Mutiny! Black, bloody mutiny!
Continuing the Emmy winning series of films from A&E, Horatio Hornblower is back with two new films that continue on in the saga of the young naval officer from C. S. Forester's novels. A&E has released the two films in a boxed set, and fans of the series will be well advised to set sail to the local video store.
Facts of the Case
Horatio Hornblower begins his saga as a young midshipman in the British navy, during the Napoleonic era. The novels take him all the way to the admiralty, which I hope means we have many more films to come. The year is 1802. When we left Horatio (Ioan Gruffudd) he was a Lieutenant, and we take up the adventure again here with The Mutiny. Now Horatio, along with his division and several other officers, have been transferred to the Renown, a 74 gun ship of the line led by Captain Sawyer (David Warner), a legendary officer who was a contemporary of Admiral Nelson. Unfortunately, the captain has aged and not well; his mind is slipping and he has become both suicidally depressed and paranoid about his officers. His attentions are particularly pointed at Hornblower and midshipman Wellard (Terence Corrigan), finding fault and laying accusations of mutiny at every turn. He becomes overly cruel, even by the standards of the time, with repeated beatings and other punishments without cause. His judgment is also slipping; he uses rum to keep the loyalty of the crew, and they are often too drunk to be in top shape for combat. As the Captain degenerates even further, the ship's doctor Clive (David Rintoul) starts dosing him with laudanum (an opiate), which probably hurt more than it helped. Finally, during battle the Captain becomes completely incapacitated, and the officers force the doctor to declare him unfit for command. When they get back, there will be a trial for mutiny, with Horatio the likely scapegoat in the scandal.
That trial takes place in Retribution, the next and latest film in the series. Horatio and the other officers are charged with mutiny. The admiralty wants to avoid ruining the good name of Captain Sawyer and is looking for someone to take the blame. Fortunately Sir Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay), Hornblower's former captain and mentor, is on the panel judging the trial. But another on the panel is determined to see Horatio as an opportunistic, overly ambitious officer and an innocent verdict is by no means assured. The rest of the story of what happened aboard the Renown will come out, and someone will give the ultimate sacrifice.
The series began with four films that came in a box set from A&E, and is highly recommended for those who haven't been acquainted with the story. I read Nicholas Sylvain's excellent review of the set, and decided to watch them myself. I was thrilled with the swashbuckling stories, identified with the main characters, and loved the relationship between Hornblower and Pellew. It was a given that when the series continued I was going to watch. The Mutiny and Retribution appeared on A&E television in April 2001, and are now available on DVD.
I can dispense with talking about the films as two separate entities, as the second continues directly from the first. Much of what I loved about the first four films is back in the second set, with ship battles, tensions among the crew, and plenty of swashbuckling. All my favorite characters are back: the likable and loyal Lieutenant Kennedy (Jamie Bamber), the grizzled old salt Matthews (Paul Copley), the always ready to fight Styles (Sean Gilder), and many more. The characters were so well drawn in the first films that I felt like I was visiting old friends again. Joining them are some new characters that were well written and performed: Lieutenant Bush (Paul McGann), the new officer directly over Hornblower, the drunken but well-meaning Doctor Clive, and the bosun Mr. Hobbs (Phillip Glenister), who is an antagonist but at least is redeemable in his loyalty for his captain. And of course there is David Warner, who is given a difficult role as Captain Sawyer and plays it to perfection. I often didn't know whether the character deserved my dislike or my sympathy, which is just what the role called for.
Again I was thrilled by the scenes on board the ships; real authentic square riggers were used in the filming. The majestic quality of these ships brings you back to a bygone age and sells the period just as well as the characters.
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the main character Horatio and Sir Edward. Their relationship is the backbone of the series, and both Gruffudd and Lindsay are very strong in their roles. Perhaps my biggest complaint with the second set of films is that there isn't as much time devoted to that relationship as before.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to say up front that if you haven't seen any of the Hornblower films, then you want to start at the beginning. First time viewers would lose much of the background and emotional attachment to the characters if you started with the second set. So start with the first set and the first film The Duel, but be patient and sit through the first half hour without allowing yourself to quit. I found that first half hour in the first film to be the slowest moving part of the series. Believe me, it gets better.
As to the films in this second set, I'd put them in the middle when it comes to the quality. A couple of the first films were slightly better than these two, but they stand well on their own and are better than some of the others. Of course they are a must-see for everyone wanting to follow the series along, but you won't feel slighted.
I suppose I can talk about one weak area in the series as a whole, that being the special effects. Models are used for the long shots of ship battles, and at times they can be less than compelling. Most of the time they are good enough to keep up the suspension of disbelief. The budget doesn't allow for blowing up real square rigged frigates, after all.
Now, let's talk about the DVD set. Both films are presented in full frame, befitting their television origins. However, I understand these were done in PAL for British television first and the proper aspect ratio is actually 1.66:1 rather than 1.33:1, so we are probably losing some slight bit of picture. Opinions are mixed about taking the 1.66:1 ratio and doing an anamorphic transfer, as you get some letterboxing on the sides as well as top and bottom. I would rather have the original aspect ratio. That said, the picture quality is quite good, though not quite as sharp as a well made feature film. Colors are vivid, artifacts are absent, and the image is quite pleasing. The sound is the real weak point of the film and DVD presentation, though it is clear and all dialogue is easy to hear. The real problem is with the low end; there is plenty of gunfire and many cannons being shot, and the sound effects for them are underwhelming. Especially with the DVD the makers need to realize that we want some real punch from a cannon going off.
The weakness of the sound is offset somewhat by the extra content. The real prize is on the first disc with "Sail 2000: Aboard the Eagle," a 45-minute documentary about square rig ships from history and how the spirit of them are kept alive today. Much of the footage is shot from Eagle, the only square rigged sailing ship in active military service, and is used to train cadets in the Coast Guard Academy. The only other extra content on the first disc is an interactive cannon that will let you see the different parts of the weapon. The second disc is also light on content, with only a bio of C.S. Forester (also available on the first set) and text notes on the different ships of the British navy in the Napoleonic era.
Carefully drawn characters, well-written stories, and exciting action combine to make these films among the best television has to offer. There is no better way to experience them than on DVD. Highly recommended.
Horatio Hornblower has had enough with courtrooms with the recent mutiny trial, and I am dismissing all charges. A&E is thanked for their support of this fine series, and the quick turn-around from television to DVD.
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