Adventure is Judge Adam Arseneau's middle name.
Our reviews of Benedict Arnold: A Question Of Honor (published May 19th, 2003), Horatio Hornblower (published February 6th, 2000), Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition (published October 16th, 2008), and Longitude (published December 19th, 2000) are also available.
The only thing A&E likes more than creating made-for-television historical dramas are releasing them onto DVD, and then re-releasing them in various configurations of box sets, special editions, and collector's sets. Ah, the double-dip.
Facts of the Case
The A&E Adventure Collection DVD Set combines the most "adventurous" of A&E's televised features into a handsome set of fourteen DVDs. It's a great collection with some surprisingly excellent productions, although audiences may take umbrage as to what constitutes "adventurous" by A&E standards—things like geography, longitudinal calculation, steerage, etc.
Just what is steerage, anyway?
Even though they may not get the respect they deserve, the endless stream of made-for-television movies churned out by A&E each year deserve our praise. Strong production values, impressive casting, attention to detail, beefy running times, and an almost fanatical devotion to selecting subject matters that alienate everyone lacking a university level education in literature and history ensure a continued small yet devoted following. Although I count myself among such an educated crowd, in the past, there had been no room in my heart for such dalliances. Every stumbled-upon film flipped through while channel surfing on A&E was immediately dismissed as stodgy and dull and subsequently passed over.
Enter The A&E Adventure Collection DVD Set, which arrived by mail and required two stout men to tote it into my living room. This DVD set is massive: fourteen discs featuring over nineteen hours of content. This humble judge is about to receive something of a brutal crash course. The quick verdict? Good stuff. A little dull to be sure, but undeniably quality in production, story, and acting. A lot of love (and some impressive casting) went into fashioning these productions, and even though A&E may not be directly responsible for some (the Hornblower series are a U.K. production, for example), they are all quite respectable in their own stodgy way. Even Longitude, a title on the surface so excruciatingly dull and painful in description as to inspire eye socket bleeding, turns out to be unexpectedly fascinating and gripping.
Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor
General Benedict Arnold (Aidan Quinn, Legends of the Fall), hero of the battle at Saratoga, is hailed throughout revolutionary America, striking animosity into the hearts of loyalists and the British forces. Unfortunately, his brazen attitude and harsh mannerisms prevent him from playing politics, and slicker individuals soon rise through the ranks into positions of power, much to Arnold's dismay. Congress refuses to give him the credit he feels he is due, and Arnold is not happy about it. Not even his close personal relationship with the renowned General George Washington (Kelsey Grammer, Frasier) works in his favor. Time and time again, Arnold is taken for granted by his superiors, until he finally becomes wounded in battle and becoming embittered of all things military.
Benedict is eventually called back into duty by Washington and lands a comfy job as military administrator of Philadelphia, a city still torn by loyalists and British sympathizers. Catching the eye of beautiful young Peggy Shippen (Flora Montgomery), he falls in with a decidedly British crowd, further damaging his reputation in the eyes of his Revolutionary brethren. Soon, his unwavering loyalty to secession comes under question as he begins to take financial advantage of his new position, milking merchants with outrageous fees and living the sweet life. He eventually goes so far as to make contact with the British army and offering them a deal. His fellow patriots may not recognize his contributions, but perhaps the redcoats will…
Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is a bit of a contradiction; a good story sandwiched neatly between the bewildering performances of its two leading actors. The tale of notorious turncoat Benedict Arnold makes for a strong tale in of itself, but this feature is actually one of the spongier of the pack, full of air and pomp. With a short running time and familiar story (for most American schoolchildren), it makes for an easily accessible adventure, but the perplexing casting is just too distracting.
