Horatio Hornblower

by Cathleen Myers

Swashbuckling action, an epic struggle against an Evil Republic (soon to be Empire), breathtaking chases, gorgeous ships, dazzling special effects, colorful aliens, terrific costumes, thrilling battles scenes, a climactic duel, and an irresistibly appealing young hero - this movie has it all.

No, we don’t mean A Phantom Menace; we’re reviewing Horatio Hornblower (directed by Andrew Grieve), the BBC miniseries recently shown on A&E and now available on video. Based loosely on C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, the four-part miniseries follows the early career of an idealistic young midshipman (Ioan Gruffudd), later lieutenant, at the beginning of England’s naval war against France in 1793. While die-hard Forester fans may carp at the screenplay’s liberties with the original, screenwriters Russell Lewis and Mike Cullen have tried to stay true to the spirit of the novels while giving us a far more realistic picture of the late 18th century British navy - the appalling conditions onboard even a well-run ship with a humane captain, and the very real horrors of both naval and land combat. And while Horatio and his mentor, Captain Pellew (a historical figure, played with splendid understatement by Robert Lindsay) are unfailingly honorable, the series examines some very serious moral and ethical issues: the "rules" of war, the ethics of involvement in foreign wars (the War Against France, like the "fratricidal" Wars with America, was opposed not only by Liberals but also by a substantial number of the British public), and the ethics of obeying a criminally stupid order from one’s superiors. Horatio is forced to make some complex ethical choices - and the answers don’t come easily to either him or his veteran captain. Hornblower is, in short, a swashbuckler with both heart and brain.

Above all, this is an action film in excelsis and the two hours of each episode whiz by, even with the mind-numbing commercial breaks on A&E! The late 18th century ships - two full-scale replicas - are awesome, and the combat scenes, storms and shipwrecks are so exciting that you never once notice the "special effects" or the frequent use of models. What Hornblower demonstrates - something George Lucas should take to heart - is that a memorable action movie doesn’t need a multimillion dollar CGI budget to leave us breathless with excitement. What it needs are a strong, swift-moving plot and memorable characters we really care about. Hornblower has both in abundance.

The miniseries avoids dreary exposition by having us learn the ropes along with our midshipman hero, and we do find ourselves caring desperately about both his career and a war whose outcome we already know! Ioan Gruffud - an actor as gifted as he is gorgeous - seems to be on his way to international stardom. Meanwhile, we’ll look forward to the next Hornblower series.

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