Review: Horatio Hornblower, Collectors Edition

When like me you don’t watch much TV, you don’t have to be worried about being sucked into the latest TV miniseries. I knew about the Horatio Hornblower miniseries, but because I don’t watch TV I had only caught part of one episode on TV when it originally aired, and that only was because my sister told me about it. It was much more convenient for me, more than a decade after the first episode aired, to sit down and watch all eight episodes in a row over a few days while I convalesced.

Like with most miniseries, there is a mental disconnect between what you read in the books and the miniseries. My mental imagining of Horatio Hornblower was little like Ioan Gruffudd’s portrayal. Director Andrew Grieve’s version of the famous fictional 19th century British naval captain took some getting used to, but overall I very much liked it.

If there is a problem with the miniseries, it is that it covers the least interesting parts of the novels: Hornblower’s career starting as a midshipman through a commander. C.S. Forester actually started with the fifth book and wrote the novels that constituted his early years much later. To put it kindly, I suspect that like me most readers would agree that the latter half of the series was more interesting than the first half. This is in part because a naval captain can have a much more interesting time than a midshipman or lieutenant. The good news is that in the unlikely event that more of these adventures will make it onto film they should only get more interesting. This is because the finest novel in the series is probably the very first written, Beat to Quarters. The TV series ends just as Hornblower is promoted to Post Captain. Moreover, since Gruffudd is aging along with the character, if someone could produce Beat to Quarters, Gruffudd would be just about the perfect age to portray Hornblower, as Gruffudd is 36.

Turning a book into a TV series always involves a number of deviations from the books. If you have read the series a half dozen times like I have you will notice plenty. In spirit, the series is faithful to the books, and perhaps that’s what counts the most. The naval battles were rendered much better than I anticipated, as was life aboard a British naval ship at that time in general. If you watch the DVD extras, you realize the producers actually had to construct a frigate as well as a number of other ships. This is not an easy thing to do these days, as frigate building is something of a lost art. Moreover, constructing 19th century naval vessels is very expensive. So the same ship stands in for a number of ships because to really show the variation of naval ships would have been cost prohibitive. For example, most gun decks were below the main deck, not on the main deck. The ship in the TV series also looks suspiciously new and overly clean, which in fact it was at the time. Although sailors did their best to keep their ships shipshape, in reality most British naval ships of the period were creaky and barnacle encrusted.

Most of the characters are dead on. I particularly like Robert Lindsay as Sir Edward Pellew and Paul McGann as Lieutenant William Bush. Bush is a recurring character in the later novels. He becomes Hornblower’s sturdy and dependable right hand man. As for Gruffudd’s portrayal of Hornblower, his Hornblower shows a streak of friendliness as well as humanity that was absent in the books. In the books, we knew Hornblower felt this way, but he considered it unmanly to actually behave this way. In short, Hornblower becomes likeable, rather than the isolated and removed character portrayed in the books. As Forester made clear, Hornblower was a secret humanitarian (and by today’s standards would be a liberal) but in the British navy of the 19th century where discipline was foremost, it was frankly not allowed. Just as if you were a gay, you kept your humanitarian instincts deep in the closet.

It seems unlikely that more episodes will be made. After sponsoring eight episodes, A&E finally figured out they were too expensive to continue. The good news is that Gruffudd loved playing Hornblower and would be glad to make some more Hornblower movies. Presumably, he needs some underwriters. Sign me up to buy a few shares of any future Hornblower movies. It would be a pleasure as I age to watch Gruffudd act through the best part of the series. All the remaining books deserve to make it to film. Given the constraints of miniseries, they were not the epitome of a Hornblower realization for the screen, but they came close. My hope for a proper Hornblower movie with this cast is likely to remain a fantasy.

If you haven’t seen the series of eight you can always buy the DVD set, of course. By the end of the eighth episode, Duty, like me you might feel crestfallen that there simply are no more episodes to enjoy. The good news is that if you have not read the books, you will have the pleasure of reading them.

