[box cover]

Captain Horatio Hornblower

The Literary Classics Collection

Gregory Peck would be nobody's first choice for Horatio Hornblower, popular literature's most famous English naval hero this side of Captain Jack Aubrey. But he sure cuts a handsome figure in the costume and, of importance at least to Warner Brothers' marketing department, on the movie's exhibition poster. Also, it's easy for us to forget how diverse Peck's roles could be throughout his career. That's not to say he was one of Hollywood's more diverse leading men, but he could deliver a combination of warmth and solemn earnestness like nobody's business. And with his naturally heroic 6' 3" movie-star looks and his real-life humanitarian decency, he could craft something memorable from roles that weren't easy fits or movies that were below his abilities. (Behold a Pale Horse and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit jump to mind. So does, come to think of it, his Capt. Ahab in John Huston's 1956 Moby Dick.) Of course, for most of us he'll always be Atticus Finch, and we can spot glimpses of that signature portrayal eleven years earlier here, in 1951's adventure-romance, Captain Horatio Hornblower. Peck claimed that this was one of his favorite roles, and even though he may not be an ideal Hornblower (probably wisely, he doesn't attempt an English accent) he's so comfortable barking orders on the quarterdeck during a fierce cannonade battle, providing a leadership example to a lieutenant eager to administer floggings, or lovingly ministering Virginia Mayo back to health after the death of his ship's surgeon, that we ease into the characterization along with him.

As for the film itself, it wouldn't be embarrassed in a double-feature with another Hollywoodized adventure of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, one made 53 years later as 2004's Master and Commander. Perhaps it's because Peck was working with ace director Raoul Walsh (soon after Walsh's White Heat). Or perhaps it's the excellent cinematography and ship-battles effects. Or the script that credits Hornblower's creator, novelist C.S. Forester, for this screen adaptation. In any case, Captain Horatio Hornblower holds its own against Russell Crowe's CGI expeditions from topsail to yardarm, and this one has more plot. Commanding the crew of H.M.S. Lydia through deprivation and illness on lethally becalmed seas, Hornblower — fair-minded, strong-hearted, and a master tactician — leads his men on a secret mission for king and country. But the mission's political-military maneuverings are scuttled when it turns out that a band of Central American rebels, slated to receive the Lydia's vast cargo of munitions, is led by a crazed tyrant who calls himself El Supremo. ("The Spanish viceroy sent a diplomat who warned me to curb my political ambitions. In answer, I sent part of him back to Panama. His head, to be precise.")

With resourcefulness and cool-headed thinking, Hornblower turns the tables on El Supremo when a second Spanish ship — the Natividad, outgunning the Lydia — arrives. Hornblower's men capture the Natividad, giving us one of several thrilling battles, plus a bonus Trivial Pursuit score: In what film does Gregory Peck clash swords with Christopher Lee playing a Spanish captain?

After receiving a message that England and Spain are now allied against Napoleon, the Lydia takes on a passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington's sister (Virginia Mayo), who is escaping a yellow fever epidemic in Panama. Romance emerges between Lady Barbara and the captain, although he's already married (albeit distantly, not happily, and by the last reel widowered bittersweetly) and she's engaged to jealous Rear Admiral Sir Rodney Leighton (Denis O'Dea). But their honor-bound romance faces more than just social obstacles after Hornblower defies orders and engages a hidden fleet of French ships, with himself and two of his trusty officers captured. They're bound for Paris to be tried as spies and pirates, so of course escapes are narrow, and before the day is done tall ships get blasted to kindling in the best-looking broadside battle sequences since the Errol Flynn/Michael Curtiz pirate movies of the '30s.

Fans of Forester's novels will spot chapters from three of them utilized by Forester and the three credited screenwriters: Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours. The comic-opera Spaniards and mishmash of unlikely accents are only minor distractions. The film looks terrific and moves with strong winds in its sails. Peck gets necessary support from a fine ensemble crew of character actors — including young Stanley Baker — that the script kindly remembers need entertaining things to do and say. The ship-to-ship battles feature seriously good-looking model work. According to Warner's press release, the battle scenes also used two fully-rigged and three nearly complete ships, including a 38-gun frigate and a 100-gun command ship. Furthermore, a sequence was shot aboard Lord Nelson's flagship, H.M.S. Victory, in Portsmouth, England.

British critics objected to St. Louis native Virginia Mayo getting the role of Lady Barbara above any number of British actresses. Peck's choice for the part was English actress Margaret Leighton (and we can fantasize about what high-toned Joan Greenwood, whose butterscotch voice weak-kneed Alec Guinness that year in The Man in the White Suit, could have done with it). But voluptuous Mayo is both stirringly beautiful and effective, and the absence of an aristocratic air might have sold better to American audiences anyway. (It's an impressive 180° turn since her last role with director Walsh, as Cagney's scheming, vulgar gun-moll wife in White Heat.) The often lush cinematography comes headed by Guy Green, the first British director of photography to win an Academy Award (for David Lean's Great Expectations), and some of his striking work for the film captures Peck and Mayo in golden-toned shots that are warm and romantic without being "romancey" or trite.

*          *          *

Available singly and as part of Warner Home Video's 2007 "Literary Classics Collection" boxed set, Captain Horatio Hornblower lands on our DVD shelves with a clean print and a strong image, although it's probably a shade darker than it should be. Some details get lost in the inkier blacks, but the warm hues and vivid seascapes come through well. The monaural audio is right on the money.

The extras start with a 1950 short, "My Country 'Tis of Thee," a sometimes comically reductive and triumphalist patriotic quasi-history of American Manifest Destiny from Plymouth Rock to the then-current Cold War. Evidently there have been no blacks in U.S. history, not even during the Civil War fought for undefined "causes." (And the Great Depression didn't happen either, apparently. And let's not start on those Indians.) A studio disclaimer beforehand notably apologizes. We love those classic Warner Brothers cartoons, and this disc's Bugs Bunny title, "Captain Hareblower" (1954), directed by Friz Freleng, pits Bugs against Pirate (Yosemite) Sam aboard a big old ship. The rabbit wins. The "audio-only bonus" is the Lux Radio Theater hour-long adaptation of the film starring Peck and Mayo. The theatrical trailer occupies the aft end. Keep-case (or, within the boxed set's paperboard sleeve, a slimline case).

—Mark Bourne

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