The A&E "megaset" holiday gift juggernaut continues with The Adventure Collection, all around one of the better offerings in these new bookcase 14 disc sets, several of which I've already reviewed (The Universe Collection, The 60's). Combining a host of excellent adventure themed film-length adaptations, as well as the first four Hornblower films, this set provides a wealth of great stories with unusually high production values.
Hornblower. Note: some information is repeated from my previous review of the complete eight film set, released several months ago by A&E.
A generation before Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Matarin 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. Though 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 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.
Though this might be thought of as a miniseries, with a 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 (only the first four films are included in this release, which is a real shame). 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 in this series, 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 Four Episodes Included in The Adventure Collection
The Duel. This film introduced the young Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) 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 (Robert Lindsay),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.
Giving equal time to "the other side" of the massive Franco-British conflict of the Hornblower era is this visually opulent miniseries, one of the most impressive from production design and cinematography standpoints that I've seen. Starting with Napoleon's exile, and then working back through the tumultuous rise and and fall of France's "little Emperor," Napoleon is a feast for the eyes if never quite for the intellect.
No expense was obviously spared on this production, which includes epic recreations of several battles, but also depicts court life of that era with an at times creepy verisimilitude. Where the miniseries repeatedly comes up short (no pun intended) is in some of the portrayals. While Christian Clavier does generally excellent work in detailing the complexities of Napoleon's almost manic-depressive tendencies, he's at times very hard to understand due to his thick French accent. Isabella Rossellini is strangely out of her element as Empress Josephine, and just seems lost a lot of the time, not helped by what looks like some very sloppily handled ADR post-production work that leaves her voice never quite in synch with her lips. While some of the supporting cast is superb, including Gerard Depardieu as Joseph Fouche, others, like John Malkovich's Talleyrand, are a major embarrassment. Why Malkovich, an always quirky but usually more reliable performer, chose to keep his broad American accent, and even more disconcertingly, smugly modern style, is anyone's guess, but he obviously needed a stronger director than Yves Simoneau to reign in his narcissistic tendencies. The scenes with him are completely off-kilter, performing style wise, and throw the viewer off balance enough that it takes the film a while to regain its momentum.
Napoleon does offer an unglamourized view of the conqueror of his age, warts and all. Both his strategic genius and personal failings are well detailed, leaving a fairly well rounded portrayal at the core of this film. There's probably enough pomp and circumstance here to overcome a certain amount of lethargy that creeps in. Visually this piece harkens back to the early 50s Technicolor epics made just before widescreen processes came into vogue; I was consistently impressed with the beautiful imagery of Napoleon, which has one of the boldest color palettes I've experienced in made for television fare. Just try to ignore the preening Malkovich when he comes onscreen.
Dava Sobel's brilliantly written and researched expose of the little-known quest to provide an accurate way of measuring Longitude is brought to the small screen in one of the most consistently engaging efforts that A&E has ever presented. Helmed by a commanding performance by Michael Gambon as John Harrison, a man who had seemingly everything stacked against him but who nonetheless managed to prevail, Longitude provides not only a fascinating history lesson but a compelling personal story as well.
Longitude seems to take its title somewhat literally as it moves vertically through two time-spheres, including that of Harrison, an 18th century clockmaker who invented the maritime chronometer, the first instrument capable of accurately measuring longitude, ultimately winning the vaunted "Longitude Prize," again overcoming several overwhelming obstacles. But Longitude also presents the mirrored story of Rupert Gould (the brilliant Jeremy Irons), overcoming some personal problems of his own in the 20th century as he attempts to restore Harrison's chronometers. The ironic aspect to the story is that Harrison more or less quickly solved the actual problem, while taking decades to actually claim the Prize, as the scientific powers of the time were loathe to bestow it on a non-scientist of such lowly class. It's a heartbreaking and actually infuriating indictment of narrow mindedness, but also an unbelievably inspiring testament to one man's perseverance.
You might think that this would all be incredibly dry, but it is to Longitude's credit that both stories remain unbelievably visceral throughout. While Harrison's is perhaps the more compelling, simply because the odds seem stacked against him so completely, Irons' understated and emotionally tamped down work as Gould may well linger longer with the viewer after the story has ended.
Longitude also sports an impressive production design, obviously put to best use in the Harrison segments. All of the supporting performances are wonderful, including a luminous Gemma Jones as Elizabeth Harrison. This is simply one of the all-time best television films, a suitably epic production detailing an arcane sidebar of maritime history, and brought brilliantly to life in two towering performances by Gambon and Irons.
Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor
Have you ever noticed there aren't many American kids named Benedict these days (or in fact ever during our 200-plus years of history)? You can lay the blame squarely at the feet of the man who became the most infamous "traitor" in U.S. history. What some reactionaries fail to remember is that Arnold happened to be, in none other than George Washington's own words, the "greatest hero of the Revolution." This fascinating paradox is brought vividly to life in Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, a 2003 production with Aidan Quinn as the title character and a somewhat miscast Kelsey Grammer as Washington.
