Take a Drink: for sailing lingo
Take a Drink: for every “Englishman” with a mysteriously American accent
Drink a Shot: whenever the romantic subplot distracts from the adventure
Drink a Shot: for any shot of what are clearly model ships (this isn’t a criticism; model work is preferable to the best CGI)
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
Sailing for months without sight of land, a British Captain and his crew are on a mission to deliver a cargo of weaponry to a rebelling Spanish Don. They arrive to find that the Don has gone mad and declared himself El Supremo, and is crucifying all those who fight against him. Nonetheless, they are charged with aiding in the Don’s rebellion, and so the Captain carries out his mission, only to learn that in the months he has been at sea the alliances have changed and he inadvertently aided the enemy. These are the seafaring adventures of Captain Horatio Hornblower; a revered seaman of His Majesty’s Navy, and a man made of weapons-grade suave…
After spending the weekend re-watching the 1998-2003 A&E TV movies based on the C.S. Forester novels, it felt fitting to end my marathon with this cinematic adaptation of the series. And as a piece of pulp adventure storytelling; Raoul Walsh’s film is seldom anything but pure satisfaction. Gregory Peck plays it close to the hilt in an incredibly reserved and dignified performance which encapsulates the character of an experienced naval commander who is always one step ahead of his enemies.
It’s gorgeously shot in technicolor, taking advantage of the eccentric period uniforms and elaborate ship settings to create a feast for the eyes. The battle sequences are particularly engaging, with wood splinters flying every which way and gorgeous model shots used to reproduce as closely as possible the violent broadside engagements that predominated in the age of sail.
What sets Captain Horatio Hornblower apart from your conventional seaborne adventure is the way it makes occasional diversions into a pensive tone, as the Captain’s personal life intercedes on his thoughts. By modern standards, these moments might feel short and tentative, but for mainstream action-based Hollywood films of the day, these moments were few and far between indeed, and particularly for post-WWII films, which often emphasized excitement and the cunning of its characters over anything else. Much like the later A&E series, this Horatio Hornblower has much on his mind, with self-doubt often the order of the day, even in spite of his achievements.
Credit where it’s due; Gregory Peck does his damnedest as the eponymous hero, but the fact remains that he is supposed to be an English sailor, on a ship crewed by English sailors, and only a handful of the actors attempt English accents. This can be distracting, though is far from unheard of at the time. It is somewhat forgivable, however, given the fact that Errol Flynn was the original choice to play Captain Hornblower, but was replaced due to his alcoholism and increasing difficulties on prior film sets. Peck wasn’t even the second choice, as Burt Lancaster (whose attempts at English accents in similar films were somewhat more successful) was passed over due to his perceived inexperience.
The film’s biggest downfall is a tacked-on romantic subplot which seems to exist solely to add a female character in the 2nd act. Actress Virginia Mayo does what she can in the thankless role as the Lady Wellesley, and cannot be blamed for the underwritten part. I’m not certain if her character appeared in the novels, but C.S. Forester did co-write the screenplay himself, so presumably he signed off on the decision. Granted, his novels weren’t exactly the kind that featured strong female characters, but this still reeks of Hollywood meddling. And the rather Hollywood-centric reunion ending works heavily against the pathos which the parting of Horatio and Wellesley has earlier in the film, particularly because she has supposedly been married to another by then, a tribute to the contradictions of 1950’s morality in cinema.
The A&E miniseries tells a better character story, but this classic 50’s adventure story still has much to appreciate, and despite the sometimes distracting accent (or lack of the correct one), is one of Gregory Peck’s better early roles