Saturday, June 9, 2018
Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951)
The movie is based on the first three Hornblower novels to be published, and especially the very first Hornblower book, The Happy Return. C.S. Forester had some involvement with the script.
It is 1807 and the British frigate Lydia has been at sea for seven months. Not just at sea, but out of sight of land. This is in accordance with the Admiralty’s orders and Captain Horatio Hornblower has chosen to interpret his orders very literally indeed. The crew of the Lydia are close to breaking point. Food is running low, fresh water is running even lower, scurvy is stalking the ship and there has been not a trace of wind for a disturbingly long time. Having gone seven months without sighting land there is of course considerable doubt as to whether they are actually anywhere near the spot at which they have been ordered to make landfall. Captain Hornblower has his doubts as well but there is no way he is going to let those doubts show.
There’s also the little matter of the Natividad, a Spanish ship of the line which has just arrived in the vicinity. The Lydia is hopelessly outgunned by the Natividad but somehow or other Hornblower is going to have to destroy or capture her. In fact Hornblower is going to find that the Natividad is a problem that comes back to haunt him.
The Hornblower of the novels is by no means a conventional hero. He is filled with self-doubts and self-recriminations and he is a man to whom command does not come easily. He has trained himself to play the part convincingly but he feels that he is a fake. He’s extraordinarily complex by the standards of adventure heroes. A slightly flawed hero who struggles, mostly successfully, to overcome his flaws. He’s also a very introverted and somewhat self-obsessed hero. He’s an admirable character, but he’s admirable in spite of himself. His slightly tense relationships with his junior officers and with the men under his command add yet another layer of complexity.
All of this was a challenge for Gregory Peck. Hornblower was a moody introvert and the script had removed much of the interest from the character. Peck really had to work hard to make the most of what he was left with, which was basically a few idiosyncrasies. Fortunately he was up to the challenge and gives a performance that is sympathetic, occasionally slyly amusing and with at least a few suggestions of hidden depth. His Hornblower is a low-key swashbuckling hero.
I’m not sure about Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara. She’s an actress I’ve never warmed to and there’s no real chemistry between the two leads.
Look out for Christopher Lee and Stanley Baker in minor roles.
Technically this is a very impressive movie indeed. The sea battle sequences are absolutely superb and they’re suitably thrilling. Walsh’s mastery of action film-making is very much in evidence.
Although it has a few problems Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. is still fine entertainment. Gregory Peck is surprisingly effective (and in my view he’s a better and more interesting Hornblower than Ioan Gruffudd in the late 90s TV movies) and the sea battles are magnificent. Highly recommended.