Arnold traverses several decades, but focuses mostly on the ultimately traitorous General's Revolutionary War exploits, showing quite effectively how he saved the nascent country not once, but twice. What this piece also depicts vividly is how extremely poorly Arnold was treated after his heroics, not just by officials in Pennsylvania, but by Washington himself, who was trying to navigate a minefield of competing agendas and ideologies. Arnold makes a cogent case that while some may fault Arnold for his ultimate decisions (most notoriously the one attempting to give West Point over to the British), there is no doubt that the General made them from a strong moral compass that was perhaps in conflict with some wounded pride.
Quinn is remarkable throughout this shorter form piece (about 90 minutes), with doleful eyes hinting at the torments that rages beneath Arnold's forceful fašade. Somewhat less effective is Grammer, who comes off as a sort of Revolutionary War era Frasier, with clipped cadences and a parading peacock demeanor that undercuts Washington's character as a "citizen soldier." Most of the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, expecially the beautiful Flora Montgomery as the Loyalist whom Arnold marries; discerning viewers will recognize Montgomery from her many BBC appearances, including one of the very best Poirots, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."
Benedict Arnold is one of those characters who seems confined to the stereotype he has been branded with for the past couple of centuries, with little regard for the actual human emotions and motivations that made up the man. Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor does a remarkable job of filling in those details and making the typos a real, living breathing human being.
Certainly one of the more amazing true stories in this set is the unbelievable Shackleton, featuring a superb Kenneth Branagh as the early 20th century adventurer Ernest Shackleton, who sought to chart the South Pole. The bulk of the film follows the legendary exploits of the ironically named ship Endurance, which became lodged in the ice, stranding Shackleton and his men in a frozen wasteland. Realizing the dire straits they were in, Shackleton set off on what must have seemed like a mad, several hundred mile solo effort to find help. Against all odds, he succeeded, and not one of his crew died on the ill-fated voyage.
Though there's a large and impressive supporting cast throughout Shackleton, this film rests squarely on the shoulders of Branagh, and this is certainly one of his most commanding performances. With the bulk of the central section of the film being somewhat akin to Tom Hanks' solo work in Cast Away, the success of Shackleton relies almost entirely on Branagh's solitary screen time as he both boats and hikes his way across an incredibly foreboding sea- and landscape in order to find relief for his men. Branagh is up to the challenge, and Shackleton, under the able direction of Charles Sturridge, brings the explorer's indomitable will to stirring life.
This is a story where you will repeatedly be saying "I can't believe that happened," and yet it all did. Shackleton boasts one of Shackleton's biographers as a production advisor, as well as first-hand accounts by many of the crew, lending it an air of authenticity that is truly incredible. The production design, especially of the Endurance trapped in a sea of ice, is spectacular. You may feel the need to bundle up as you watch this compelling piece of history unfold before your eyes. Branagh has never been better, and Shackleton packs an impressive punch that few relatively recent television films can match.
The Lost Battalion
The story of a battalion lost in the Argonne Forest in World War I has been the stuff of legend for decades, and was made into a silent film featuring many of the actual participants of the tragedy shortly after the close of the war (the 1961 film of the same name is about World War II, strangely). This compelling film, which can almost be seen as a companion piece to the various versions of All Quiet on the Western Front, brings home in a sometimes shockingly visceral fashion not only the futility of war, but the personal heroics of various people caught in a maelstrom not of their own making.
Rick Schroder might be one of the last people you'd think of to effectively portray an American Major, one Charles Whittlesey, who through some bad luck ends up with his battalion isolated from supporting forces deep behind enemy lines. Though realizing his apparently doomed fate, Whittlesey managed to heroically stoke the passions of his men, many if not most of whom were of a lower class uneducated sort (some of them actual criminals). The Lost Battalion shows the hearbreaking efforts of an outnumbered and potentially demoralized group fighting on against insurmountable odds. The fact that any of the battalion managed to survive is something of a minor miracle.
The Lost Battalion is one of the few times in recent film work where the much overused handheld jiggly camerawork actually works to the benefit of the finished product, lending a "you are there" element that puts the viewer squarely in the center of an unfolding series of horrendous events. Despite some preconceptions about Schroder's ability to handle a role of this magnitude, he does an incredibly impressive job, handling both the action elements and the more personal intimate moments with ease. Director Russell Mulcahy, who's seen his big screen career pretty much flame out after Highlander, does a remarkably efficient job here of showing the literally down and dirty, grittier aspects of ground fighting during "The Great War." Keeping the story well-balanced between the epic and personal, Mulcahy stages the many fight scenes with a fair degree of visual panache, while eliciting good to excellent supporting performances from the large cast.
There's a palpable air of malaise and sadness that overhangs The Lost Battalion. It's probably the most outright depressing vision of this boxed set, but it's a potent reminder that war is never easy and that each life lost is a precious sacrifice that's impossible to replace.