, Braveheart, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is ailing and ineffective, letting Simpson's tyranny run out of control.
A chance remark by Simpson over cards gives Horatio the opportunity to end his misery by a duel with his tormentor, but a friend intervenes with the upshot being that Simpson lives. The sudden advent of war with revolutionary France brings with it a transfer of Horatio and his mates (sans Simpson) to the fighting frigate Indefatigable under the hard-charging Captain Sir Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay). Horatio begins to flourish as he takes charge of men formerly under Simpson's benign neglect and stirs them into loyal, fighting sailors. His sternest test comes when he is tasked to sail a captured French supply ship into an English port. He is slow to realize the extent of the ship's damage at Indefatigable's hands and only his cleverness and the providential appearance of help spares him a French prison.
His happy life comes to a rude halt when the Indefatigable rescues survivors of an attack on the Justinian by a French warship, and the lot includes his nemesis Midshipman Simpson. During a subsequent "cutting-out" expedition to capture the French ship, Simpson causes Midshipman Kennedy to fall into enemy hands and then attempts to murder Horatio. Horatio not only survives, but when the senior officers are killed, takes command of the captured French warship and saves the Indefatigable from a surprise attack by several French corvettes. Reunited with Captain Pellew, Horatio's accusation against Simpson sparks a second duel between the antagonists, at which point justice is dispensed.
The Fire Ships (or, according to the main title, The Fire Ship) (Disc Two) finds newly appointed Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower aboard the "Indy" at anchor in a Spanish harbor. An eminent Spanish official brings Captain Pellew the news of Spain's neutrality with France, widely seen as merely a preliminary step to an alliance with France and hence war with England. This is particularly bad news, for with the British fleet in the Mediterranean on short supplies, Spain now begins to worsen the situation by preying on British supply ships. One such raid's remnants are rescued by the Indefatigable, surprisingly including the renowned Captain Harry "Dreadnought" Foster (Denis Lawson, last seen as Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy), who had been on his way to Gibraltar to take up a command.
When Captain Pellew informs his protégé that his examination for Lieutenant is forthcoming, Horatio feverishly begins a nautical cram marathon. Meanwhile, the short rations are causing discontent, particularly when a British supply ship is destroyed within sight of the fleet by a Spanish fire ship. Desperation leads a sailor to steal food from the stores, who is then harshly punished as an example to the rest of the crew. However, salvation is at hand when the Indefatigable is tasked to escort a British supply ship to and from an Arab port, using the services of Mr. Tapling (Ian McNeice, seen in A Life Less Ordinary, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, The Russia House), of the Diplomatic Service, to negotiate the purchase of supplies from the Arab merchants. Providence turns to disaster when the plague (the "Black Death") sweeps the port, preventing Horatio and his men sent to gather the supplies from rejoining the fleet until a three week quarantine is served.
In a desperate gamble for supplies, Captain Pellew allows Horatio and his crew to load their purchased supplies and cattle aboard the hastily vacated supply brig Caroline, so that they can serve their quarantine afloat and then sail their supplies directly to the hungry fleet at Gibraltar. The work is hard, but not without a few bouts of adventure and tragedy. Upon rejoining the fleet, the examination shortly ensnares Horatio in its grasp as he waits his nerve-wracking turn with forty of his fellows. The hour is late when Horatio finally comes before the captain's tribunal, which includes an irascible Captain Foster! Their hypothetical problem leaves Horatio speechless and a moment from failure when alarm guns signal a Spanish attack with fire ships upon the British fleet at anchor. In the ensuing chaos, Captain Foster and Horatio board a fire ship and boldly steer it clear of the Indefatigable. As the "Indy" sails onward, Horatio muses upon his experiences and wonders what the future will hold.
The Duchess and the Devil (Disc Three) opens with Acting Lieutenant Hornblower leading a party of men in a desperate fight against the odds to capture a French ship. The battle is bitter but short, leaving Horatio to sail his prize to Gibraltar and rejoin the fleet. To his surprise, Horatio is ordered to take his prize and sail for Portsmouth, England, so that the ship can be purchased into the service of the Royal Navy. The task is simple enough, but Acting Lieutenant Hornblower also must convey a packet of vital dispatches for the Admiralty and a very exalted item of cargo. Her Grace, the Duchess of Wharfedale (Cheri Lunghi) carries high rank but comes from common stock (and speaks the part). The journey to England is without incident, until amidst a solid sea of fog the ship finds itself in the middle of a Spanish fleet.
