A generation before Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels (adapted into Master and Commander) started sweeping away legions of readers into the supposedly halcyon days of the Napoleonic Wars, there was another British series of novels detailing life in His Majesty's Navy. C.S. Forester brought Horatio Hornblower to life first in serialized form and then later in a series of well received and eagerly awaited novels. Hornblower made it to the film world with 1951's Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring a somewhat miscast Gregory Peck. While Forester fared a bit better in the 1950s with another film adaptation of one of his novels, a little tome called The African Queen, it really wasn't until this excellent 1998-2003 set of eight television movies made for A&E hit the screen that the full scope of Forester's Hornblower achievement really was given a proper screen, albeit small screen, treatment. Hornblower presents a fascinating chronological treatise of one man's (actually boy's, as he's only 17 as the series begins) journey through years of Naval service at a critical time for the British Empire. This nicely repackaged set features all eight films and the same extras as were released a few years ago.
Though this might be thought of as a miniseries, with characters who recur throughout most, if not all, of the episodes, the eight Hornblower films can each be taken as standalone items, without the viewer getting too lost. Hornblower was one of the most expensive and lavish historical shows to have been filmed up to that time, with several Oscar winners in various crew capacities, and a stellar cast including Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower and Robert Lindsay as his mentor, Captain Edward Pellew. The series is notable for its thrilling production values, which include actual tall ships being built for use throughout the eight films, as documented in one of the splendid extras included. Historically, the series is probably one of the most accurate portrayals of sea life in this era ever put on film, without the high gloss that often accompanies even the best-intentioned big screen efforts (as in Master and Commander itself, as a matter of fact). There's no shirking throughout these films from not only the horrors of battle, but also the perhaps no lesser horror of being confined in close quarters with men whose motives are not always pure, not to mention a strict code of discipline that may leave you covering your eyes in abject disgust more than once.
Gruffudd (The Fantastic Four) does an amazing job throughout this series, starting out as a frankly scared boy and slowly maturing into a responsible and responsive commander himself. His character's journey is always front and center in these films, despite the often exotic locales that serve as backdrops for Hornblower's various adventures. Gruffudd's dashing presence brings Hornblower fully to life, while never minimizing the foibles and fears that underlie Hornblower's heroic posture. It makes Hornblower a fully human character, and is probably the main reason that this miniseries is so consistently captivating. Robert Lindsay (BBC's Jericho mystery series, among many others) is a very appealing father figure throughout the series, often taking Hornblower to task for his occasional missteps while never failing to show pride and real affection for his charge. The supporting cast that moves in and out of the various episodes is uniformly excellent, though I felt that the series spent a bit too much time on nemeses for Hornblower from within his own ranks (some of whom of course turn out to heroically sacrifice themselves in the end).
For a small screen effort, there has been a lot of time and energy spent on costumes and sets, and especially in battle special effects. While there's no mistaking a lot of the tank work with miniatures here, as excellent as it may be, it really doesn't distract too much from the reality being portrayed, and, as mentioned above, a lot of the films take place on actual full scale sailing ships, which lends an air of authenticity that may have you checking your brow for sea spray once or twice. Directorial touches are frequently very exciting throughout the series, with shots taken from the crow's nest and masts as well as several great aerial flybys of ships on the open seas.
Brief Summaries of the Eight Episodes
The Duel. This film introduced the young Hornblower on his first assignments, where he quickly draws the ire of a Midshipman, ultimately having to challenge the man to a duel. He also comes under the mentorship of Captain Edward Pellew,who will play an important part in several more episodes.
The Fire Ships. This episode deals mostly with the Spanish attacks of ships set on fire sent into docked British fleets, set against Hornblower's attempts to pass his test to become a Lieutenant.
The Duchess and the Devil. Hornblower and his men find themselves POWs in a sort of exotic Iberian locale, as well as keepers of an English Duchess with a secret or two up her sleeves.
The Wrong War. Hornblower travels to France in an abortive coup attempt to overthrow the Republic, a plan whose secrecy is endangered when its plans are stolen. The French Royalist commander accompanying Hornblower, who turns out to be something of a marauding madman, opens Horatio's eyes to the abuse of power.
The Mutiny. In an episode that may be seen as a Napoleonic War precursor to The Caine Mutiny, Horatio finds himself having to deal with an unbalanced captain, leading to his being threatened with court-martial.
Retribution picks up right where The Mutiny left off, with Hornblower not getting to enjoy the exotic locale of Jamaica as he fights to clear his name and to take an enemy fort.
Loyalty. Love finally more or less finds Horatio, but it's pushed aside as professional concerns take over when Hornblower must secretly help a French nobleman on an undercover mission as well as battle turncoats in his own ranks.
Duty. Hornblower's marriage is interrupted by now Admiral Pellew who orders Horatio to locate a missing British ship off the French coast.