Horatio Hornblower: The Even Chance, a.k.a. The Duel
directed by Andrew Grieve
(A&E/ITV, 1998)

Although the novels of C.S. Forester have not gotten the modern big-screen treatment that Patrick O'Brian received in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, Forester's great naval hero Horatio Hornblower was the focus of a long-running series of British made-for-TV movies, the first of which is The Even Chance (re-titled The Duel for American audiences).

A young Ioan Gruffudd portrays Hornblower in a series of episodes from Forester's first novel in the series, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. In it, Hornblower takes his first post in the British navy on the creaky old vessel Justinian. He makes a few friends and one terrible enemy, senior midshipman Jack Simpson (Dorian Healy), before being transferred to the frigate Indefatigable at the start of war with France. Hornblower, who begins the film shy and uncertain, quickly stiffens his spine and shows great fortitude and cunning in whatever circumstances he finds himself.

Gruffudd is perfect for the role, bringing Hornblower's anger, uncertainty, resolve and growing confidence to the screen with a deft hand. The movie benefits from excellent support as well, particularly with Healy as the villainous foil, Robert Lindsay as Capt. Sir Edward Pellew and the various members of Hornblower's misfit crew.

That said, the film is by no means a substitute for the novel. Much of the plot is sacrificed to the requirements of a short movie, and much of what remains has of course been altered. Also, operating with a small budget, the movie fails to give the story's sea battles their full due.

But these are, overall, very small complaints. I love the books and can still admit I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I hope the rest of the film series hits as many high marks.

review by
Tom Knapp

13 February 2010

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