Adventure on the high seas! It's a
theme that has an undeniable appeal for film and television, and it
finds a polished and delightful expression in the fine A&E series
Horatio Hornblower. If there's anything we can trust British
filmmakers to do better than anyone else, it's to handle period
pieces with exactly the right touch. Set in the tail end of the 1700s
and the early 1800s during the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Hornblower
follows the career of its eponymous hero in the British Navy.
The Horatio Hornblower
programs are, in a sense, parts of a mini-series, but they're much
more like individual films that happen to be part of a larger
sequence than episodes in a series. That's a strong point in the
series' favor: each 100-minute program has the heft and depth of a full-length
feature film, and all the polish and attention to detail that you'd
expect from one.
It's tough to keep a consistently
high standard across eight films, but the Hornblower series
does remarkably well. To start with, there's the aforementioned
historical accuracy, which lends a sense of depth and realistic
texture to the stories and makes them not just entertaining in their
own right, but also interesting as glimpses into a different era and
culture. Filmed on board real ships, with all the details just right,
the Hornblower films feel real in every detail, from clothing
to food to details of how the characters do their jobs. Even the
little touches aren't neglected: we get wind and bad weather
contributing to the realistic feel of being on board the ships: it's
clear that the scenes weren't filmed on a sound-stage in Hollywood.
The period accuracy isn't limited to
the sets and costumes, though. The characters think and behave as
they would at the time... not as modern people who happen to be
dressed up in period clothing, which is a common flaw of less
polished "period" films or television shows. Certainly
people in the 1800s were people just like us, in the broadest sense,
but we also get to see how the motivations and beliefs of the
characters reflected the times. For instance, what may seem to us
like a rather foolish obsession with personal honor is treated with
utter and deadly seriousness, as it would have been at the time, and
by being presented that way, we're given the opportunity to
understand what was important to a gentleman of the 1800s, whose
career and social standing would have been helped or hindered by many
factors other than his ability to do his job. Or as another example
on a different note, Hornblower, along with all the other characters,
unselfconsciously refers to the French as "frogs" in casual
conversation (even when referring to French who are putative allies:
those are the "good frogs," as Hornblower puts it). We're
not meant to see this as a bad reflection on Hornblower - the days of
political correctness being far in the future - but rather a simple
illustration of the prevailing attitudes of the time.
Those prevailing attitudes include a
system of shipboard discipline that's surprising to modern viewers in
its arbitrary, dictatorial, and often cruel nature. Without spelling
things out - these are films, not documentaries - the stories
nonetheless gradually paint a detailed picture of life in His
Majesty's Navy at the turn of the 19th century. The methods of
dealing with an uneducated crew, many of them "pressed"
involuntarily into service, were harsh, with death being the
punishment not just for offenses like mutiny but also for something
like merely disobeying an officer. Physical punishment, as well as
the physical hardships that were just part of the daily grind, is an
accepted part of the system, as Hornblower finds out to his dismay.
As the son of a doctor rather than a nobleman, (making him somewhat
of an odd man out in trying to become an officer, Hornblower has to
learn to deal with this system, which of course means that as the
audience, we can learn along with him (fortunately, this aspect of
Hornblower's character is handled subtly: we never get any awful "As
you know, Bob" type of exposition). It's another case in which
the demands of character and accuracy are balanced nicely: Hornblower
has the kind of independent spirit that makes him appealing as a
character to us modern viewers, but in the strictly rule-bound world
of the British Navy, he has to learn how to obey and when to keep his
mouth shut, as well.
The look and feel of a film is only
one part of what makes it worth watching, and the least important
part, at that. What really matters is that the Hornblower
films are examples of excellent storytelling. Each film offers a
considerable amount of plot action, so that the story moves briskly
forward, yet the stories are never frenetic in the way that the
stereotypical "action-packed" movie is. The tension in the
story might come from the characters sorting out the pecking order
below decks in "The Duel," trying to avoid an engagement
with the enemy in "The Duchess and the Devil," dealing with
hunger and disease in "The Fire Ship," or dealing with
internal tensions in the crew in "Mutiny." That's not to
say that we don't get great action sequences, because we most
certainly do: it's just that they're far from the only exciting parts
of the story.
