The Films

The Film

A combination of factors led to the making of "Captain Horatio Hornblower". The first was obviously the popularity of the books. The second was the relationship between the US and British film industries, where (to pacify the British government) Hollywood was putting money into "British" films. So Warners sent Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo and director Raoul Walsh to the UK to make a "British" film.

The film was based on "The Happy Return" (US Title: "Beat to Quarters") with Gregory Peck suitably tall and dark (if not cadaverous and gangling) as Hornblower. Virginia Mayo played Lady Barbara, in an otherwise British cast which included James Robertson Justice, and Christopher Lee (as a Spanish captain).

While the sole reviewer at IMDB adores the film, at the time reception was luke warm, business was tepid, and no more films were made.

The Telemovies

After a shaky start (ships and the sea are VERY expensive to film well and the first series was expensive and sold slowly) this seems to have steadied and now contains 3 series covering the first 3 books. Ioan Gruffudd is excellently cast as Hornblower, being much more cadaverous and gangling than Gregory Peck.

WARNING for those who haven't seen the series the following contains much that can be regarded as spoilers.

Series 1

Based on Mr Midshipman Hornblower
Made in 1996, but not released in Australia until 2000, this series is constructed from incidents in ten of the stories/chapters which make up the (chronologically) first Hornblower novel.

The Even Chance
"Hornblower: The Even Chance" UK release (VCI). Image used without permission.The young Horatio Hornblower has obtained a midshipman's berth in the Royal Navy. But the Captain is old and dying, and the senior midshipman, Simpson, is a bully, driving the young middies to desperation. The desperate Hornblower challenges Simpson to a duel, but an older midshipman knocks him out, takes his place and is killed. Hornblower transfers to the Indefatigable under Captain Pellew, who forbids him to fight another duel. A French supply ship is captured, and Hornblower is appointed Prize Captain, but the ship has been holed and its cargo of rice swells and bursts the ship's seams. The crew and captives take to the boat, and after some adventures they are picked up by the Indy. The Indy picks up survivors from another British ship, including Simpson. A cutting out expedition is organised, and during it Simpson turns Hornblower's unconscious friend Kennedy loose in the jolly boat, and attempts to shoot Hornblower. Hornblower survives, and Pellew allows him to challenge Simpson again. Simpson fires early, Hornblower contemptuously refuses to fire, and Pellew shoots Simpson as he tries to stab Hornblower in the back.
The Examination for Lieutenant
"Hornblower: The Examination for Lieutenant" UK release (VCI). Image used without permission.Spain has signed a peace treaty with France, and is now neutral. The only harbour where Indy can get supplies is Gibralter. On the way the Indy spots wreckage of a supply ship and saves Captain 'Dreadnought' Foster. Pellew is unimpressed by Foster's tale of forcing the supply ship captain to fight, but the young Hornblower is impressed by his bravado. There are no supplies in Gibralter and Pellew puts the ship on half rations. The men become mutinous led by seaman Bunting (whose buddy has died of starvation). The Indy is assigned as escort to the supply ship Caroline, for a run to Oran. They arrive safely, but as they are loading the grain and cattle, the natives start dying - Plague! Rather than lose the supplies, Hornblower suggests that the quarantined landing party man the Caroline and look after the supplies. If they die, nothing is lost. If they live, the fleet is supplied. Hornblower gets first hand experience of the loneliness of command, especially as the rebellious Bunting is part of the crew and Hornblower is forced to shoot him when he tries to run. Hornblower's opinion of Foster is dented, when the latter forces him to give up some quarantined supplies, an action which could put the entire fleet at risk. Back in Gibralter Hornblower goes for his Lieutenant's examination - Foster is one of the board. Just as Hornblower is about to fail, the Spanish attack with a fireship. The Indy is threatened, and Foster and Hornblower risk their lives to steer the burning vessel away from the fleet. When they are rescued, Foster gives another display of intemperance, further lowering Hornblower's estimation of him. When Hornblower asks Pellew about the exam, Pellew tells him to be thankful - the Spanish attack prevented him from failing and having to wait 6 months before being tested again.
The Duchess and the Devil
"Hornblower: The Duchess and the Devil" UK release (VCI). Image used without permission.Acting Lieutenant Hornblower is given command of a captured French Brig and ordered to England with a passenger (the Duchess of Wharfedale) and despatches. In the fog off Cape St Vincent, they run into the Spanish fleet and are captured. Lady Wharfedale offers to protect the despatches and return them to England when she (as a civilian) is released. Hornblower accepts, but later has doubts. Hornblower and his men find Kennedy already a captive in their Spanish prison, but he is very ill and has lost the will to live. Hornblower is determined to take Kennedy with them when they escape, but his men are impatient and launch a doomed escape attempt. Hornblower takes the blame, and is locked in an oubliette. The leader of the escape attempt falls prey to deep remorse, and Kennedy is forced to take charge and organise the men. One day a sea battle is observed, the Indy chasing a small Spanish man o' war, onto the rocks. The Indy can do nothing for the survivors, and Hornblower volunteers to take a fishing boat out to the rescue. One of those rescued is the Duchess, and Hornblower's doubts about her return. The rescue boat is forced out to sea, and picked up by the Indy. Hornblower insists that the rescued sailors be set free, and that he himself must keep his parole and return. His men in support return with him and their good faith is rewarded when the Spanish King sets them free to honour their bravery.
The Frogs and the Lobsters
"Hornblower: The Frogs and the Lobsters" UK release (VCI). Image used without permission.The Indy is assigned to an expedition in support of the Vendee rebellion, escorting troop ships carrying British Redcoats and French Royalist troops and providing artillery and other support (under Hornblower's command). The Royalists turn out to be as vicious as the Revolutionaries, and the Navy lads find themselves defending the local villagers, Hornblower succumbing to the young schoolma'am in the process. The Redcoat commander refuses to intervene, straining the relationship with Hornblower. The Royalist uprising falters, and the Indy's detachment are in danger of being captured. They join forces with the British troops, and escape to the coast where Pellew has disobeyed orders and moved in close when he suspects things have gone wrong. Hornblower, though, is devastated as his sweetheart has been killed by a stray bullet during the engagement.
"The Making of Hornblower" by Tom McGregor (Boxtree, 1998). Image used without permission.The Making of Hornblower
The book of the TV series (by Tom McGregor) was published in 1998. A fascinating read, it covers the construction of the square rigged replica, The Grand Turk, which made the movies possible; the history of the schooner rigged Baltic trader, Julia, the models, the actors, the locations, etc. It was released in Australia when published, two years before the series was shown. Oh! the frustration! It finally got toom much, and I ordered the videos from the UK. Two weeks after they arrived, the ABC began advertising the series. Thank you Mr Murphy.

