[15 December 2005]
This past 21 October marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the last great naval skirmish of the Golden Age of Sail, in which 61 British, French, and Spanish ships of the line blew each other all to hell and glory. Though outmanned and outgunned, the British fleet destroyed the naval support that would have allowed Napoleon’s troops to cross the English Channel and invade England. The British were led by the legendary Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who was mortally wounded in the midst of his greatest victory, giving an already unprecedented historical event the sheen of tragic myth.
Though in his personal life Nelson was something of a narcissistic goof, according to Edgar Vincent’s brilliant 2003 biography of him, as a strategist and commander of ships and men he was without peer, and the reverence in which his nation holds him, both in his day and now, is not unwarranted. Nelson was all that and the proverbial bag of chips.
So it makes sense that the televised adventures of the other Horatio of the Napoleonic Wars have been released as a boxed set on the heels of Trafalgar 200. A loose adaptation of the celebrated adventure novels by C.S. Forester, Horatio Hornblower follows its titular hero (Ioan Gruffudd) in his meteoric, Nelsonian rise through the ranks of naval officers and gentlemen, from callow midshipman to master and commander, peppered with romance, derring-do, and scads upon scads of pure unalloyed Britishness. How much more British could this be? The answer is none. None more British.
The series of eight films, originally aired on ITV in Great Britain and on A&E in the States, begins with Horatio as he boards his first ship, commission in hand, at the age of 17. Already he is at a disadvantage, for while the sons of the landed and professional classes (Horatio’s father is a doctor) entered naval service as officers, most did so at the age of 12. Trying to get his sea legs and five years behind in the midshipman’s course in practical seamanship, Horatio must hit the deck running. He encounters the harsh, strenuous, and often full-on madness of the sailor’s life: the cramped conditions aboard ship, the dangers of the riggings in high gale, the exigencies of commanding older seamen with serious class-warfare gripes, and the endless hierarchies and petty fiefdoms that exist among the officers.
Fortunately Horatio is a prodigy, and even more fortunately, he’s the hero, so despite his rawness and the sheer number of predicaments that pile upon him—in the first episode, “The Duel,” Horatio must contend simultaneously with a psychotic shipmate trying to kill him and an open boat full of Frenchmen, days after war has broken out between Britain and France—he perseveres through ingenuity, the loyalty of his men, and sheer dumb only-in-fiction luck. Many of these episodes are adapted from mere chapters of Forester’s books, so while the teleplays have ample room for extemporizing, they cleave to Forester’s tendency to get Horatio in and out of scrapes with Teflon slickness. One wishes that the creators of the series had stuck more to the spirit of the Hornblower books than the letter, but Forester’s fans are in their own way as rabid as Tolkien’s or J.K. Rowling’s, and they must be appeased.
This faithfulness to the books means a sharp division between the English and the French. The Napoleonic Wars are terrific grist for the adventure fiction mill, as the wild popularity of books by Forester, Dudley Pope (the Ramage series), Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander and 20 others), and Bernard Cornwell (the Richard Sharpe adventures) attest. After the depredations of the Reign of Terror and the rise of Bonaparte, in these stories the French are the early 19th century’s equivalent of the Nazis, a feckless, faceless foe upon whom to hang all kinds of unsavoriness and villainy.
In “The Wrong War” (originally titled ” The Frogs and the Lobsters”), Horatio accompanies a contingent of French royalists, loyal to the late monarchy and therefore British allies, into France to raise a rebellion against the Robespierre Republic. This seems a dubious mission, as even the “good” Frenchmen are unkempt and undisciplined, their general delusional, and the colonel leading the ground troops is a fallen aristocrat more interested in reclaiming his ancestral estate and guillotining his rebellious serfs than in liberating France. In sharp contrast, the British are capable, brave, and better groomed. While the episode wants to focus on the heroics of Horatio and company against impossible odds, it stacks the deck by reinforcing Gallic stereotypes that were tired when Forester wrote the books in the ‘30s and ‘40s and are just plain offensive now.
Ameliorating such conventions somewhat is Gruffudd, an expressive actor (Fantastic Four notwithstanding), who’s at his best when Horatio gets to exert himself, every bit the man of action in battle or in romance. Simple conversation, especially byplay between himself and whomever is his commanding officer that episode, comes off as stiff and labored, Gruffudd’s sharp features assuming the aspect of a man who’s just eaten a bad clam. The series is always better in motion than at rest, and the viewer may find himself wishing for a couple of 74-gun French man-o’-wars to show up and launch a broadside at the acting.
The high point of the series is a two-parter, “Mutiny” and “Retribution,” in which Horatio and his regular shipmates (Jamie Bamber, Paul Copley, and Sean Gilder) are assigned to HMS Renown, under the command of Captain James Sawyer (David Warner). He’s a legendary commander and one of Nelson’s “Band of Brothers.” Sawyer is also raving batshit insane, subject to paranoid delusions and wielding dictatorial power over his helpless crew. Convinced that his officers are plotting to mutiny, he proceeds to harass and torture them, and jeopardize their mission against a Spanish fortification in the Caribbean, until they have no choice but to mutiny. The tale, told in flashback during Horatio’s court-martial, is at once a courtroom drama, a whodunit, a Guns of Navarone-type escapade, and a study of what happens when men of character are forced to do the unthinkable. Moreover, it is the best paced and most character-driven story in the series. One wishes all the episodes were as good.
A made-for-TV adaptation of a series of escapist adventure stories, Horatio Hornblower features lavish sets and high production values. The extras in the boxed set—a few slide shows about naval warfare and the life of C. S. Forester, plus one interactive shooting game—leave something to be desired, but this is usual for A&E’s DVD offerings, and not why one will be buying the set anyway. Until all concerned get around to doing the sequel to Master and Commander (2003), this is an adequate and often very good diversion to tide over the more ardent fan of nationalistic naval epics. If you’re one of those, Hornblower is your cup of tea.