Four Sundays before the mast

Review: `Hornblower' movies bring keen action, strong performances and British wit to the small screen. The accents are pretty darn cool, too.

April 03, 1999|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

The pleasure of the text is keenly evoked in A&E's intelligent, dashing new adaptations of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower tales.

It's wonderful to be all at sea again, the way I was when I read the novels as a kid and dreamed about what life would be like in the English navy, circa 1793. Forester wrote 11 Hornblower novels, yet all four movies spring from just one, 1950's "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower." Happily, then, there are more possibilities for films about the young man who rises from midshipman to the highest ranks of the service.

Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced yo-IN griffiths) plays young Hornblower, who comes aboard his first ship at age 17. A gawky, stuttering but bright fellow, he gets seasick before the ship even sets sail and must hold his own against sadistic Midshipman Simpson (Dorian Healy), who rules over the others of his rank by blackmail and intimidation.

But our Horatio is no softie, despite his inexperience, and his sense of justice won't let him take Simpson's abuse for long. He also has other obstacles to overcome -- battles at sea and a damaged ship that threatens to burst when the rice aboard expands as it becomes saturated with sea water -- and it gets worse.

Although the films embellish Forester's story, they stay true to the spirit of the character and the books. Hornblower is brave and plays a mean hand of whist, but he also has a landlubber's stomach, fears heights and trembles when under pressure. And along with the derring-do, we see rats, moldy bread, prisons and cowards.

Through it all, though, our hero is a man of honor. As Captain Pellew (the admirable Robert Lindsay) tells him, "When we put on this uniform, Mr. Hornblower, we entered into a life of adventure and adversity, but above all, a life of duty."

Gruffudd, who had a small role in "Titanic," is more than up to the task. He's not the stalwart, stuffy Hornblower of the Gregory Peck film. Gruffudd is full of intelligence, energy and charisma as well as vulnerability. He doesn't look bad in a uniform, either.

There's also some choice dialogue. "Stand off, Jack, or by God, I'll trim the wall with your brains," one brave soul cautions Mr. Simpson. And there are flashes of characteristic English wit. In the fourth movie, Lord Edrington (Samuel West) dryly notes, "Look at this place, Mr. Hornblower. No artillery would dare to cross here, and if they tried, my mamaw could beat them off with her parasol."

More than anything, the films, as directed by longtime Forester fan Andrew Grieve, capture the books' sense of excitement. How exhilarating it is to see the Indefatigable in full sail, how terrible to hear the roar of cannon fire as the sailors blast away at one another -- this is war at its most tangible and dangerous, with smoke in the nose, splintering planks underfoot and fire in the eyes. These movies capture it all, with the use of real ships, models and digital effects, all seamlessly married to re-create a fleet at sea.

The "Hornblower" movies not only have rich style and engaging adventure; they have great accents. It's simply delicious to hear the lads repeatedly attacking the word "Indefatigable" with their crisp, impeccable English diction.

`Hornblower'

What: Series of four TV movies When: Tomorrow (Sunday) and subsequent three Sundays, 8 p.m.-10 p.m., repeats 10 p.m.-midnight

Where: A&E cable channel

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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