I like Kelsey Grammer, but I like him in Cheers, in Frasier. I do not like him as General George Washington. Am I the only one who finds this a completely random casting; like they drew a lottery out of the SAG and picked whoever came out of the hat? His performance is…well, it's Kelsey Grammer. He really just plays Frasier Crane again and again—genial and sophisticated in every role he takes on, but as George Washington? That's just weird. On the other side of the coin, Quinn's performance as Arnold is a blend of perspicacity and overacting. At times, his steely, passionate gaze expresses more subtlety and conflict than all his dialogue combined, but it gets more complicated when he starts talking. Everything out of his mouth seems to be furious shouting. One wonders whether it was the intentions of the producers to illustrate Arnold as being a giant douchebag, because that's how Quinn plays the role.
If you can get past the performances—which I reiterate aren't bad, just confusing—Benedict Arnold: A Question of Truth features good special effects, a dramatic orchestral score, and a nice balance between historical fact and allegorical exaggeration. As for where history ultimately comes down on Arnold, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor doesn't really vindicate or condemn the man, but does try to give some sympathetic motivations behind his betrayal. Apparently, he was broke, bitter, and married a Brit. It is funny to see what getting passed over for promotion will do to a man's better judgment. No grand revelations, no controversial storytelling here—just Revolutionary era warfare, tomahawks to the chest, and fancy costumes aplenty.
Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is solidly average; you won't feel you wasted your time watching it, but neither will you feel particularly chuffed about owning a copy.
A young officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic war, Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd, Fantastic Four) has been sent to sea as a midshipman to serve his country, but quickly finds life in the Navy to be a rough-and-tumble affair. Seemingly ill-fitted to life at sea, he slowly works his way through the ranks, earning loyalty from both crew and command, revealing himself to be a surprisingly loyal and honorable officer. Amusingly, nobody is more surprised than young Hornblower by this revelation.
In "The Duel," a young and inexperienced Hornblower arrives at the Justinian, a ship of the line in the Royal Navy. He quickly runs afoul of the midshipman, a bully named Jack Simpson. Young Horatio quickly finds life at sea to be an endless nightmare of torture and brutality at the hands of his oppressor, who has the entire crew terrorized, unbeknownst to the superior officers stationed above deck. After the Justinian is sunk, the crew joins a new vessel, Indefatigable, but repeated conflicts with Simpson leave Hornblower with little choice but to challenge the experienced solider to a duel.
In "The Fire Ships," a now more-experienced Hornblower is put up for promotion on the Indefatigable to the rank of Lieutenant by his commander. However, a rapidly changing political landscape soon complicates life for the crew. Now that Spain has allied with France, the seas have become all the more dangerous. During his examination, the Indefatigable discovers a fire ship heading straight into Gibraltar, set to explode! No time for tests—there are heroics to be done!
"The Duchess and the Devil" finds Hornblower and his crew captured as prisoners of war attempting to escort a duchess back to England. Attempting to pass through Spanish waters on a stolen vessel, the crew runs smack into the entire Spanish Armada and are captured. Desperate to protect their cache of secret documents, Hornblower has the papers hidden in the duchess's undergarments, but after the duchess is given free range of their prison island and reveals herself to be fluent in Spanish, the crew begins having doubts as to her loyalty. Hornblower himself is further distracted by her compelling beauty.
"The Wrong War" sends Hornblower to France in an attempt to overthrow the Republic along with a band of French nationalists, but the plan goes afoul once the top secret plans are stolen. Hornblower is astonished by the brutality sweeping through France, and soon finds his mission at odds with his own sense of honor and loyalty.
Created for British television, the Horatio Hornblower series (of which we get four episodes in this set) may be the most "authentic" in appearance and mannerism, simply because the all-British cast is playing British roles, set in Britain. It seems a simple and obvious thing, but you can't knock geographical authenticity. This series was a successful import for A&E, a continued seafaring adventure series mixing historical seafaring military adventures with the romanticized fancy of fictitious writing. Some literary purists may have reservations with some of the liberties and casting decisions taken by the series, but it's hard to dispute how enjoyable the show is. It walks that nice line between historical accuracy and fiction—like miniature versions of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with fewer explosions.
