A&E/1999/400m/FS 1.33

     Action on the high seas does not define this incarnation of Hornblower on film. The four episodes of the Hornblower series are more a character study, a look at the making of a man, though Hornblower's qualities are certainly well established before boards Her Majesty's Ship Justinian as a midshipman.

Hornblower listens attentively to Captain Pellew. ŠA & E

      It's a tall order for these tall ships to consistently fill eight hours of programming on this four DVD set. The first two episodes, The Duel and The Fire Ships are the strongest. The Duel has several stirring moments, enough to make the entire 100 minutes worthwhile. In addition to the treat of meeting young Horatio, we get to watch him overcome his first experiences on board ship as he develops in our eyes and the eyes of his mates. Midshipman Simpson is a fine villain, even if rather simplistically drawn, and Justinian's Captain Keene is most unusual. The best of Hornblower comes after he joins the frigate Indefatigable under the command of Captain Sir Edward Pellew. Hornblower's relationship with Pellew develops with intelligence and grows with each episode. In The Fire Ships, Hornblower refines his heroic qualities in the face of the enemy and learns there's more to a man that what's on the surface. The midshipman builds respect amongst the men and officers and rises to the rank of acting Lieutenant.  
     Two of the episodes are even primarily land based. The weakest of the four, The Duchess and the Devil, feels as confined as the prison Hornblower shares with his fellow officers in the third episode. There is too much coy by-play between Hornblower and the Duchess of Wharfedale. On the plus side, the Duchess is played by Cherie Lunghi, who I don't recall seeing since him powerfully sensual performance in Excalibur. Midshipman Hunter is the other weak link in the anchor chain of the "Duchess" episode. Hunter's character is black or white and far from being believable. 
     The final Hornblower episode, The Wrong War, takes place mostly on French soil as Hornblower is assigned to accompany an ill-fated invasion of France led by an exiled French Marquis.  Captain Pellew is left to await the fate of his shipmates alongside the French coast, as the small French invasion expedition marches on two fronts. Along with the battle and brutality, amidst swift scenes of the guillotine,  Hornblower gets a taste of romance in France, but it's only like a sip of wine from a grand bottle. There's little time spent developing the romance and the pretty maid Hornblower falls for is indeed beautiful, but she isn't given much material with which to ply her art.   
     Ioan Gruffudd acquits himself quite admirably as the young midshipman. Gruffudd combines the qualities of confidence and diffidence that make Horatio Hornblower more than a stick character.  The Welsh actor is sometimes a bit stiff, but Hornblower is supposed to be a stiff character. The best performance is from Robert Lindsay as the Indefatigable's Captain Pellew. A tart demeanor laced with underlying humor is the hallmark of his Pellew. 
     Anthony Grieve's direction is workmanlike. This may be in part due to a limited budget. Suffice it to say, the naval battles are far from sweeping and almost every scene of the "Indie" at sail seems stagnant. He's got great raw material to work from. Hornblower is based on the novels by Britisher C.S. Forester, who also penned the wonderful African Queen
     The transfer has far too many muddy scenes.  This is partially artistic choice, yet I felt the transfer could have looked richer. Contrast ratio seems pinched. Light output is adequate and there few noticeable NTSC artifacts. Some compositions seem cramped. Considering the British production origins of Hornblower, it may well have been composed for 1.66. Happily, this is only a minor qualm. There are few blue skies to be seen over the coarse of this four-disc DVD set. Most problematic are the number of soft scenes. Was  the focus-puller or the colorist responsible? We will probably never know. The sound is in good balance, with music never overpowering dialog. Three cheers for the fine theme music that accompanies Hornblower's exploits.
     Fans of this Hornblower might enjoy another incarnation of the midshipman as Captain Horatio Hornblower with reliable and stoic Gregory Peck assaying Forrester's creation. Directed by Raoul Walsh, this is more a colorful adventure in the Hollywood tradition. Quite good of its kind. Unfortunately, this is still a DVD MIA.
     There are some nice extras on the disc including a documentary about the ships of the Royal Navy accompanying disc four. Other extras include biographical notes on Hornblower author C.S. Forester on disc one, nautical terms and definitions on disc two and a making of short on disc three.. 

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