Series 2

Based on the book "Lieutenant Hornblower", made in 2000 and released in 2001, the two films fairly accurately capture the nature of the book. Due to public demand, Kennedy is back, and Paul McGann does an excellent job as Bush, even if he is tall and skinny rather than short and stocky.

Hornblower and his friend Kennedy are the junior lieutenants on a 74 commanded by Captain Sawyer, a real live Hero, one of Nelson's "Band of Brothers" no less. But Sawyer is mentally unstable, hounding a new, young middie and turning on Hornblower when he tries to defend the lad. The First lieutenant is timid, and the Second, Bush, is new and unsure of the situation. As the ship plunges across the Atlantic on a secret mission, things deteriorate to the point where Bush, Hornblower and Kennedy meet belowdecks to talk things through. Rumours reach Sawyer, and he is determined to catch the "mutineers", but in the dark he falls down a hatch and is injured. With the injured Sawyer sedated by the doctor, the First Lieutenant takes command, and is persuaded to read, and follow the secret orders. The mission is completed successfully and the Spanish garrison of a Caribbean fort captured, but the officers are haunted by the fear that Sawyer will recover and charge them with mutiny. The First Lieutenant is careless, and the Spanish POWs escape and try to take over the ship. They are foiled by Hornblower and Kennedy, the latter being seriously wounded, but in the confusion Sawyer and the Middie have been killed by the Spaniards. Sawyer's Coxswain is determined that the officers will pay.
Sawyer's Coxswain accuses the officers of mutiny claiming that the Captain was pushed down the hatch by one of them, and a court of enquiry is convened. Hornblower, frantic with worry over the critically wounded Kennedy, is targeted by the Coxswain, and despite the presence of Pellew on the court, there is a determination that Sawyer's name must be kept clean and honourable. Things look grim for Hornblower despite the staunch support of Bush, as recollections are twisted and insinuations allowed to colour the evidence. As Hornblower faces up to the probability of being found guilty and shot, a surprise final witness is called. The desperately ill Kennedy sacrifices any chance of recovery and accepts the blame for Sawyer's injury and death. With a conveniently dying scapegoat, the court can afford to be generous. Pellew finds Hornblower sitting, grieving, on Kennedy's empty bed and informs him he has been promoted Acting Commander.