All of Horatio's wiles and luck go only so far before capture inevitably follows. Hornblower, Midshipman Hunter (Christopher Fulford), and his men are put ashore and into a Spanish prison. They are shocked to find in their prison cell a thoroughly dispirited Midshipman Kennedy (Jamie Bamber), who we last saw in The Duel. Kennedy has attempted to escape many times, and the resulting punishments became so severe that he has abandoned all hope. Hornblower's grim days are lightened when Her Grace begins to visit him daily, though this causes dissension when Hunter opines that his friendship (or is it more?) with Her Grace is holding Hornblower back from an escape attempt. Behind Hornblower's back, Hunter gains the allegiance of the men and soon launches a foolhardy, bloody escape attempt that ends in bitter failure.
Prison life wends its weary way until one storm-tossed day the Indefatigable chases a Spanish ship so far ashore that the Spanish ship wrecks and puts its crew in peril of drowning. Watching the events unfold, Hornblower convinces the Spanish commandant (Ronald Pickup) to permit Horatio and his men to launch a rescue operation. The commandant does so, but only after Hornblower gives his parole and the parole of his men (which is a promise none will attempt to escape). The storms are fearsome, yet Horatio and his men manage to rescue some of the Spanish crew with heroic feats of courage and seamanship. Chance forces them out to sea, where they meet (purely by coincidence, I am sure) the Indefatigable.
Horatio enjoys dry clothes and a tot of rum, as well as the news that the Admiralty has confirmed him as Lieutenant in recognition of his courage during the fire ship attack at Gibraltar. However, Horatio feels compelled to return to the Spanish prison, having given his word as a gentleman that he would not escape. Once again the boredom of prison life seeps into Horatio's life, until one fine day when the commandant brings the unexpected news that Horatio and his men are being freed in recognition of their efforts to rescue the wrecked Spanish crew. Horatio can only be amazed that fortune has freed him to resume his career in the Royal Navy.
The Wrong War (Disc Four) begins at the Admiralty, in London. French Royalist forces, chafing at their exile in London and passionate about sweeping away the revolutionary rabble in Paris, have convinced the King and the Admiralty to back an invasion attempt. Royalist troops, led by General Charette (John Shrapnel), will land in Brittany and move inland, raising loyal troops as they go until the whole country is aflame and the His Most Christian Majesty is restored to his throne. Captain Sir Edward Pellew is singularly unimpressed, considering this yet another futile effort by the Royalists, but he keeps his opinions mute and follows the direct orders of Admiral Lord Hood (Peter Vaughan, The Crucible, The Remains of the Day, Brazil).
Lieutenant Hornblower is tasked with getting General Charette's troops as well as a contingent of British infantry led by Major Lord Edrington (Samuel West) aboard the transports which the Indefatigable will then escort to France. Coming aboard as well is General Charette's deputy, the densely arrogant and thoroughly aristocratic Colonel Moncoutant, Marquis of Muzillac, which is a town very near the invasion site. The trip is uneventful, and upon arrival Moncoutant's detachment troops are unloaded. Hornblower goes ashore with a small group of men and guns to support the effort, and so lands on enemy soil for the first time. The main force goes on with General Charette to Quiberon Bay.
Col. Moncoutant, easily taking control of his former lands, is aghast at the damage that the republicans have done to his house and furnishings. While his troops prepare defenses to protect the main landing force at Quiberon Bay, the Marquis unpacks a portable guillotine and sets to work giving the hated revolutionaries a taste of their own medicine. Horatio becomes more and more disillusioned by his brutal allies, and goes so far as to protect and befriend a pretty young lady, Mariette (Estelle Skornik), from the abuse of Royalist troops. The deceptively easy progress by the Royalist force begins to turn as the republican forces mass troops and artillery against General Charette and turn his campaign into a bloodbath.
The quiet at Muzillac has become disconcerting, and Hornblower is convinced that the enemy is massing in preparation for a massive strike. Mouncoutant cannot be made to realize his danger, so Horatio and Lord Edrington make ready to fend off the assault and prepare for a retreat back to the beach. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the town is followed by a fighting retreat covered by Major Lord Edrington's disciplined infantry. Expecting to make a last, fatal stand at the beach, all, including Horatio Hornblower, are astonished at the unexpected savior of gunfire from the Indefatigable. Safe aboard the "Indy," Hornblower and his colleagues are fortunate to have escaped such a disaster intact. THE END (for now).
