Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.,
directed by Raoul Walsh
(Warner Bros., 1951)

Gregory Peck in 1951 was a perfect Horatio Hornblower.

Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., which predates by half a century the excellent Hornblower series starring Ioan Gruffudd, is very much a product of its time, and modern audiences might well be put off by the dated look and feel of the film. Yes, some of the acting is stilted and the accents are sometimes atrocious. The special effects are limited, and yes, the models that stand in for cities and ships are on occasion painfully obvious.

Even so, I found this Technicolor adventure vastly entertaining, even with the scenery-chewing villain in the first sequence and the overwrought romance in the middle. The movie is based on portions of three novels by C.S. Forester -- Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line and Flying Colors -- and the story was adapted for the silver screen in part by Forester himself.

The film begins with Hornblower aboard the 38-gun frigate, HMS Lydia, en route Nicaragua, where he is to parlay an alliance with the power-mad dictator El Supremo in order to draw Spain's attention away from the war in Europe. After seizing a powerful Spanish ship and presenting it to his new ally, Hornblower learns that Spain is now on friendly terms with Britain and making war on France. Oops.

It is during this series of engagements that Lady Barbara Wellesley (the classically beautiful Virginia Mayo) is brought onboard the Lydia after fleeing plague-ridden Panama. Her growing and ever-changing relationship with Hornblower -- while no surprise to anyone who's read the novels -- is a source of mercurial romance that will keep first-time viewers guessing.

Their passage back to England dominates the middle portion of the movie, including a dire illness not in Forester's original text that handily exposes Hornblower's rarely seen tender side. Once there, Hornblower is promoted to command the 74-gun ship of the line, HMS Sutherland, and is sent to blockade French movements along the coast of Spain, where he swiftly disobeys orders and orchestrates a decisive strike against a small French fleet. From there ... well, you'll just have to see what happens next.

Horatio Hornblower is a rousing film that, flaws aside, will surely entertain fans of the Age of Sail and Forester's heroic protagonist. Peck, tall and commanding in his naval blues, has a keen grasp on Hornblower's character: a brilliant commander and tactician, an inspiring leader of men, yet awkward and unsure in polite company, especially company of Lady Barbara's sort.

There are some fine supporting cast members as well, most notably Robert Beatty as Lt. Bush, James Kenney as Midshipman Longley and James R. Justice as able seaman Quist. While some plot points seem rushed -- they did, after all, cram three books into one two-hour movie -- Hornblower still stands as a classic of the genre.

review by
Tom Knapp

11 September 2010

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