Judge Ian Visser keeps the cat in the bag for this review of a modern adventure classic.
"I see something in you, Mister Hornblower. If you continue in this service as you have begun, a great future awaits you."—Captain Edward Pellew
One of the best naval series ever written comes to the small screen. Is Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition bound for the lash, or will it receive an extra ration of grog for its efforts?
Facts of the Case
At 17 years of age and the son of a doctor, Midshipman Horatio Hornblower seems an ill candidate for His Majesty's Royal Navy. Penniless, several years past the average age for his rank, and without high-placed friends, his career seems limited from the start. His early days aboard the ship Justinian are marked by abuse and ridicule, yet there is a quality within the young man that soon launches him on a brilliant naval career.
Guided by his captain Sir Edward Pellew and backed by a loyal crew of seaman, Hornblower soon finds himself in the thick of action against monarchist Spain, Napoleonic France, and a bevy of other enemies who all seek to overcome England's mastery of the sea.
The films in the series include:
Author C.S. Forester wrote 11 novels featuring the character of Hornblower, a sailor in the British navy at a time when the forces of Napoleon stormed across Europe and wooden ships were the battleships of the day. The novels are a potent mix of history, adventure, and naval lore, and there are dozens of adventures available for adaptation. Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition takes several stories from the first novel of the series (Mr. Midshipman Hornblower) and later episodes and adapts them in a close but occasionally liberal manner.
Several of the episodes found in Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition veer off the path of Forester's originals, either for budgetary or dramatic reasons. "The Wrong War," for instance, is based on the story "The Frogs and the Lobsters," but adds a framing device, a female companion, and a dramatic beach rescue to increase the dramatic elements. Similarly, "The Devil and the Duchess" still holds the basic structure of its original story, but adds a prison intrigue and expands a relationship which was very brief when on the written page. In some cases, events of the stories have been cut in order to save what would have made their production much more expensive. Despite the changes, the conclusions of the films are largely the same as that of their source material; in short, the films generally end up in the same place, only by a different route.
Given the limited budget of a television series the producers of Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition are able to mount, if not a large-scale experience, then at least a consistently mid-sized one. The ship-to-ship combat that marked the literary series is somewhat limited, which is understandable given the dearth of real-world ships available to be blown apart on television. As a result, the show often compensates with close-up shots of exploding decks and flying debris, or by limiting the combat to only a couple of minutes of screen time. Even with a limited budget the sea and combat effects are a solid mix of green screen, CGI, and model work, and there are times when the action goes beyond merely acceptable and enters the realm of impressive.
The series also excels in its depiction of sea life during the Napoleonic era. Many details of naval existence are incorporated into the films, from press gangs, gambling, food, punishment, and customs to the terms and language used in the times. Many details are on display but not overtly explained, which integrates the elements of sea life into the series without using them expressly to develop familiarity (the series does its audience a service by assuming it is intelligent or already knowledgeable with the era and events). It also captures those decidedly non-glamorous elements of sea life, never shrinking from displaying daily cruelty, sickness, and death of an existence in which disaster was often just a moment away.
Most of the heavy lifting in the series falls to Welsh actor Ioan Gruffund (Fantastic Four) who is charged with undertaking a character that moves from nervous midshipman to post-captain in the span of only eight films. To his credit, Gruffund does a fine job as he captures the initial disorientation of a midshipman and later the growing confidence of an experienced sailor. Gruffund is far from alone in the acting department, as the series benefits greatly from excellent supporting performances and the chemistry between characters. Robert Lindsay (Wimbledon) acts as the stern but sympathetic Sir Edward Pellew, the decorated captain who takes the young Hornblower under his wing. Also present are many of the characters Forester established over the course of his novels, including deck hands Matthews and Stiles and lieutenants Bush and Kennedy. The cast works very well together and the writing provides a good deal of low-key humor that keeps the series light in-between the action.
The eight films that make up the Hornblower canon were originally produced in three series. The first collection included "The Duel," "The Fire Ships," "The Duchess and the Devil," and "The Wrong War," the second included "The Mutiny" and "Retribution," and the third included "Loyalty" and "Duty." Each series was released individually on DVD in previous years, and Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition assembles all eight films series into one complete collection. Unfortunately, very little is done with them. Each film is a straight port from their earlier releases and each includes the original menus and special features. The new packaging is very handsome, with a description of each episode and some nice artwork on display.
