The Lydia has been months at sea with no sign of land. The men are on strict water rations — “the officers and men alike,” a disgruntled sailor is told sternly by an officer. “Even him,” the latter adds more quietly, nodding toward the captain’s turned back.
“Hornblower?” mutters the sea dog. “He ain’t human.”
Right away we’re glad to have Gregory Peck in the role of C. S. Forester’s fictional Napoleonic war–era naval hero Horatio Hornblower, rather than Errol Flynn, who was originally slated for the role. Flynn may have been many things in such seafaring swashbucklers as The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, but one thing he always was was very, very human.
A shrewd, aloof British Navy officer cut from cloth similar to his Napoleonic-war contemporary Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander), Hornblower is human too, but he exerts enormous self-control not to show it. The austere reserve, the exterior unflappability masking inner self-doubt that characterizes Forester’s hero is well suited to Peck’s chiseled screen presence and authoritative delivery. When another character, lamenting the windless night, complains that the candle flame is “as straight as Hornblower’s spine,” it is Peck’s posture, not Flynn’s, that comes to mind.
Among films of its ilk, Captain Horatio Hornblower likewise stands tall. Directed by Raoul Walsh (The Thief of Bagdad) from a screenplay adapted by Forester himself from his first three novels, the film deftly balances some of the best age-of-sail sea battles ever filmed with a love-interest storyline in which Hornblower finds himself unexpectedly taking on a female passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley (Virginia Mayo).
“Is it really such a distraction to have a woman on board?” Lady Barbara protests when she learns that Hornblower wants her confined to quarters.
“May I remind you,” Hornblower frowns, “that these men have been at sea eight months.”
Lady Barbara’s over-the-shoulder parting shot: “How long have you been at sea, Captain?”
One of the recurring drawbacks in classic Hollywood nautical swashbucklers is the frequent stereotyping of the Protestant English as the heroes and the Catholic Spanish as the enemy. Frequently coupled with this is a romantic, blinkered view of piracy as morally legitimate if the targets are the enemy (i.e., the Spanish).
Captain Horatio Hornblower neatly sidesteps the first issue by a first-act shift of alliances. After a daring raid on a Spanish warship, the film takes a surprise twist as Hornblower receives unexpected word that England and Spain are now allies against Napoleon’s France! And of course Hornblower is a real military man, not a privateer with a license to plunder, so piracy isn’t an issue either.
The revelation that Hornblower is married (and Lady Barbara engaged) does throw a moral crank in the works of the love-interest storyline — a challenge to which the characters don’t perfectly rise. Compared to the romantic complications in other films of this ilk (lady loves yet is repelled by pirate, etc.), there’s a little more substance here and a little less escapism — which, depending on taste, could be a good thing or a bad thing.
Ultimately, of course, the characters find their way through heartbreak and tragedy to a conventional Hollywood ending. With Hornblower’s daring exploits in two oceans and behind enemy lines, Captain Horatio Hornblower one of the best entertainments in its class.
Like a cannon blast across the bows, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a thunderous, almost defiant declaration heralding the arrival of a force to be reckoned with.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.