Series 3

Made in 2002 and released in 2003, this is very loosely based on "Hornblower and the Hotspur". The action (after an introductory section based on the end of "Lieutenant Hornblower") is still based in the Channel at the end of the Peace of Amiens. Changes for TV reasons include the elimination of most of the complex detail about the blockading fleet. The command chain is limited to Admiral Pellew (who did actually commanded the Inshore Squadron). The two telemovies are built around a few incidents in the books.

Commander Hornblower is bringing the Retribution back to England when he bumps into Hotspur, a captured British sloop, and retakes her. The celebrations are interrupted by a cutter from the local port bringing news of peace...
On a cold winter's day in Portsmouth, Lieutenant Bush bumps into his old friend Hornblower. His attempts to salute a senior officer are refused and Hornblower reveals that his promotion was not ratified. Hornblower is all but destitute, riskily living on his winnings from partnering Admiral Pellew at whist, with the Landlady's daughter covering for him during the inevitable losing streaks. But things are astir in Whitehall. Like Britain, Napoleon is using the respite of the Peace of Amiens to rebuild his strategy and his new goal looks like England. As the situation grows tenser Pellew (in charge of the Channel fleet) decides he wants eyes on the French coast and Hornblower finds himself repromoted and in command of the sloop "Hotspur". As well as Bush and an experienced Irish coxswain, Wolfe, some of his old crew turn up to join him: Matthews and Styles. Also on board is the nephew of Captain Hammond (Hornblower's bête noir in the matter of courts martial and exams) who has requested a place as midshipman under Hornblower. The orders are to ferry an aristocratic French emigré, Côtard, serving as an officer in the British army, to a discrete meeting with a contact aboard a British merchantman off France. Additionally Hornblower is to observe French activity but not cause an incident. Things don't go well (Hammond's nephew is not up to scratch, sabotage nearly wrecks the ship and they find out the hard way that war has been declared) but Hornblower and Bush pull through and return triumphant to Portsmouth. There they find the boarding house closed and Maria and her mother in debtor's prison. Hornblower magnanimously pays the debts. Then it's back to sea for Hornblower and his crew. The Channel fleet's target is the shipping Napoleon needs to transport and protect an invading army. But the French anchorage is protected by a strong fort, and surprise is impossible due to a semaphore station on the headland. Hotspur is assigned the task of knocking out the station while Hammond's ship is to silence the fort. But suspicion is rife on board Hotspur, and Hornblower is forced to give young Hammond a key role in the operation. Treachery sees the Hotspur's landing party (led by Hornblower) captured though not before they destroy the semaphore station. They are taken to the fort where the real traitors are revealed. Despite everything the fort is blown and the channel fleet destroys the French shipping. Hornblower returns a hero, and magnanimously offers to keep Maria. She refuses, as her mother (none too subtly) points out her reputation has already been cast into question by Hornblower extricating her from debtor's prison. Cornered, Hornblower does the only honourable thing and offers marriage.
Despite his lukewarm feelings towards her, Hornblower feels duty bound to go through with the marriage to the faithful Maria and save her from poverty just as she saved him during his darkest hours. The celebrations are interrupted by Admiral Pellew. Hornblower's old friend Bracegirdle and his ship, Grasshopper, are missing and Bracegirdle's last despatch hinted at suspicious activity on the French coast. After one night of (for Maria anyway) married bliss Hornblower is away across Channel again. Off the French coast they hit a violent storm in the middle of which they pick up a trio of people adrift in a rowboat - a Frenchman who claims to be Swiss, his American wife, Betsy, and an Irish American who was trying to land the couple in France. Betsy tries to inveigle Hornblower into landing them, by offering information on Grasshopper. This enables Hornblower to find the wreckage and pick up Bracegirdle who tells them of strange events around a small inconspicuous inlet. Two parties investigate. Hornblower and Bush find a lot of ships cannon stored in a barn, and an encampment of soldiers. Bracegirdle discovers the truth, but is killed before he can tell anyone. Hornblower returns to England, where he discovers that his passenger is Jerome, younger brother of Napoleon, trying to return to France and (against his brother's wishes) bring his American wife with him. Hornblower is stranded ashore as Hotspur is put under political quarantine and quarrels with Maria. But soon he is back under way, executing the government decision to return Jerome to France alone and deliver his wife to her father's ship. They also return to the inlet and discover that it contains 3 frigates fitted out en flute as transports for an invasion of Ireland. During a snowstorm, Hotspur enters the anchorage and destroys one ship. The other two run aground in panic. Once again Hornblower returns in triumph, to promotion and a very pregnant Maria.

So far, so good. Keep up the watching and buying folks and we might get the whole series.

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Last update 28/4/03