Horatio Hornblower

DVD Review – Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and the Devil

Written by C.S. Forester and Patrick Harbinson
Directed by Andrew Grieve

Although, in my opinion, this story is the weakest in the series of Horatio Hornblower tele-films produced for British television and the A&E network, it’s still very enjoyable. If for nothing else, Ioan Gruffudd, who portrays Hornblower, is very easy on the eyes and looks great in a British Navy uniform of the late 1700’s.

The series of tele-films is based on the novels by C.S. Forester about a poor teenage British boy who rises in rank through the British Navy. His rise is the result of bravery combined with good fortune, and a keen sense of innovation and military strategy. He defies the conventional wisdom, and somehow it seems to work for him.

Hornblower leads a group of men on an assault of the French ship, La Reve, attempting to run supplies through the British blockade of the Spanish. Once in Gibraltar, Captain Pellew (portrayed by Robert Lindsay) hands him orders to bring the captured ship back to Portsmouth. He is also given information from the Port Admiral which he is ordered to send to the bottom of the seas should he be boarded or threatened with boarding.

While on Gibraltar, Hornblower is invited to a dinner with Captain Pellew at a noble house. Their he is introduced to a brash Duchess (portrayed by Chere Lunghi) whom he is also ordered to convey back to England on La Reve. Seasickness overtakes her on their voyage, and in order to make her more comfortable, he orders the ship to take a more westerly course, hopefully keeping with calm seas.

This course unfortunately puts them right in the path of the Spanish as well as putting Hornblower at odds with a belligerent crewman, Hunter (portrayed by Christopher Fulford). He must deceive the Spanish by posing his ship and crew as being a part of the French Navy. This does not work, and leads to Hornblower and the British crew being exiled to a prison on a remote island. The documents containing important dispatches for the Admiralty have been hidden with the Duchess on the premise that the Spanish wouldn’t dare search a noblewoman. However, the crew have doubts of her loyalty when she speaks Spanish to her captors.

At this prison they discover a man missing from their crew during the second episode of the series. Archie Kennedy (portrayed by Jamie Bamber) was a particularly close friend of Hornblower’s and is not of well mind when they find him. This is due to his last escape attempt resulting in him being locked up in a hole in the earth for a month. He is not willing to try and escape, but the remainder of his crew is.

Will Hornblower escape with his crew intact and bring the dispatches to the Admiralty in England? Will he manage to bring Archie Kennedy back to being a valued member of the crew? And what of the Duchess? Is she all she appears to be?

The acting is fantastic. At the time the cast consisted of mostly unknowns, with the exception of Robert Lindsay. Gruffudd’s only role prior to this was at the end of the film Titanic when he rescues Rose in a boat. This is why the “Ioan Gruffudd of Titanic” on the back cover of the DVD set is somewhat misleading. He brings a nervous innocence and a keen sense of morality to the role of Hornblower. During the scenes of his own solitary confinement, he conveys anguish and the torture that this form of punishment has over those confined in the small, dark space under the ground.

Robert Lindsay’s role in this episode is minor compared to the first two tele-movies in the series. When the Duchess calls Captain Pellew “Sir Edward”, it’s the first time in the series that it dawned on me that Captain Pellew was a nobleman. I suppose it should have been a no-brainer, but not being familiar with the hierarchy of the British military left me missing on this important point. It’s important because it demonstrates even more the endearment and respect Pellew must have gained for Hornblower to pull him through the ranks and entrust him with the responsibilities he is given. Lindsay is believable as the nobleman who has found a young man of incredible talent whom he takes under his wing. He comes off as a doting father-figure intent on cultivating what is best about the young Lieutenant.

To know the background of who Hornblower is and why he has risen to the position of acting Lieutenant of the British frigate Indefatigable, you’ll have to view the first two episodes. Otherwise, you’ll be in a situation where an already somewhat weak story is somewhat weaker. The first four stories in this series aired on consecutive Sunday evenings on A&E, making them serialized.

There is no real explanation given for the relationship between Hornblower and the men he commands, and it’s important to the story to really know the background between them. They give Hornblower a great deal of loyalty, trust, and respect. It has been earned over the course of the series up until now, although his gaining the respect and loyalty of Hunter is shown through this story. The actors who portray the crew are all supporting cast, and do an exceptional job.

The costuming for this series is marvelous. I really felt as if I were back watching the events of this time period unfold before me. The soundtrack as well accompanies the events so perfectly, that at times it sets the tone and I hardly notice that it is there. Yet, when listening specifically for it, I marvel at its beauty and simplicity. If I have one major complaint about the setting it’s that the men look too clean and well-kept during their time in the prison. Their hair looks clean and well-coiffed, even after spending days sweating in the hot sun. However, Kennedy’s hair is much more grown-out and he does appear much more bedraggled than the crew that just enters the prison.

On this disc is a documentary on the behind-the-scenes making of all four of the Horatio Hornblower tele-films. It’s very interesting to see the various locations and the amount of work that went into making the first four films of this series. More went into recreating everything authentic to the time period for these tele-films than go into some feature films. It gives a new appreciation to the work and dedication that went into the making of the four tele-films of the series, as well as the dedication by executives of A&E to making sure the series was done right, rather than cheap.

For anyone who really enjoys period films, the Horatio Hornblower films are a great addition to your collection. This one is a bit weaker than the other stories, with a bit less action and more talk than the others, but it is still a good film. The lack of action in the story is more than offset by the documentary included on the disc, making it a worthwhile part of the collection of Horatio Hornblower films.

Previous episode in series (link): Horatio Hornblower: The Fire Ships

Next episode in series (link): Horatio Hornblower – The Wrong War

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