The A&E Network, in conjunction with British television, has apparently hit the jackpot with the Horatio Hornblower continuing series, or we wouldn’t be seeing the series continuing to this, its seventh and eighth films.
The war is over and an uneasy peace has been declared between France and England. After about a year on half-pay, the officers are suffering and the enlisted men have been furloughed. Horatio (Ioan Gruffudd) has been renting a room from a woman whose daughter Maria (Julia Sawalha) has a crush on the young officer. A chance encounter with his old friend, Lieutenant Bush (Paul McGann) brings them to a naval officer’s club where Horatio plays cards to earn extra money. Admiral Pellew (Robert Lindsay) frequents the place, and that evening they encounter Captain Hammond (Ian McElhinney) and his nephew, John (Christian Coulson), who admires Horatio due to his famous exploits.
The next day Pellew bestows upon Horatio a return to the rank of Commander and he is made Captain of the Hotspur. His mission is in two days to take a displaced French officer and ally to rendezvous with someone on a ship sailing from Brest.
As Horatio signs on sailors, this brings back the familiar characters of Styles (Sean Gilder), Matthews (Paul Copley), as well as Bush as his first officer. John Hammond gets his wish to sail with Horatio as well. As Horatio prepares to sail, Maria confesses her love for him.
Styles has signed on as a cook, the only spot left, something he has only a little experience with. When the door to the stove being left open causes a fire to start, Styles gets the blame and is punished, despite his proclamations of innocence. Horatio must also deal with the French Officer who has an arrogant attitude.
Horatio and Major Cotard (Greg Wise) venture to shore to see why his friend hasn’t shown. They find that there is an invasion force there and that Bonaparte has been quite busy during the year of uneasy peace. They make a daring escape and bring the news back to Portsmouth.
Pellew plans a pre-emptive strike, and Horatio volunteers to take out the semaphore and battery overlooking the bay. Although they destroy a fortress, they are captured and part of it is due to lies and incompetence by the badly frightened John Hammond.
Hornblower learns that one of his crew, Wolfe (Lorcan Cranitch) was the traitor on his ship who set the fire. Wolfe is also in charge of the fortress in which he has been interred. The batteries will be fully operational when Admiral Pellew attacks unless Horatio can escape and do something about it.
At end of Loyalty, he asks Maria to marry him, but not really because he loves her. In actuality, it’s more because he wants to help her and she will not allow him to. Her reputation would be destroyed were she to take money from someone that was not her family, so because he cannot bear to see her suffer, he will marry her.
In Duty, we find Horation on his wedding day having many misgivings about his choice, but having given Maria his word, he follows through.
Admiral Pellew interrupts his wedding celebration to give Horatio new orders, sending him off to look for a missing ship, the Grasshopper. As a wedding present, Pellew also gives Horatio the use of his steward, Doughty (Ron Cook), something Horatio has a hard time adjusting to despite the fact that he’s a much better cook than Styles.
During a terrible storm, they encounter a quarterboat that was trying to put into Brest with an American woman and a man who appears to be French but claims to be Swiss. Both Bush and Hornblower are skeptical of their story. However, they follow the woman’s information and do locate the Grasshopper run aground on rocks northwest of Brest.
During an encounter with the elusive Wolfe once again, Horatio learns that his “guests” are also quite a bit more than they appear. When he returns with these guests to Portsmouth, his ship is quarantined to protect the guests’ identity and he is stuck on shore while the men are on the ship. Although he gets to spend time with his wife, they end up bickering as she has no understanding of what draws him to his life at sea, nor his feelings toward those who serve him.
Though battles abound during these two stories, they are largely character-driven pieces. What is actually going on with the French is somewhat incidental – the main focus is what is happening with the characters followed through all of these tel-films. What is happening with them is quite interesting. You’d think sailors on leave in port on half-pay would be boring, but Stephen Churchett has adapted the C.S. Forester novel into an intriguing tale where the quick, intelligent wit I’ve come to expect from Horatio serves him well, except when having to deal with the fairer sex. Though Churchett takes some dramatic license with what Forester wrote (such as the identity of the two people rescued by the Hotspur), he does stick with the general outline and tone of the novel upon which this is based. It would have been quite easy to give a heroic man the perfect wife to compliment him. Forester didn’t do it in the novels, and Churchett follows along with that here.
Ioan Gruffudd’s acting is great. There are times such as when he learns who the real traitor is among their ranks, the expressiveness with his eyes as he turns to look at Major Cotard conveys both his apology and his shame for ever doubting his loyalty. He doesn’t say a word, but his eyes and facial expression convey his thoughts and feelings as well as emotions. The same is true with the way he shows his misgivings at his choice for a bride. Although he never shows this side to his bride, his sentiments and expressions when he is alone and with his friend, Bush, are very telling. His uneasiness is apparent to the viewer when Maria demands he profess his love, yet is cryptic enough that in her emotional state over his departure it’s believable that she does not notice.
The relationship between Pellew and Horatio is cemented at the end of Loyalty when Pellew states “it’s very hard for a father to see his children grow up…” Al along the relationship between the two men has been like father and son, but Pellew finally has the courage to state it, although the deeper meaning of his words seems to go right past Horatio. Robert Lindsay is a terrific actor, and I hope that his promotion at the end of Duty doesn’t mark the end of his appearance in this series. It would be a great shame were these stories not to continue.
The camaraderie between the men, even when Horatio is their superior, is also handled well. Yes, he must now maintain a sense of discipline and decorum that he didn’t have to when he was a lowly Lieutenant, but at the same time he is fair, and his men know that. What’s interesting is that in the last series, Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues, Bush was the First Lieutenant to Horatio’s Third Lieutenant rank, yet Bush seems to have no problems accepting now being Horatio’s first officer.
All of the secondary actors perform quite well. This was especially notable to me after I’d watched it with the commentary tracks and found out just how much of this telefilm was shown on screens and the actors are reacting to things that aren’t there. They’ve convinced me they’re in the British Navy fighting Napoleon on the high seas, that’s for sure!
Commentary by Director Andrew Grieve and Producer Andrew Benson on Loyalty – interesting as they talk about different aspects of shooting the series. They talk about the actors and their personalities as well as how many of the shots are done – what is special effects composites versus what is actually filmed at sea, and the story.
On Duty, the commentary is with Andrew Grieve, Andrew Benson, and Costume Designer John Mollo. It’s not quite as interesting as the commentary for Loyalty, but it was interesting to learn how the different costumes were decided upon.
There are also biographies of Ioan Gruffudd, Robert Lindsay, Paul McGann
Andrew Grieve, Andrew Benson, and John Mollo as well as photo galleries with stills from the production.
I highly recommend all of these films. If you must start in the middle, I believe you could pick up Horatio Hornblower- The New Adventures and watch it without having to worry about knowing all of the backgrounds of the characters, but with a series produced this wonderfully, why would you want to?
Previous story in the series (link): Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues: Mutiny & Retribution