Maybe it is the beauty of the ocean, hundreds and thousands of miles of open water. Maybe it is the sight of the tall, wooden ships sailing across the water. Maybe it is just the time of so long ago. One of the most recognizable and loved fictional historical characters on the high seas was Horatio Hornblower, an officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. In a series of books written by author C.S. Forester, Hornblower sailed the seas, battling England's enemies wherever he went. A&E had a TV show appropriately titled show 'Hornblower' that ran for five years. Before all that though, there was 1951's Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.
It's 1807 and Captain Horatio Hornblower (Gregory Peck) is at the helm of the HMS Lydia, a small British warship sailing around Cape Horn and heading toward Central America on a secret, very dangerous mission. His crew is suspicious of where he's leading them, questioning what he's up to. Their objective is to help a Panamanian revolutionary leading an uprising against their Spanish occupiers. But just days after leaving an enormous cache of weapons with them, they discover that Spain has allied with England in an effort to defeat French dictator Napoleon. His decision on what to do is made more difficult when a young British woman, Lady Barbara (Virginia Mayo), engaged to a British admiral, is placed in his care. Now Hornblower must balance out his duty to England, the Navy and his crew with concerns over Barbara's safety.
That is about as condensed a plot description as you're going to get from this Raoul Walsh-directed sea epic. There is not so much a linear story line that has a beginning, a middle, and an end as much as it is Hornblower's adventures on the seas. None of this is to be taken as a criticism because if anything the movie works better because of that lack of focused storytelling. Instead, things sort of flow along, introducing problems here and there, situations to be solved, enemies to face and ultimately destroy. Yes, Hornblower wins...spoilers, I guess.
That may be the best thing this sea epic has going for it. Filmed in technicolor, the movie looks a little dated with its somewhat faded colors and obvious stage work. It all adds to the appeal, adding to the mystique of the high seas. This is how people must imagine life at sea, not what it was actually like. Balancing out the scenes shot on-board the Lydia (and a later ship Hornblower commands) are gorgeous shots of these clippers cutting across the ocean. You watch these scenes and understand why some people are drawn to sea travel. There is something unexplainable about the beauty of an old warship with all its sails up cutting through the water.
Who better to play the stoic, courageous, noble British Navy captain than Gregory Peck, still rising to stardom at the age of 35. This is going to sound ridiculous considering Peck's legendary status as one of Hollywood's all-time greats, but the more I see of his films, the more I like him as an actor. He has this balance on-screen, one minute the serious, stone-faced commander who makes difficult decision as easily as snapping his fingers. The next, he's stuttering upon meeting Mayo's Lady Barbara, fumbling for the right words. He gives Hornblower a personality, a likable quality that even in his most trying times, he's going to make the right decision. I don't often think of Peck as a love interest in his movies, but his chemistry with Mayo is spot-on, making their budding romance that can't be tougher to watch. It is 1951 though so you kind of know where things will end up...don't you?
Joining Peck on-board the Lydia is a supporting cast that does not disappoint in the least. His fellow officers include Robert Beatty as Lt. Bush, Moultrie Kelsall as Lt. Crystal, Terence Morgan as Lt. Gerard, and James Kenney as Midshipman Longley, the youngest of the officers. As for the crew, watch out for a very young-looking Stanley Baker and a scene-stealing James Robertson Justice as Quist. The crew gets their chance to shine in several exciting sea battles as these warships fire point blank into each other with cannon fire. Enough action to keep you entertained without overdoing it. The balance of the movie help make this movie what it is, a little bit of something for everyone watching. You can watch it at Youtube, starting HERE.
Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. <---trailer (1951): *** 1/2 /****