Despite being based on literary tales rather than historical fact, the attention to detail in the Hornblower series is probably its strongest selling point. While some of the plots do not move quite as fast as one might like, one truly gets to experience what life is like in the steerage of a British Navy ship during the Napoleonic era; bad food, duels, rats, mutiny, disease, and various other foul attributes fail to diminish the British penchant to dress smartly and wear large hats. It feels real, despite being the "least real" of all these features.
Hornblower is the quintessential British hero; handsome, polite, honor-bound, and duty driven, he finds ways to break his orders (without appearing like he did) when his heart demands it. All very proper, mind you. Most of the episodes center on the conflict between his sense of personal honor and his professional duty, and how he manages to satisfy both drives the narrative forward. As for the accuracy of the series in adapting the beloved literary works, purists may frown, but the show is undeniably entertaining.
Ioan Gruffudd is probably a bit too pretty to play Hornblower (if you want to get literal about the character description in the novels) but he gets the nuances of the role quite well. He starts off impish, nervous, and unsure, and gradually grows to a confident officer, earning the respect and loyalty of his unruly crew. This metamorphosis is partially incomplete, because we only get four episodes; the series went on to offer another half-dozen or so installments in the Hornblower saga. In addition, some changes have been made to the story in order to spice things up; characters are shuffled, plots merged, and entire new dramatic devices are inserted into segments that deviate from the source material, but nothing too abhorrent.
All in all, these are fun television adventures that stretch a small budget to impressive lengths. The downside is that we only get the four original episodes of the series—the Hornblower franchise restarted a few years later and continued with another half-dozen installments not present here.
Back in the eighteenth century, navigation at sea was inherently problematic. Ships often found themselves tens, even hundreds of miles off course from their estimated destinations because there was no accurate way to calculate longitude. You could watch the sun and the stars and get the latitude, but longitude was a mystery. On land, you calculated it with a clock to time against. The constant movement and harsh conditions of sea travel made accurate timekeeping aboard seafaring vessels impossible, so scientists were desperate for an alternate answer.
Desperate for a solution, governments the world over began offering large prizes in an attempt to entice their brilliant minds to devise a solution. One humble wood craftsman, John Harrison (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) rose to the challenge. He realized that solutions that did not involve timekeeping were doomed to fail. The question then, was how to build a clock that could remain accurate at sea? Harrison spent thirty years of his life struggling with the answer, designing, refining, and testing his groundbreaking invention—the world's first marine clock.
Two hundred years later, a World War I naval officer named Rupert Gould (Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers) becomes enamored by the tale of Harrison and his famed clocks. He devotes his days to the careful and meticulous restoration of Harrison's clocks, which have decayed and broken down, and in doing so becomes as obsessed as the man who invented them. Both men, separated by the decades, soon find their personal lives wrenched apart by their devotion to an idea.
On paper, Longitude looks stupid. There, I said it. It's a story about discovering longitude at sea, split between the obsessions of an eighteenth century watchmaker and a WWI veteran, told over the course of two hundred years. Hardly the stuff of adventurous tales, but this is not to say Longitude is without merit. A tale of obsession and mathematical genius, solid acting performances from its two expert actors carry an otherwise mundane story into something compelling and dramatically viable. With Jeremy Irons and Michel Gambon spearheading the story, Longitude is the surprise hit of the set. I'm as surprised as you, but it just goes to show you how a well-directed, well-crafted, and well-acted film can make even the most boring idea downright gripping.
Longitude features a split narrative that leaps cleverly (but often unexpectedly) between the tales of two men, divided by time but united by their love of, um, longitudinal calculations. There is a surprising level of emotional depth and obsession that comes out and glues audiences to the screen. It sure isn't the gripping plot, but the story feels alive, organic and captivating, the way A Brilliant Mind managed to mix madness and genius into something inseparable. Both men derail their personal and professional lives in the pursuit of something fantastic and unprecedented, and it is this mad pursuit of perfection that gives the film its teeth. Longitude is by far the most low-key entry in this set (and the least "adventurous") but triumphs through a solid, fascinating story.
