Saturday, 8 February 2014

Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951)

The swashbuckler is a film genre almost as old as cinema, and while not one of the best examples, Captain Horatio Hornblower RN is still an entertaining film. A meandering and occasionally sluggish script is compensated for with great special effects, exciting battle sequences, lush Technicolor, and an endearing performance from Gregory Peck as the stern but fair title character. It is also easy to see the influence of Hornblower on one famous sci-fi saga.

Combining elements of three of C S Foresters Hornblower novels, the plot sees the Captain, his ship and crew on a secret mission to Central America during the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th century. Hornblower find himself battling not just the Kings enemies, who change according to the whims of politics, but tragedies at home, and the unwelcome appearance of a woman on his ship

By using three books, seemingly unconnected, it does mean the plot often lacks a single driving force, with the main focus being on the character of Hornblower himself, who comes across as a man of integrity and intelligence, a stoical man who always does his duty, but certainly not a martinet, or a macho show off. However, his stiff upper lip becomes a barrier, meaning we never really get inside the mind of Hornblower.

Director Raoul Walsh usually made more contemporary, and more land based films, which might explain why it never feels like he gets totally to grips with the genre and the setting. However, when the action does kick off it is first rate, with exciting battle sequences, backed up with excellent special effects, a stirring musical score from Robert Farnon and lovely rich looking Technicolor.

Gregory Peck plays Hornblower with a relatively understated authority, rather than the brash machismo of someone like Errol Flynn, and his charisma help keep your attention through the slower parts of the film. The main stand out in the supporting cast is James Robertson Justice as Quist, the seaman who helps Hornblower escape capture by the French. Although better known to me as the demanding surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in the "Doctor" films with Dirk Bogarde, he certainly brings a more down-to-earth quality to the character of Quist, and would go on to head out to sea with Peck in Moby Dick and The Guns of Navarone. Also, look fast for a cameo from a young and just about recognisable Christopher Lee, as a Spanish naval captain.

As a footnote, I had not realised the extent of the influence of Hornblower on the creation of Star Trek. The basic premise of a ship, its captain and crew, far from home, being plunged into dramatic situations (often with a military or diplomatic background) is easily transposed into outer space. While Kirk is perhaps more macho (and more of a ladies man) than Hornblower, both are bold, decisive men of action, and both have loyal first officers, and, in this film at least, cantankerous ship’s doctors.