“He is the unique high-seas hero. A man of unshakable courage, unwavering principles, and extraordinary skill. Joining the Royal Navy at the outset of the bloody Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Hornblower rises quickly from new recruit to seasoned sailor, and his exploits become the stuff of legends.”
When Gene Roddenberry was preparing his “Wagon Train to the Stars” that would become Star Trek, he turned to the historic hero from the books of C.S. Forester. Horatio Hornblower would be the inspiration and genesis for Captain Kirk. Like Kirk, Hornblower became one of the youngest officers in the fleet and rose quickly to the point where he was commanding the flagship of the Royal Navy. His adventures have been the stuff of radio drama and feature films. Now A&E brings us two of their film series.
Hornblower first appeared in 1937 in the novel The Happy Return, later released in North America as Beat To Quarters. Hornblower was played by Gregory Peck in 1951’s Captain Horatio Hornblower. In the two films on this release Hornblower is played by The Fantastic Four’s Ioan Gruffudd. The series also features Battlestar Galactica’s Jamie Bamber as Mr. Kennedy. Robert Lindsay plays Captain Pellew, who sees greatness in Hornblower and gives him the opportunity to fulfill his destiny.
The Duchess And The Devil (1999)
“The Spanish Fleet is bottled up in Cadiz by the British. But enemy vessels creep along the coast to run vital supplies through the blockade.”
After winning a surprising victory against the French and capturing a prize ship, Hornblower receives high honors and praise from the brass. He is rewarded for his achievement by being given command of the captured vessel and escorting it and a visiting Duchess back to England. The voyage is not as successful as the battle campaign had been. Hornblower makes a miscalculation in judgment and finds himself in the midst of the Spanish Fleet where he is captured and taken to an island prisoner of war camp. He entrusts vital dispatches to the Duchess, but she might not be who or what she appears to be. Attempts to escape lead to tragic consequences, and it’s only through a splendid display of honor that Hornblower and his crew manage to leave.
The Wrong War (1999)
“War with Republican France has reached a stalemate. French royalist refugees in England are impatient to break the deadlock and restore the monarchy.”
An army of royalists led by a Marquis strike an agreement to lead an invasion of France along with a part of British naval and infantry officers and their men. Hornblower is tasked with taking the troops to their encounter and offering tactical assistance to the forces. But the Marquis is more interested in enacting revenge against the peasants who supported the revolution. Instead of working the plan, he is busy working his private guillotine. Hornblower is caught between conscience and duty.
The films have a rather lavish production design for television movies. The idea of making several of the movies together likely helped to distribute the costs of building era ships and locations through the entire film series. There’s not as much swashbuckling action as I had hoped to find, however. Still, the high-seas adventures offer quite a nice visual. Gruffudd is actually pretty good in the role, which he played before his Mr. Fantastic days. Still, these films are available from time to time on television, and I’m not sure you’re getting anything extra with this release. I’d hold out for a more comprehensive release of all of the films, perhaps in Blu-ray, even though these films are full-frame and already a bit dated.
Each film is presented in its original full-frame broadcast aspect ratio. There is a ton of wonderful production design here, but a lot of it is tainted by the presence of compression artifact that seriously takes you out of the adventure. Black levels are weak. Colors do break through at times. I get hints at wonderful vistas and ocean panoramas. If only we could catch these with a better video presentation.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track doesn’t do the production justice at all. Dialog is the only thing that really comes through. Don’t expect to be taken on a high-seas adventure in the audio department.
Behind The Scenes: (21:34) A look at four of the films that were likely filmed pretty much together. It’s presented as a promo piece and was likely a special broadcast at the time the films were airing for the first time.
Royal Warships: (45:21) A documentary on the ships of the Napoleonic Wars.
The films show great promise. The cast is exceptional and the production design shows incredible attention to detail. Unfortunately, this just isn’t a solid release. I’d rather give up the two extra features and get a more solid bit rate. If you want to have these films for your own collection, I’d hold out for a better release. Is one coming? “I do not have the answer.”