Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Horatio Hornblower: A Hero for All Seasons
Like every generation before us, we think we live in perilous times. And like every generation before us, we’re probably right. Social animals, after all, do tend to fight amongst themselves. What separated we humans from other mammals was our need to justify our actions. Thus, we devised words like “loyalty”, “duty”, “courage” and “justice” to reconcile our primordial needs. For centuries, it more or less worked. We knew if we went into battle risking limb and life, we were right, and the other side was wrong.

We’ve grown jaded in the twenty-first century. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of honor, loyalty, duty, and most importantly, civility. That’s why the release of Horatio Hornblower Collector’s Edition is an important, if largely unheralded, addition to a comprehensive DVD library. It’s a sweeping epic that’s a reminder of the unyielding power of steadfast ethics.

Drawing their inspiration from C.S. Forester’s novels, A&E’s Horatio Hornblower series of made-for television movies ran 1998-2003 on the cable network. (It ran in Britain on ITV, and was simply called Hornblower.) This DVD collection packages all eight movies together in one set. Together, they chronicle the unlikely rise of Horatio Hornblower from midshipman to commander during the early days of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s romantic high seas adventure on a grand scale, lavishly produced, unrivaled in movies made for television broadcast.

By virtue of visuals alone, Horatio Hornblower is an amazing work. Meticulous attention was paid to every detail of the production. From hairstyles to locations to the magnificent full-scale ships integral to the saga, the movies are imbued with a air of authenticity rarely seen in modern productions. There are no computer generated effects here, as there were in recent theatrical films such as Master and Commander. Rather, director Andrew Grieve and producer Andrew Benson eschewed such effects in favor of location shooting and full-sized ships wherever possible, even filming much of the series aboard the ships. Even the battle sequences where actual ships could not be practically utilized, were shot using exquisitely detailed miniatures at Pinewood Studios.

Of course, beautiful visuals mean little if not coupled with a gripping story and powerful performances. The Hornblower movies exquisitely deliver on both counts. The eight films chronicle the trials and triumphs of Hornblower as he rises through the ranks of the British Royal Navy without resorting to miniseries tactics. Each “episode” (lasting about 100 minutes) stands alone as a complete story independent of the other films. While it’s not necessary to see them in chronological order—or any, order, for that matter—they work together to paint an engaging portrait of a man resolute in his personal ethics against all odds. They’re not preachy by any means, but instead weave their themes within the stories in the tradition of classic filmmaking. Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) portrays Hornblower with a perfect blend mannerly reserve and swashbuckling abandon.In his recurring role as Hornblower’s mentor, Captain Pellew, Robert Lindsay (Wimbledon) delivers an outstanding performance as a gruff but tender father figure who quietly charts Hornblower’s career. In fact, there are no weak performances in the series. Supporting actors play their roles with a vigor born of love for the content.

Besides the 800 minute running time of the adventures, this DVD collection offers a wealth of bonus features, including:

· Exclusive interview with Ioan Gruffudd

· Filmmaker Commentary on Loyalty and Duty.

· 3 Bonus Programs: England's Royal Warships, Sail 2000: Aboard the Eagle, and The Making of Horatio Hornblower

· About C.S. Forester

· Nautical Terms and Definitions

· Interactive 3D Naval Cannon

· Guide to Royal Warships

· C.S. Forester Biography

· Cast and Crew Biographies

· Photo Gallery

· Interactive Menus; Scene Selection

The story of Horatio Hornblower is too rich to cover adequately in one review. I’ll be looking at the individual movies in depth over the coming weeks. In the meantime, I recommend the entire series as a rarity—an uplifting saga of valor suitable for family viewing. It never panders to any particular demographic, but instead opts to present a hero for all seasons.