Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Captain Horatio Hornblower (R.N.)

"Captain Horatio Hornblower (R.N.)"* (Raoul Walsh, 1951) Supposedly C.S. Forester himself adapted his first three Hornblower novels to make the screen-story for this swashbuckling distillation of the Royal Navy's fictional hero. It is 1805, and his majesty has sent the HMS Lydia on a secret mission. England is at war with Spain and France, and Hornblower must enlist the aid of a mad South American dictator in the war efforts a world away. But, upon arriving, Hornblower's distaste for the assignment and the "El Supremo" (Alec Mango) has him violating the Admiralty's standard orders, and when he captures the massive El Natividad (commanded by a very young Christopher Lee), he is forced to turn over the ship to the mad-man. Heading for home, he finds out that Spain is now England's ally (oops!) and he must re-take the massive ship on open seas, risking his crew and an unwanted passenger, Her Ladyship Barbara Wellesley (Virginia Mayo), sister to tthe Duke of Wellington and betrothed to Admiral Leighton (Denis O'Dea).

The crew is very British (
including a young Stanley Baker), but its Captain is played by the very American Gregory Peck,** ramrod-stiff and stoic, so even though the accent is wrong, the attitude is just so—Forrester's Hornblower is a stoic, constantly questioning himself and his failings, reflected in his constant lecturing and drilling of his crew. And Raoul Walsh is the perfect man to direct, as the action director has a keen eye toward the psychological and characters with complicated motivations. Peck has the attitude, but is a bit uneasy when called upon to display the comical aspects of the still-upper-lip Hornblower—his uneasy "harumphs" are constantly dubbed in to make more of them than Peck could convey on-set. But for the brooding and irritation (and the authoritarian air), Peck is fine.

The battles are well-choreographed for the times—one can practically see the wires yanking pieces of ship-railing past the players—and sometimes the falling masts and ropes get a little out of control, but the model-work and staging are excitingly done. A fine way to spend a rainy afternoon.

* The added "R.N." because the British version of the title included them, the American did not. As with the recent "Master and Commander," nothing is made of Hornblower maybe having to fight the American Navy, as he might have seven years in the future.

** The screen-rights were acquired for a vehicle for Errol Flynn, but after Flynn's previous movies had poor ticket sales (and the actor was proving difficult to manage), other actors (including Burt Lancaster) were considered. Peck got the part. Lancaster would star in "The Crimson Pirate" the next year.

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