A solid cast of actors across the
board certainly helps make the films a success. Ioan Gruffudd does an
excellent job as Hornblower, with the ability to portray his
character's weaknesses and uncertainties as well as his decisiveness
and sense of honor. The supporting characters are uniformly well
handled, with standouts such as Robert Lindsay as the captain of the
Indefatigable in many of the films.
The Collector's Edition includes all
eight Hornblower films. The series starts off with a bang in
"The Duel" (1998, original title: "The Even Chance"),
immediately getting the viewer hooked by the story as Hornblower
joins the Justinian as a new midshipman. "The Fire Ships"
(1998, original title: "The Examination for Lieutenant") is
likewise excellent. "The Duchess and the Devil" (1999) is
entertaining, if not quite as crisp as the first two. The fourth
film, "The Wrong War" (1999, original and much better
British title: "The Frogs and The Lobsters") is again
entertaining, but does sag a bit. Things pick right back up again in
the two installments of Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure
Continues, with 2001's "Mutiny" and "Retribution."
The series ends on a strong note with the two episodes of Horatio
Hornblower: The New Adventures, 2003's "Duty" and
"Loyalty," which continue to follow Hornblower's adventures
as he moves up the ranks.
A&E has treated viewers to a
very polished DVD set. The eight discs are packaged in ultra-slim
cases inside a glossy paperboard slipcase, so this large set is very
compact while also being convenient to use.
With the various films having been
made over the course of five years, there's some variation in the
video presentation. The first six films were shot in 1.33:1, while
the final two were shot in widescreen 1.85:1, a more appealing aspect
ratio for a program that often features great sea battles. The image
quality for the earlier films is satisfactory but not outstanding, as
the image is often slightly soft, with colors sometimes looking a bit
muted. The last two films look the best, as we'd expect, with good
colors and a clean, crisp print. The two widescreen programs are
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is
generally satisfactory, delivering dialogue and sound effects clearly
and cleanly for the most part. Some of the episodes sounded a little
flat or muffled at times, but on the whole it's fine.
The special features are spread
throughout the set; with one exception on Disc 8, these are the same
features as on the separate releases of the Hornblower DVDs.
We get a text biography of C.S. Forester, nautical terms and
definitions, and a guide to royal warships, along with some cast and
crew biographies and the occasional photo gallery. Another small
feature is a 3-D cannon, which allows you to select and then zoom in
on various parts of it and get a short text explanation of what that
part does. There's also a light promotional-style featurette on Disc
3; the 21-minute piece has the promising label of "Behind the
Scenes" but doesn't offer much real content.
For more substantial features, Disc
4 has a reasonably interesting 45-minute program called "England's
Royal Warships," which describes life on board a warship in the
early 1800s, and contrasts it to modern life in the British Navy.
Additionally, Disc 5 has a 46-minute program called "Sail 2000."
It doesn't have anything specifically to do with Hornblower, but
instead describes how sailing ships are still used today to train
modern sailors. The final two episodes include commentary tracks:"Loyalty" features
director Andrew Grieve and producer Andrew Benson, and "Duty"
features Grieve, Benson, and costume designer John Mallo.
one brand-new feature is an 18-minute interview with Ioan Gruffudd,
in which the actor provides some interesting commentary on what it
was like to be part of the whole Hornblower experience. It's one of
the more interesting pieces here.
Horatio Hornblower: Collector's
Edition is a solidly entertaining set, giving viewers eight
polished, classy, well-acted films that pull us into the middle of
the excitement of the high seas. In terms of historical accuracy and
attention to detail, the films are spot-on, recreating the world of
the British Navy in the early 1800s with all its highs and lows. Each
film stands well on its own, but one thing that makes the set
especially enjoyable is the way that there's continuity from one
story to the next, mainly through the constantly developing character
of Hornblower (well played by Ioan Gruffudd) but also in terms of
plot and secondary characters. I would say this is worth a "highly
recommended" rating for anyone who enjoys a rousing tale of