The Lost Battalion
Near the end of WWI, a battalion of troops commanded by Major Whittlesey (Rick Schroder, NYPD Blue) is assigned a daring, dangerous task: a near-suicide run against German forces in the Argonne forest. Things get even more complicated when the supporting battalions retreat unexpectedly. Trapped deep in enemy territory, with no support and no communication, Whittlesey and his men find themsevles in trouble. With no food, no supplies, no help, it is up to them to somehow survive and hold their position—even it means their death.
The Lost Battalion might have Ricky Schroder in it, but that doesn't automatically get it a gold star (pipe down, Silver Spoons fans). But hey, now this is adventurous! Forget longitudinal whatchamacallits—this is an action-packed WWI film from start to finish. The Lost Battalion fills the adventure quota for the set nicely and gives some much-needed explosions into a set crammed with fancy, stuffed shirts, and excessive politeness. This is good old fashioned trench warfare, baby.
Based on an infamous true story, The Lost Battalion captures the complete insanity of the real-life "lost battalion," New York's 77th Division, who got themselves stuck deep in enemy territory and completely cut off from reinforcements or assistance. Five hundred men got the tar beaten out of them for five solid days, and by the time they were rescued, only two hundred men came out in one piece. In a war that was depressingly grim, especially compared to past civilized wars, this was a rare moment of true heroism. Despite crushing odds, they held their position. It's a heck of a story, both in real life and on the small screen.
Like every other war film created after Saving Private Ryan, The Lost Battalion is packed with handheld camera shakily capturing explosions and gunfire in close quarters. As the real battalion found out the hard way, being stuck in a trench for days on end can be a bloody and horrendous affair, full of graphic carnage and all manner of viciousness. The men got the crud kicked out of them and barely survived, but survive they did. A&E normally does a good job of capturing the historical facts of any tale they adapt for the small screen, and the story is convincing enough—a historical expert and military buff I am not, but consensus seems to agree that The Lost Battalion gets the majority of its facts right.
For non-history buffs, the feature is of slightly less value. Ultimately, it's just your standard World War combat film compressed into a made-for-television format. The Americans are the patriotic heroes, and zee Germans are the faceless monsters that kill all the heroes. Schroder makes a surprisingly adept leading man here as the everyday hero Whittlesey. His performance is honest and straightforward and suits the role. The most high-octane (and depressing) feature of the bunch, The Lost Battalion certainly ramps up the adventure quotient.
Held prisoner on the small island of Saint Helena by the British, deposed "emperor" Napoleon Bonaparte (Christian Clavier, Just Visiting) recounts his exploits to a young British girl: his rise to glory fighting the French Royaltists, campaigns in Egpyt and Italy, his marriage to the widow Joséphine de Beauharnais (Isabella Rossellini, Blue Velvet) and his coup in 1804, seizing power in France and declaring himself Emperor. Confident of his own righteousness, Napoleon divorces his wife and marries an Austrian princess, attempting to foster a line of imperial heirs to the throne.
However, a catastrophic miscalculation attempting to dethrone the Czar of Russia soon finds the French outnumbered by European powers, which strip him of his power and exile him to Elba. Napoleon refuses to be defeated, and returns to France with a new army, and attempts to battle the Allied forces once again, cumulating in an infamous battle in 1815 in Waterloo…
Now this is a made-for-television movie! Napoleon is loud, sprawling, and epic, intrinsic and complex—the closest to a big-budget production that this set offers. More soap operatic than anything else, it attempts to capture every nuance of a complex life, a man whose actions tore the world a new hole while sporting a sideways hat. At the time of its inception, Napoleon was the largest and most expensive made-for-television miniseries ever undertaken, with a budget in excess of $40 million dollars. That's a lot of francs!
