Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Horatio Hornblower – The Original Adventures DVD Review

This DVD set marks the beginning of a series of episodes that were later combined into films, that tell the tale of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, a fictional Royal Navy officer whose exploits were spread across eleven books.  This set contains the first two adventures which were The Duel and The Fire Ships.  Starring Ioan Gruffudd (The Fantastic Four), Robert Lindsay (Wimbledon), Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica), and Paul Copley (Queer as Folk).  These first two movies show the start of Hornblower’s career as a seasick midshipman who later becomes a decorated Admiral.  Forester’s Hornblower character was also an inspiration for Gene Roddenberry’s own Captain James T. Kirk for the Star Trek series. 

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

The Duel (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
In this film, a young Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffuld) begins his naval career as a Midshipman on a ship called the Justinian.  We learn that he’s the son of a physician and that he’s initially ill-prepared for life on the sea as he gets seasick and has a fear of heights.  Despite these shortcomings, he is brave, industrious, and determined to rise up the ranks.  Hornblower quickly starts to learn about life on the ship and discovers that most of them live in fear of a senior Midshipman named Jack Simpson (Dorian Healy) who’s just failed his promotional exam and happily takes out his anger on his shipmates.  Simpson is allowed to do this due to illness of Captain Keene (Michael Byrne) who is too sick to be an effectual leader for the men.

When Hornblower stands up to Simpson over a matter of honor, it sets up a chain of events that results in the death of a friend of Horatio’s and a burning hatred between him and Simpson.  Their battle is sidelined with the revolution in France that suddenly pits England and France at war.  Hornblower is reassigned to the ship Indefatigable where he is now under the assured command of Captain Pellew (Robert Lindsay).  Without Simpson around to abuse him, Hornblower flourishes there and impresses his new Captain and the crew.  When the Indefatigable discovers the remains of a naval battle and rescues the remaining survivors, Hornblower is shocked to discover that the ship sunk was his previous post the Justinian and even worse, one of the survivors is the sadistic Simpson.

It doesn’t take long for Simpson to begin intimidating his former shipmates, but by this point Hornblower is secure enough in his own abilities and position on the ship to dismiss the threats, another shipmate of theirs named Archie Kennedy (Jamie Bamber) is terribly affected and has seizures from the stress.  Later, during a battle with the French, Simpson takes his revenge by abandoning Kennedy to the French and also by attempting to kill Hornblower during the battle.  After the battle, Hornblower demands justice and challenges Simpson to a second duel to settle their differences once and for all.

The Fire Ships (4 out of 5 stars)
The second movie picks up a short time after the events of the first movie with a newly appointed Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower continuing his adventures aboard the Indefatigable.  His relationship with Captain Pellew is even stronger now and the Captain has taken an interest in mentoring the young man.  When a Spanish official arrives to inform them that Spain has changed its diplomatic stance toward France to neutral, Captain Pellew correctly predicts that this is just the first step towards Spain allying itself with France and going to war against England.  When Spanish ships start preying on English supply ships, the situation becomes increasingly dire and Pellew orders half rations for the men to conserve what little food they have remaining.

Of course, this doesn’t go well with the men who start having health issues from the poor diet.  One of the men dies from the malnutrition, it starts mutinous talk from one of the men named Bunting (Christopher Fulford).  Morale only gets worse when the Indefatigable crew witnesses their supply ship get destroyed by a fire ship (a ship that’s set ablaze in a kamikaze attack) right before it was able to deliver their supplies. While the supplies are lost, they manage to rescue some of the crew including the well known Captain Harry “Dreadnought” Foster (Denis Lawson).  Foster’s command style is far to reckless for Pellew’s tastes and this cause a small rift between him and Hornblower who admires Foster’s style.

It isn’t long before the Indefatigable crew are sent as an escort for a Mr. Tapling (Ian McNeice) of the Diplomatic Service to negotiate a trade deal with Arab merchants for supplies.  They soon discover that the Arabs have the black plague and that they’ve been exposed to it.  Under quarantine for three weeks,  Hornblower is allowed to take command of the quarantined vessel and gains some valuable command experience which he will put to good use soon as his lieutenant exam is soon and once again he will be tested by the Spanish when they send another fire ship against the Indefatigable while it’s anchored.

I enjoyed both of these movies but The Duel in particular suffered the same problems that many origin movies have, which is a slow start while the main characters are introduced.  Every character is well cast though and I was especially liked seeing Michael  Byrne from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Denis Lawson (who played Wedge in the Star Wars trilogy) in the mix even if they were in small roles.  Gruffold does a good job showing the maturity and progression of his character although his resemblance to Andy Samberg when he was this young is a little startling.  Robert Lindsay’s Captain Pellew is a great character and Lindsay does a great job balancing the character’s demanding autocratic nature with a his paternal mentor-ship with Hornblower.  I especially liked the attention to detail and the obvious effort made to make this as historically accurate as possible.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The image quality for these movies is acceptable but could use a lot of improvement.  The 1.33:1 transfers look a little soft and some of the colors appear muted.  Detail is suitably good for the DVD format but I would love to see these on Blu-ray!  Black levels are decent as is contrast and flesh tones are natural and consistent throughout both movies.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The Dolby 2.0 tracks are also acceptable but could be better which is a shame since I love hearing hearing naval battles with cannonballs roaring back and forth between ships before splintering the wood from their target.  This track is pretty good but the lack of extra channels limits its effect.  Dialogue is clear, as is the music, and none of them overshadow the other.  Again, this would have been immensely more satisfying on a Blu-ray with at least the full 5.1 surround sound.

Special Features (2 out of 5 stars)

There’s hardly any extras at all with the exception of a brief look at the author of the series C. S. Forester and a glossary of nautical terms.  Out of the two, I liked the nautical terms best since I learned that many of our current sayings were derived by nautical terms.
  • Forester biography
  • Glossary of nautical terms

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)

I enjoyed these movies and I would enjoy seeing the rest of the series.  The series is well cast and I especially liked the attention to historical detail and the fact that this was obviously not shot on a sound stage.  If you enjoy reading Patrick O’Brian’s books or the film Master and Commander (which was based on his book), then you will love this series.  This DVD set serves as the perfect introduction to the series with the first two movies included for one low price.  If you are sure that you will love the series, there is already a complete box set you can order so don’t bother ordering the individual sets like this one.

Order your copy today!


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