The 11 novels were written between the late 1930s and the late 1960s, and were set around 1800 following the adventures of a British naval officer in the Napoleonic wars. Historically, it was a time of huge rivalry between Britain and France (so what’s new?) and Britain was using its powerful navy to conquer foreign lands, enslave the natives and steal their wealth. France, on the other hand, was trying to do much the same!
Putting aside worries concerning political correctness, when ITV decided to film it with financial backing from A&E, their aim was to produce a boys’ own adventure of heroism and manly stuff on the high seas. They cast a handsome young actor called Ioan Gruffudd in the lead role (in case you’re wondering, that name is Welsh). Other roles went to well-known names, such as Robert Lindsay, as Hornblower’s first commander Edward Pellew, Paul McGann as fellow officer William Bush and Philip Glenister as Gunner Hobbs. The cream of the acting profession - another good reason to watch.
The story is of Horatio Hornblower (the same Christian name as Nelson you will note) who joins the Royal Navy as a young officer and through a courageous and principled career, makes his way up to captain of a warship. He deals with the horror of 18th century naval warfare, struggles against mutiny among his own sailors, jealousy among fellow officers and even mental illness when he opposes the tyrannical rule of a schizophrenic captain.
On the way, the crew encounter enemy ships, travel to exotic locations around the globe, fire their cannon, climb ropes to dizzying heights and suffers the privations of the time – bad food, lack of water, floggings, injury and drudgery. Through it all, Hornblower stands out as a beacon of courage, principle and decency.
Of course, he is also a flawed hero and is often hesitant, introverted and indecisive which makes us love him all the more. He is famously tone deaf and on one embarrassing occasion couldn’t tell the difference between the British and French National Anthems. All the time, though, the audience is rooting for him to succeed. It’s said Star Trek’s Captain Kirk was modelled on Hornblower.
Hornblower is available on DVD is a must-see for excellent acting, gripping story lines, wonderful sets, romantic locations and edge-of-your-seat action. Sadly, the expense of producing it forced A&E to cancel further production. Let’s hope they think again – there are still plenty more Hornblower novels to dramatise and an ever-eager audience to watch them.
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