A magnificent production judged solely on appearances, Napoleon is lush and detailed, and quickly justifies its massive price tag. Shot on countless foreign locations, intricate costume designs, gorgeous and historically accurate art direction and set design, and surprisingly visceral battle sequences of large and complex scope. And the cast, my goodness, the cast! Isabella Rossellini, Gerard Depardieu, John Malkovich—you could have a blockbuster film with these people alone. Clavier makes a good Napoleon all things considered, although his casting was a bit controversial in his native France where the actor is best known for his comedic slapstick roles. He certainly has the look down, and his thick French accented English gives a nice level of authenticity—it sure beats Malkovich, playing spymaster Charles Talleyrand, who makes absolutely no attempt to accent up. Not even a bad French accent, John? Too bad!
If this film has a flaw, it is like Napoleon himself—Napoleon bites off more than it can chew, trying to move in all directions simultaneously. The feature attempts to delve into the ego of a short man, his tumultuous personal life, and his military conquests in a scant six hours; yes, in the context of Napoleon's life, this is barely a tick of the clock. There are so many battles, so many events, so many women, and so many intricate details of this man's life that simply fail to make it into this film. In trying to master the subject of Napoleon, Napoleon ends up thin in parts, but it is easily the standout title in this set of adventurous films. It may be an imperfect film, but it goes swinging for a grand slam. Personally, I'll take a flawed, ambitious production over a safe and dull one any day.
An early explorer of Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh, Frankenstein) spent his years vying for the prize of being the first explorer to reach the South Pole, but lost out to the Dutch. Bitter and dejected and forgotten by the academic community, Shackleton decides he needs to redouble his efforts with an even more daring feat: the first trans-Antarctic passage, traversing the entire snowy content in one voyage. Unfortunately, he finds funding for his voyage difficult to achieve. With a world war rapidly approaching, nobody is willing to invest in a pointless endeavor of pure scientific exploration, especially one that bears the signs of a stubborn refusal to let go of a personal dream already lost.
In 1914 Shackleton finally achieved his dream of returning to Antarctica with a large crew, but quickly runs into crisis. The journey proves more treacherous than in past voyages, and the vessel quickly runs aground and gets frozen into the ice. Slowly, horribly, the ice consumes the vessel, destroying it. Now stranded at the bottom of the world, Shackleton and his crew must survive somehow in the harshest of all climates—or be lost forever. Desperate to save his men, Shackleton sets off on a solo journey across the frozen continent to find help.
As true stories go, this one is jawdropping. A ragtag crew of scientists, teenagers, and old-fashioned British explorers stranded in the Antarctic with no food, no supplies, and barely any equipment manage not only to survive, but survive with no causalities? A man solo treks across hundreds of miles of frozen wasteland and lives to tell the tale? That's tenacity, baby! Branagh is perfectly cast as Shackleton, who mixes stubbornness and obsession to the point of madness, yet still manages to keep his wits about him. At times, the thespian overacts the part, but after seeing Shackleton it is hard to imagine anyone else in the part. Shackleton is so obsessive, so determined that his fanaticism borders on lunacy at times, and Branagh's passionate delivery perfectly matches the part.
While not as lavish as, say, Napoleon, this is an impressive feature. Much of the film is spent with Shackleton alone in the harsh environment, trying desperately to survive against foolish odds, with white-saturated cinematography heightening the never-ending horizon of ice. Filmed on location in Iceland and Greenland, once we get to the ice and snow, the drama is strong and moving. Unfortunately, the first hour or so of the film is a drag. We spend far too much time with Shackleton as he argues with his wife, argues with investors, argues with his crew, and raises funds. Have you ever tried to raise funds? It's worse than going on a job interview. Still, the feature does an admirable job at painting who Ernest was and what his motivations were all about—lousy with friends, money, and relationships, the only thing he was any good at (by his own admissions even) was exploring, and even if it had already been explored, by gum, he had to explore it anyway.
