"We are not actresses. We are the King's officers. And we have a duty to do."—Captain Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd)
Portsmouth, 1803. Between wars, England has reduced its Navy to a token force, biding its time until Napoleon makes his move. The junior officers are on half pay, set adrift among the crowds. Earnest Commander Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) struggles, making a little money gambling at whist, but rarely enough to pay his rent. Fortunately, his landlady's daughter (Julia Sawalha) has a crush on her "true gentleman" and covers for him.
Admiral Sir William Pellew (Robert Lindsay) still remembers and admires Hornblower and, much to the irritation of his irascible rival Captain Hammond (Ian McElhinney), taps Hornblower as captain of the Hotspur, with orders to spy on Napoleon's fleet. Hornblower picks his dear friend William Bush (Paul McGann) as his first lieutenant. But Hornblower and his untested crew might not be ready to take on the French on their own.
Did I mention the saboteur whose meddling might not only scuttle Hornblower's mission, but the entire British fleet?
As I have noted elsewhere, C.S. Forester's series of novels revolving around the Napoleonic-era exploits of Horatio Hornblower, in his rise from midshipman to admiral in His Majesty's Navy, came at a time when British naval power—and the Empire itself—were fading into twilight. But the adventures were a hit among young boys (my father included, who even later joined the U.S. Navy—as a peacetime dentist) who longed for the days of swashbuckling and romance. Of course, as gung-ho as the series was about war and colonialism, and the honor and fame to be found therein, it also portrayed the darker side of life aboard ship: the brutality and bullying that made up much of life in the age of tall ships.
Over the last few years, A&E has spent a ton of money to recreate the Napoleonic Era and placed Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd on deck as one of the great heroes of British adventure fiction. Unlike Russell Crowe's muttony captain in the recent Master and Commander, Gruffudd's Hornblower is ruggedly sexy (especially to my wife, who has a bit of a crush on him). He somehow never looks like he has not had a bath in six months, and even windblown—and occasionally powder-burned—he still looks much more physically fit than, well, C.S. Forester actually describes him.
Perhaps it is Hornblower's penchant for diving off ships buck-naked (a scene from one of the earlier movies, still fondly remembered by my wife). Or his chivalry in diving off the ship in a storm, in full uniform, to save a drowning woman. Or his tendency to brush away subordinates and jump into battle himself, a trait which made him the prototype for Captain James T. Kirk. Except Kirk never shared Hornblower's perpetual befuddlement around women, or his charming modesty…
Horatio Hornblower: The New Adventures picks up at the end of Forester's Lieutenant Hornblower and covers, more or less, the novel Hornblower and the Hotspur. The two films in this A&E boxed set, Loyalty and Duty, are really one extended story, held together by Hornblower's land-based relationship with the working-class Maria (Julia Sawalha) and his command of the Hotspur. Just as in the books, this first marriage for our hero feels awkward and underdeveloped. This is probably intentional on Forester's part: Hornblower is clearly more comfortable at sea, and both of his marriages over the course of his life are more done out of duty (and class pressure) than love. His only real close and happy relationship is with his faithful friend William Bush. I'll leave it to you to murmur about that.
Try also to ignore the badly relooped American accent from Duty's Camilla Power. Otherwise, the two movies look pretty good considering they were done on a television budget. Sometimes the special effects compositing is a little obvious (as are the use of miniatures), and the Dolby 2.0 mix does not show off the atmosphere of life aboard ship as vividly as it should. But the movies rarely hold still long enough for you to notice these. Extras are few on this boxed set, probably because A&E figures you are buying this because you already have the previous six installments in the series (which come with their own array of supplements). Director Andrew Grieve and producer Andrew Benson turn in a chatty commentary track for Loyalty, covering the details of the production without becoming pedantic. On the commentary track for Duty, they are joined by costume designer John Mollo and focus mostly on creating the look of the Napoleonic Era. The second track tends to dwell on more incidental details, like creating Hornblower's gloves.
Horatio Hornblower: The New Adventures is filled with plenty of sweaty men fighting heroically on wooden ships. Romance seems more of a distraction, as it usually is in action movies. In Loyalty, Hornblower blockades Brest and thwarts a traitor in the British Navy. In Duty, he discovers an insidious invasion scheme and—you guessed it—single-handedly saves England. Could he do any less? Screenwriters Niall Leonard and Stephen Churchett pad out Forester's original novel with subplots like the Irish Rebellion (which allows a single villain, played by Lorcan Cranitch, to menace our hero) and a pair of married spies (whose devotion highlights Hornblower's doubts about his own marriage). Admiral Cornwallis in the novel has been replaced by Admiral Pellew, to keep continuity with the other films in the series and give the audience a familiar face. Do not look for strict realism here: this is about fast and furious action. Hornblower's exploits are more daring this time around. Watch him defeat a French ship twice his size. Watch him assault a French artillery battery with nothing but a block and tackle. Watch him throw himself on a lit artillery shell to save his ship. Gruffudd's youthful certainty makes it all work. His Hornblower is never a cynical, winking anti-hero, but a glorious throwback to the age of chivalry. Horatio Hornblower: The New Adventures is old-fashioned, rousing adventure and an awful lot of fun.
As Admiral Pellew reminds us, there is folly and foolishness on the one side, and daring and calculation on the other. A&E has consistently shown the latter in their efforts to bring Horatio Hornblower to cinematic life. Fans of the series will be pleased with this latest installment and look forward to more adventures in the future.
Newcomers looking for a grand, old-style adventure story should check this out. Loyalty and Duty make a good entry point into the series, picking up with Hornblower in his prime. And the action is almost non-stop, and the celebration of war and colonialism (and the few touches of xenophobia) can easily be taken in stride. You can easily start your love affair with Horatio Hornblower here, with so-called The New Adventures, and if you enjoy them, go back and watch the previous movies in the series.
Captain Hornblower is hereby acquitted by this court martial, and the Admiralty is instructed to grant him promotion at the earliest opportunity. This court is dismissed. God save the King!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentaries by Andrew Grieve and Andrew Benson
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