The video is quite good for a television presentation, though it does suffer by comparison to the best theatrical movies. The picture is pristine, free of all manner of dirt and defects. There is not a lot of opportunity for color saturation to be noticed, given the generally muted blues and browns of the nautical settings, but such colors as are present are well done. I did not notice any digital enhancement artifacts. Video noise is kept to a very low level, and the primary fault is in a lack of sharpness and detail, which is only modestly distracting in a handful of scenes. Blacks are okay, and there is some loss of shadow detail in the night scenes, but nothing worthy of censure.
The audio is modestly done Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Your split surrounds will have the night off, and your subwoofer will get only limited use. For what is left is a front soundstage, though usually centered with limited use of the right and left channels. The soundtrack comes through vibrantly on the right and left channels and can best be described as classical adventure music. It is very effective at complimenting the on-screen emotional context, whether it be a somber mood of tragedy, rousing adrenaline action, or upbeat confidence. It subtly helps the viewer into the period of the stories and maintain the illusion.
The extras aren't as abundant as in A&E's releases of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but still a welcome addition. On Disc One, you get a brief but informative look into the creator of the original Hornblower books, C.S. Forester. The "Nautical Terms and Definitions" on Disc Two was a helpful reminder of a number of terms used in the books and series, but the interface is a bit clunky and makes it impossible to speed through the selections (if so desired). Disc Three has the "Behind the Scenes Making of Horatio Hornblower" which is a typical featurette of commendable length (21 minutes). Interviews with cast and crew, behind the scenes glimpses, and the like are included, and of note is the look at the actual wooden frigate that was used as the Indefatigable.
The crown jewel (if you will pardon the pun) of the extras is the 45-minute documentary on Disc Four, "England's Royal Warships," hosted by (Prince) Edward Windsor. Even for someone who has avidly read the Hornblower books, as well as some books about this period, the documentary will educate you in detail about the daily lives of the sailors aboard the wooden ships of the Napoleonic era. Furthermore, that life is contrasted with a look at what the modern sailor aboard a Royal Navy ship faces today. Aside from that, the main menus are pleasantly movie themed with some animation and music. For some odd reason, my Disc One came in an Alpha keep case whereas the other three were in Amaray keep cases.
One final point that I must mention is that these are the best captions I have seen on a disc for a simple reason. The location of the text tracks with the speaker, which should assist in comprehending the action and plot for those persons who need captions.
It may be a minor concern, but I suspect that these discs are slightly pan-and-scanned rather than being true 4:3 full frame. Having originated on British television (with its use of PAL rather than NTSC), I suspect the original aspect ratio was 1.66:1. This thought occurred to me when I was watching my VHS tapes of the Richard Sharpe stories, which are actually letterboxed at 1.66:1. While not much would be lost, it is still annoying to think that we could have had an anamorphic widescreen transfer.
Another criticism is story related, though this is of concern mostly to those who have avidly read the original books by C.S. Forester. The Horatio Hornblower that we meet in these four movies is a lot less awkward and lonely, and a good deal more handsome than in the books. I can accept this, but adapting him to a wooer of women is stretching his character a bit far. This is most strongly present in The Wrong War where his French servant-girl love interest feels very artificial, as if she were grafted onto the story simply to spice up the story with a pinch of sex.
One script nitpick: in The Wrong War, General Charette refers to the King of France as His Most Catholic Majesty, which I believe is properly the reference for the King of Spain (C.S. Forester at least agrees with me on this point.) Also, a lot of the naval gunfire seems to be using shells, when in fact they would be using exclusively shot (round, grape, or chain), but I understand that explosions are more dramatic and perhaps easier for the effects crew!
A fine collection of rousing, swashbuckling action stories of heroism, duty, and sacrifice, these stories will satisfy those looking for adventure and attention to historical detail, but not those looking for huge explosions, dizzying camera work, or modern techno-music with thoroughly modern people playing with period clothing. If that's your bag, baby, then wait, because Plunkett and Macleane will be along shortly.
The Court is mindful that all officers must stand for judgment by court-martial in all such cases, and commends all concerned for their forthright testimony. Horatio Hornblower is most honorably acquitted, while A&E is granted adjournment in contemplation of dismissal should they see fit to acquire the rights to the Richard Sharpe series and release it on DVD!
Review content copyright © 2000 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 400 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* About C.S. Forester
* Nautical Terms and Definitions
* Behind the Scenes Featurette
* "England's Royal Warships" Documentary
* IMDb: Disc 1
* IMDb: Disc 2
* IMDb: Disc 3
* IMDb: Disc 4