Despite the slow start, one cannot understate how amazing this tale is. Shackleton is successful in imparting an incredible story; indeed, possibly the most amazing true-life survival story of all time. The film is slow moving, especially in the first half, but is rescued by the sheer magnificence of the tale and by the fine acting performances—one forgets all about the dull introduction once the ship sinks to the ocean. Once Shackleton's one-man voyage starts, audiences will literally be glued to their seats.
In terms of technical presentations, none of these films are presented in anything that resembles reference quality, but neither has A&E done a particularly poor job on the transfer. Across the board, the transfers are clean and of reasonable fidelity, although all experience an unusual level of softness and washed-out color palates (save Napoleon, which is so saturated with explosive colors as to be unnatural). Compression artifacts are easily noticeable, but not distracting. Films sourced from PAL (the Hornblower films especially) exhibit some noticeable ghosting. Most of the films are presented in their native aspect ration (full frame) with two exceptions: Napoleon is in full frame despite a native widescreen aspect ratio, and Shackleton gets the full 1.85:1 presentation.
As for extras, this box set delivers the goods (albeit the same goods that accompany each of these titles on their single DVD releases). Benedict Arnold contains the A&E Biography episode on Arnold, filmographies on its lead actors and a behind-the-scenes featurette with cast and crew. The Hornblower episodes likewise recycle a behind-the-scenes featurette and a segment on England's Royal Warships, as well as on-screen nautical terms and definitions and bio information on author C.S. Forester. Longitude offers up a behind-the-scenes documentary, and The Lost Batallion provides "Dear Home: Letters From World War I," a gentle and tearjerking feature, as well as a Rick Schroder bio. Napoleon trots out the biggest guns of them all, offering up a feature-length two-hour documentary, "Napoleon and Wellington," the A&E Biography episode on Napoleon, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and cast biographies. Shackleton is no slouch either, offering up "Antarctica: A Frozen History," a nice featurette, the A&E Biography episode on Ernest Shackleton, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a Kenneth Branagh biography/filmography.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In a word: double-dip. The biggest problem with this set (and with all A&E sets) is the constant recycling and repackaging of material. For example, these Horatio Hornblower films (by my count) are currently available on DVD in at least three different incarnations in box sets of various sizes and flavors, and have previously been made available in other formats now out of print.
All the content in The A&E Adventure Collection DVD Set is excellent in its own way, but a double dip is a double dip, and these are all double dips with no new content and identical transfers. Nothing here hasn't already been released (and re-released) on DVD before. Fans of the content are probably already going to have some of this material in their collection already, which makes the hefty price tag all the more tricky to justify.
The A&E Adventure Collection DVD Set delivers on everything promised, save possibly for the "adventure" part (I'm looking at you, Longitude). As long as you don't split hairs on definitions, this set offers some great made-for-television films with a historical twist. Excellent casting and strong production values elevate these films beyond their humble made-for-television roots.
Plus, steerage! I love that stuff, whatever it is.
Not always adventurous, but most certainly not guilty.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Horatio Hornblower
Perp Profile, Horatio Hornblower
Distinguishing Marks, Horatio Hornblower
• About C.S. Forester
Scales of Justice, Longitude
Perp Profile, Longitude
Distinguishing Marks, Longitude
Scales of Justice, The Lost Battalion
Perp Profile, The Lost Battalion
Distinguishing Marks, The Lost Battalion
• "Dear Home: Letters From World War I"
Scales of Justice, Shackleton
Perp Profile, Shackleton
Distinguishing Marks, Shackleton
Scales of Justice, Benedict Arnold: A Question Of Honor
Perp Profile, Benedict Arnold: A Question Of Honor
Distinguishing Marks, Benedict Arnold: A Question Of Honor
• Benedict Arnold Episode of A&E's Biography
Scales of Justice, Napoleon
Perp Profile, Napoleon
Distinguishing Marks, Napoleon
• "Napoleon and Wellington"
• IMDb: Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor
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