Classic Film Guide

Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951) - full review!

C.S. Forester adapted his own novel for this British military ship adventure drama that takes place during the Napoleonic wars, which was directed by Raoul Walsh; Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, and Aeneas MacKenzie wrote the screenplay. Gregory Peck plays the title role (R.N. stands for Royal Navy) in this Technicolor movie which could have been the model for Peter Weir's 2003 action drama Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Other similarities include the point blank, broadside to broadside gun ship battles, action that includes significant (more than is usually shown) cannon damage complete with falling masts, a captain that's a more than capable navigator who's misunderstood by his crew initially, but otherwise beloved, and at least one youthful officer in training aboard.

Unlike the more recent film about the type of warfare waged in that era, this one's middle third is a mushy romance between the titled Captain (who has an annoying habit of clearing his throat for attention) and Lady Barbara Wellesley (Virginia Mayo), who's engaged to a Rear Admiral played by Denis O'Dea; she boards Hornblower's aged ship (another similarity to Weir's film), the Lydia, after he learns that Spain is now his country's ally in the war against France. Unfortunately, Hornblower had just captured a better Spanish warship and turned it over to a near crazy South American dictator rebel self dubbed El Supremo (Alec Mango), who had an alliance with England to attack Spain's colonies from the Pacific. But the Captain's superior tactical knowledge and seamanship enables Hornblower and his well trained crew to defeat El Supremo and sink the ship.

On the voyage home, the Lady gets "the fever" (initially thought to be yellow fever, but actually breaks within 72 hours meaning it was merely swamp fever); the Captain alone cares for her, nursing her back to health, so the stage is set for their romantic entanglement, which is also complicated by the fact that he's married, in addition to her engagement. However, when Hornblower returns home, he learns that his wife died giving birth to a son. Two weeks later, he reads about Lady Barbara's wedding to the Irish Rear Admiral.

But another opportunity presents itself to allow Hornblower to disobey his orders (from O'Dea's character) and perform heroically. Using a re-commissioned French warship, Hornblower and his crew use the subterfuge of a phony flag designation (another similarity) to get close enough to destroy three enemy ships in a protected harbor before their ship is sunk in its channel. After being captured by shore troops, he and his injured Lieutenant Bush (Robert Beatty), along with a strong and loyal seaman named Quist (James R. Justice), escape while being transported as prisoners to Paris. In a small boat, the three of them navigate a stream to the Loire river to a sea port where, thanks to Hornblower's ability to speak the language, they pose as Dutch sailors, free some of their countrymen prisoners to be crewmen, and commandeer a British frigate thought lost, the 'Witch of Endor', to sail home to England. He learns that his Rear Admiral died in battle. So, when Hornblower gets home again to see his son, Barbara (dressed nothing like a recent widow) is there and the two can be together.

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