Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Captain Horatio Hornblower


I read all the Hornblower books some years ago, tracing his progress through the ranks of the Royal Navy from seasick midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet. They are great books, though not quite as wonderful as Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin sea stories. This movie combines the plots of the first three Hornblower novels, and it’s a rip-roarin’ swashbucklin’ show indeed. It even seems reasonably faithful to the books, given that there is no way that all of three novels can be condensed to a two-hour movie.

The chief attraction, unless you are deeply into the romance between Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo, is the sea battles. They used the biggest tanks at Warner Brothers to hold the truly giant models that are so good they ALMOST convince you they are full-sized. And there were two real full-sized ships that look glorious. The age of sail was lovely to look at … not so nice to experience. A six-month voyage, as Hornblower undertakes at the beginning of the film, would leave the crew near starvation and riddled with scurvy once the limes ran out.

But the real horror was the sea battles. Ships faced off at point-blank range and fired dozens of cannons at each other. Below decks was a living hell. The perils are nicely portrayed here, but we would have to wait for Master and Commander to get a more accurate picture of what it was like. The worst thing? Splinters! Big ones and little ones, moving at speeds that could blow them right through you. A sailor’s life was not an easy one in the Napoleonic age.