Horatio Hornblower DVD Box Set 1 Review – By Mike Wilson

It may seem like a strange thing for me to say, but I love movies about the Age of Sail. I don’t know a damned thing about boats, or ships or whatever, but I think it would have been a great adventure to have sailed on a tall wooden ship, back when that was the latest in naval technology. At least it seems that way on the big screen (or TV). That daydream can be shattered easily though. When I do watch TV I usually watch the History channel, or the Discovery Channel or A&E. After seeing from programs on those channels what living aboard ship was really like, I have to say I’m more at ease living on dry land. Still, I love to see and hear the tales of the men who did voyage that way.

I came upon this series in a serendipitous way…I was in transit, between Europe and the US and I had a few days to kill before my flight back to America. Bored, I had only my laptop to entertain myself with a few PC games on it, but it did have a DVD drive….so I wandered into the PX at Patch barracks, in Stuttgart Germany and grabbed this box set, feeling it would at least give me something to watch. Boy, am I glad I did. This is one of the best collections I think I’ve come across.

I’ve never read C.S. Forrester’s novels, and I don’t think I know anyone that has, but if the A&E presentation is faithful to them, they must be great reads. Most people probably only know Horatio Hornblower from the 1951 Gregory Peck movie “Captain Horatio Hornblower.” It’s a good movie, but as I understand it, it compacts three of Forrester’s novels into one movie. This box set starts at the beginning of Hornblower’s career, and the very first tale is completely engrossing. If you’ve seen the Gregory Peck movie, then the box-set from A&E will show you how Hornblower became such a great sailor and captain.

Disk 1: The Duel
The first movie, “The Duel” starts with Horatio Hornblower coming aboard the HMS Justinian as a midshipman. This young man is not a fearless sailor, but a 17 year old boy that instantly becomes seasick as he meets his fellow midshipmen. Almost instantly Hornblower becomes the favorite target for the bullying Jack Simpson, the senior midshipman aboard. Despite Simpson’s cruel and malicious ways, Hornblower begins to adapt to life on a 19th century ship in the Royal Navy. Even after Simpson nearly beats him to death for scoring better than he on a navigational exam. When a senior officer asks Hornblower how he received his bruises, the young man simply says he fell in the dark. Hornblower is punished for not squealing on Simpson’s attack, but you can see he’s tired of taking the abuse. When Simpson later accuses Hornblower of cheating at cards, the midshipman seizes the chance to end the nightmarish situation by challenging him to a duel. But Clayton, another midshipman that has been terrorized by Simpson, doesn’t want Hornblower to risk his life and knocks him out, taking his place in the duel. Simpson kills Clayton and full of irrational hatred vows to kill Hornblower when he next has the chance.

That’s not forthcoming….at least not immediately, as the French have declared war on Britain and Hornblower finds himself and his friends transferred to the frigate, HMS Indefagitible, while Simpson remains on the Justinian. The Indefagitible’s commander, Captain Sir Edward Pellew warns Hornblower that he will not tolerate duels between members of his crew and puts him in charge of a division of rebellious men demanding that he whips them into shape. Hornblower finally finds himself, albeit slowly, becoming an able seaman and commander, and his efforts do not go unnoticed by Captain Pellew. Proving his bravery and devotion to duty several times, Hornblower earns the respect of his shipmates and Captain….so much that when circumstance bring Simpson aboard the Indefagitible, Captain Pellew rescinds his order allowing Hornblower to challenge him again and end their vendetta.

Disk 2: The Fire Ships
As the career or Horatio Hornblower continues, he finds his troubles mounting. The captain of the HMS Dreadnought, Captain Foster, is a fearless but reckless commander. Though his exploits usually carry a heavy price in the lives of his men he is admired by many in the British Navy, including Horbnblower….a fact that Captain Pellew isn’t fond of. (Its clear that Pellew doesn’t exactly like Foster) The Indefagitible is low on supplies, and the men are starving….and Hornblower, tasked to bring the supplies to the ship finds himself and his squad quarantined by a plague epidemic! Even if Hornblower can survive this and bring much needed food and water to his shipmates, can he quell the rebellious attitude of a mutinous sailor and stop the threat of the deadly Spanish Fire Ships?

There are many subplots running through this installment….the mutineer, is a sympathetic character, his motivations fueled by loss and frustration. Hornblower struggles with his responsibility to his men and tries to prepare for an exam so he can make the rank of lieutenant, and the crew of his ship holding on to the hope that they won’t die of plague or starvation. Pretty heavy stuff, and that’s without the threat in the title, the Fire Ships.

It’s the little things that count, ain’t it? They don’t come out and say it, but you can see that Captains foster and Pellew know and don’t like each other. Though Hornblower is brave and able, he has a hard time dealing with people on a personal level. (Foreshadowed in the first movie when he is described as being a “solitary boy” as a child) It’s the teeny tiny characterizations that add spice to this episode.

Disk 3: The Duchess and the Devil
Hornblower is given command of a captured French ship and ordered to take it back to England. But there’s a catch. He must transport the Duchess of Wharfesdale on his ship. This doesn’t seem too hard of a task, except that he and his crew are captured by the Spanish en route. But it gets really complicated when Hornblower must entrust secret documents to the Duchess while he is in captivity only to find that she has secrets of her own.

Watching these movies in order isn’t necessary, but suggested. In the first movie Hornblower’s friend Archie meant an uncertain fate at the hands of Jack Simpson…and Archie returns in this episode, though everyone thought he was dead. Whether or not he can help Hornblower….well, you should see what happens for yourself. Hornblower has enough problems with Hunter, a member of his crew that doesn’t agree with Hornblower’s ways of escaping their imprisonment.

Disk 4: The Wrong War
Finally receiving his promotion to Lieutenant, Hornblower is ordered to help a French noble retake his homeland. But the marquis proves to be crueler than the French rebels they fight, and Hornblower is hard pressed to save the commoners that are caught in the crossfire.

Out of all of the movies in this set, this one is the weakest. You can almost see what’s going to happen before it does, so any tension is nonexistent. Its not bad as in “IT SUCKED!” but it was a pale shadow compared to everything else you’ll see.

This Box set is wrongly looked at as a mini-series. All of the episodes included can stand alone and still offer adventure, intrigue and action on the high seas. Its best that you watch them in order, though, for certain characters change, die and are reintroduced. This collection won an Emmy in 1999 and it is well deserved. It’s a welcome thing to see a made for TV movie series that’s well made and exciting. Set sail for entertainment next time you visit the video store or amazon.com and relive the days when a tall ship and fair winds carried men to courageous deeds.

SPECIAL FEATURES: On Every disk! They include “Making of” featurettes, a collection of English Ships of the Line and descriptions, nautical terms and definitions, and a Bio on C.S. Forrester. All disks are subtitled for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the picture quality is excellent.

WHO’S GONNA WANT IT?: Obviously fans of C.S. Forrester, sailing enthusiasts and as always people who gosh, darnit, just like good movies.

CAN I BUY IT?: Yes you can pick it up from most of the major DVD resellers as well as from A&E’s online store.