The overall image quality for the films in Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition is very good. The series was filmed over the course of several years, but there is no noticeable difference in terms of image quality and there are no apparent defects. If there is a disappointment in the video department it is that the image generally lacks sharpness, but it does not distract from the viewing experience.
The two-channel audio mix is rousing with cannon fire, dialogue, and the sounds of battle being impressively rendered. The heavy accents and naval terms sometimes demand the use of subtitles, although it should be noted that none are provided on the films "Mutiny," "Retribution," "Loyalty," or "Duty." This is another shortcoming that should have been addressed with this new release, considering the first four films in the series are provided with English subtitles.
Extras on Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition are generally a solid bunch. Again, there doesn't appear to be anything new assembled for this collection; what existed previously on each individual film's earlier DVD release is still present. These include:
• Behind the Scenes: an inside look at the making of the series, featuring interviews with the cast and crew. Attention is given to the detailed costuming and the extensive model work used in recreating the fleets of ships used in the series. This is a decent offering but it tends to go heavy on the excerpts from the films where more information about how they were staged would have been useful.
• England's Royal Warships: one of the beefiest extras on the set, this documentary takes an inside look at the navy of Hornblower and the conditions sailors and officers would be expected to work under. Hosted by Edward Windsor, the documentary also makes an effort to contrast the modern English navy with that of Forester's novels, identifying those traditions that still exist and those that have been left to history.
• Sail 2000: this documentary examines the role that sailing schools have played in the development of the U.S. Navy and the impact that the training and technology of sail has on a modern navy. Viewers get an inside look at naval simulators, sailing classes, and interviews with students and instructors. Although not related directly to the navy of Horatio Hornblower, this is still an interesting look at the development of naval technology and training.
• Classes of Ships: a text-based examination of British warships during the Napoleonic era. The feature examines several classes of ships and their crew complements, cannon, and commanders.
• Horatio on Horatio: actor Ioan Gruffund sits for a 15-minute discussion about his character and his experiences bringing him to the screen. The interview covers the casting process, the shooting of the films, and the reception by the public.
• About C.S. Forester: a short text-based feature summarizing the career of C.S. Forester and his Hornblower novels.
• Photo Gallery from "Loyalty": a collection of photos from the film.
• Photo Gallery from "Duty": a collection of photos from the film.
• 3D Cannon: a 3D image of a ship cannon and its parts, with a brief description of each.
• Nautical Terms: 22 nautical terms and their definitions in text format.
• Cast Bios: a text-based collection of biographies for three of the series' principal actors as well as the director, producer, and costume designer
The bonus materials strike a good balance between presenting information about the era and the series itself. If there is a shortcoming, it is that they are presented as they were in their initial releases, meaning that most of the films only include two or three extras each. The result is that viewers must switch through many disks in order to watch all the features. If this were a true re-release of the films it would have served the viewer better to present all the features on one or two disks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Hornblower of Forester's novels was short and physically unremarkable, which is greatly contrasted with the handsome actor who ultimately took the part. When it was revealed that Ioan Gruffund would be assuming the role of Horatio Hornblower, more than one fan of the series raised a voice in protest. Even though Gruffund manages to fill the action side of the equation nobly, the quirks belonging to the character are largely left on the sidelines. The Hornblower of the novels was a relentlessly self-critical individual obsessed with his appearance to others, and the series doesn't create enough of an opportunity to make him much more than a shadow of that character. This is largely a result of the medium, however, and doesn't reflect the fine work that Gruffund does with the part.
A purchase of Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition will be contingent on how important it is to have a complete packaging of the series. If you've already purchased the individual releases of the films and are happy with them, then continue to enjoy them as they are. If you're looking for a unified collection, or if you are new to the series, then this release will more than satisfy.
It's unfortunate that A&E didn't do more with the films than simply porting them directly from their earlier incarnations, but Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition is still a solid collection of films packed with thrills and adventure. Detractors are ordered to the grating for three dozen lashes!
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