Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Origins of Horatio Hornblower
Horatio Hornblower is the penultimate icon of romantic naval fiction. That may or may not mean a lot to you, until you pause to consider that without Hornblower, there would probably never have been a Captain Kirk or a Jean-Luc Picard. Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as “Horatio Hornblower in space.” It’s hardly surprising, then, that the deep space battles of Star Trek often resembled 19th century naval strategies.

That Horatio Hornblower evokes that kind of reverence 70 years after C.S. Forester first introduced the character to the world is testament to our inherent need for heroes. I’m not talking typical celluloid action, either—Hornblower embodies virtue, duty and courage—even when it means personal cost to him.

It’s no surprise that the adventures of Hornblower have been immortalized in film—first by Gregory Peck in 1951, in the film Captain Horatio Hornblower. But it was the A&E/ITV series of eight television movies aired 1998-2002, however, that indelibly stamped the character of Hornblower into the public consciousness. All eight movies are gathered in the Horatio Hornblower Collector’s Edition, which I recently reviewed. As I said then, the movies paint a rich tapestry of Hornblower’s career and times, but individually, they stand on their own as swashbuckling adventures.

“The Duel” (as it was known on A&E, or “The Even Chance”, on ITV) introduces a very young Hornblower. It’s 1793, and amidst uncertain times in Europe, a 17-year old midshipman Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) reports for duty aboard the harbored battleship Justinian. It’s hardly an auspicious entrance. Barely aboard, he’s looked upon by his mates with varying amounts of amusement and distrust, and then suffers a severe bout of seasickness. Young Hornblower, despite all that, remains quietly resolute to succeed as a seaman, and resultantly earns the grudging admiration of his fellow midshipmen. This, of course, makes him the target for the bullying senior midshipman, Jack Simpson (Dorian Healy), and sets in motion a series of events that parallel principles of honor and treachery.

Simpson, used to ruling through intimidation and force, rightly sees the intellectually superior Hornblower as a threat to his domination over the Justinian’s crew. His tactics don’t work on Hornblower, however, who silently endures Simpson. It’s a matter of honor, after all, and even a beating by Simpson doesn’t deter him from his principles. It does, however, earn him a stay on the riggings for refusing to incriminate Simpson. It’s only when Simpson accuses him of cheating at cards that Hornblower finally challenges the bully to a duel.

It’s at this point that Hornblower’s mettle is first tested, even though he’s denied the chance to prove it on his own terms. His friend Clayton, himself a victim of Simpson’s, coldcocks Hornblower and serves as his second in the duel, with tragic results. While there is no satisfaction for Hornblower, it sets him further on his ethical compass.

His mettle is tested once again as war breaks out with France, and he, along with several of the Justinian’s crew, are transferred to the Indefatigable, commanded by Sir Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay.) Pellew is part seafarer, part iconoclast and part father figure. At their initial meeting, he makes it abundantly clear to Hornblower that he’ll brook no lack of discipline aboard his ship, nor will he tolerate vanities, such as duels, that may cost him needed manpower in a time of war.

From the outset, though, it’s readily apparent that Pellew sees a potential in Hornblower that the midshipman himself had kept submerged. Pellew charges Hornblower with whipping the unruly seamen of the Justinian into shape, and it’s not long before they prove themselves in battle. Hornblower remains steadfast, at least superficially, but is not above a bit of chicanery when it comes to strategy.

The ghosts of the past emerge once again, once Hornblower’s crew rescue fellow sailors after a battle with the French. As fate would have it, Hornblower’s nemesis, Simpson, is among the survivors. Time has by no means tempered him—if anything, he’s more sadistically evil and than sociopathic than he was before. The showdown between the orderly Hornblower and the chaotic Simpson becomes inevitable. On the grander stage, their feud becomes an allegory for the battle between civilization and barbarism, with unexpected results.

The Duel is a worthy introduction to Horatio Hornblower. What makes Hornblower such an endearing character is his unwavering devotion to his personal ethics, even when they supercede protocol. His devotion to God and King is inestimable, but he’s not above bending the rules of gentlemen when situations call for it. He goes through hell, and emerges stronger for it. In short, he’s the everyman hero that every generation embraces. The Duel is a preview of how heroes are made.