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Horatio Hornblower

Ioan Gruffud as Horatio Hornblower

Most of my old DVDs are in a box in the attic. But the boxed set of Horatio Hornblower DVDs is always on the TV stand, ready for an emergency escape from the here and now.

The series ran from 1997 until 2003 on ITV in the U.K. and A&E in the U.S., with the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffud as Hornblower. The series is based on the novels by C.S. Forester.

It seems strange to me now that I don’t recall ever seeing the Horatio Hornblower novels in a school library. I think I would have read them as a boy if I had come across them. Recently I sampled a bit of one of the Hornblower novels and found it a bit too young adult to enjoy reading. But for whatever reason, not having read the novels, the television series comes across as fully adult.

The first Hornblower novel was published in 1937, and the last in 1962. The novels are set during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The Wikipedia article on C.S. Forester doesn’t tell us much, other than that he was British (born in Cairo and later moved to London) and that he moved to the United States during World War II, where he worked for the British Ministry of Information. After the war he ended up in Berkeley.

Forester doesn’t seem to have lived a life of adventure. My guess would be that, in writing these novels, he was largely compensating for an adventureless life. There also is a didactic element in the Hornblower books, I suspect — teaching young men about honor, duty, and hard knocks. The Wikipedia description of the Hornblower character is apt enough: “Hornblower is courageous, intelligent, and a skilled seaman, but he is also burdened by his intense reserve, introspection, and self-doubt, and is described as ‘unhappy and lonely.’ Despite numerous personal feats of extraordinary skill and cunning, he belittles his achievements by numerous rationalisations, remembering only his fears. He consistently ignores or is unaware of the admiration in which he is held by his fellow sailors. He regards himself as cowardly, dishonest, and, at times, disloyal—never crediting his ability to persevere, think rapidly, organise, or cut to the heart of a matter.”

The filming budget for this series was adequate, if not extravagant. I’m thrilled by images of ships under full sail. This series has plenty of that, but there’s not much wind in the sails, and the water is usually flat. Still, a Horatio Hornblower DVD guarantees an hour and a half of escape from the here and now.

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