How the Waves Were Won

Perhaps I enjoy a good sea story because I am such a coward. The military never called to me. I found abhorrent the very idea of killing other people, even for a just cause. I am not stupid enough not to believe that we do not need a military. However, I am grateful that I was never required to serve. I might well have ended up AWOL and living in Canada.

Still, I take a certain voyeuristic thrill in descriptions of great sea battles. Watching Star Trek inspired me to read the Hornblower novels. (Captain James T. Kirk was based loosely on Captain Horatio Hornblower.) After finishing the Hornblower novels, I started on the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. I’m still working my way through them. For this landlubber the nautical terminology in these books were hard to understand. I sought out books like The Wooden World by N.A.M. Rodger. Gradually I began to understand the difference between terms like leeward and windward.

Last Christmas my thoughtful wife Terri bought me To Rule the Waves, by Arthur Herman. This book is a surprisingly readable 648-page summary of how Great Britain shaped the modern world through its royal navy and merchant fleets. The subject sounds dry, but it is not. Because its thesis is correct: our modern world would simply not be the way it is today if it had not been for the British Navy and its global reach. The United States would not be here today had not Great Britain felt it needed to compensate for colonial successes of Spain and France in the New World. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes with great foresight the Brits turned the world into a world inextricably linked together. By doing so, it changed virtually everything.

The story of how it happened is fascinating. It is a story of seemingly endless war, principally between Britain and France but also Britain and Spain. It is the story of lots of reckless adventuring, captains with unbelievable courage and epic battles at sea. It is also a story of national survival against all odds that succeeded primarily because necessity required that Great Britain develop an overwhelming naval presence.

Much of the story portrays a world of shocking barbarity. It is clear that Christian teachings must have skimped on the notion of brotherly love because there wasn’t much evidence of it in our past. The most appalling violence was par for the course through much of our history. Violence permeated all levels of society and it was rife in the Royal Navy too. For the most part, humanity was closer to savage than human being.

It is also hard for us to fathom the scale of suffering during those times. For hundreds of years seaman had little idea how to prevent scurvy, so disease routinely broke out and sailors died en masse. Through much of the history of the British Navy being a sailor meant high likelihood of death. Yet over time and because circumstances forced them the British clumsily worked through their nautical problems. They created an effective sea-based fighting force. It allowed them to leverage their power as needed at critical points. That is how they managed to control their destiny. This force controlled the major sea-lanes of the world. It brought improved standards of living to millions. During the 19th century, the British Navy largely stopped the slave trade. In fits and starts, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes with great foresight the British civilized and tamed much of a lawless world.

From the almost non-existent navy of King Henry VIII, to the Royal Navy’s last naval war with Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands this is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of a sea-based empire. It was every bit as large in scope and as influential as the Roman Empire.

It is hard not to share Herman’s disappointment in the decline of the Royal Navy during the 20th century. Its navy had been such a prominent force for so many hundreds of years that it is sad to read how it was systematically dismantled. Largely because Great Britain lost interest in its navy, it was poorly prepared for the rise of Adolf Hitler. After its U-boat experiences during World War I it should have known better. It is hard to fault the generous spirit of the British at the time. They unselfishly showed the Japanese how to create a first class navy, hoping Japan would be a stabilizing influence in the Pacific region. Instead when the time was ripe Japan used its knowledge to push Great Britain out of the Pacific.

The great legacy of the British Navy will be obvious for those who finish the book. For all its chaos the world is a much more orderly and civilized place because of the British Navy. Trade has become essential to all our economies. It has become the glue that helps maintain our world order. With some exceptions, we live longer, healthier, more productive and richer lives as a direct result of our global trade. Like it or not we are now all bound together. Like it or not we are becoming, in fits and starts, one world. These binding forces are unlikely to recede. Over centuries, we will work through these issues. Sometimes this will happen violently, but more often disputes will be solved through peaceful means. The British showed us the recipe: one part big stick, one part enlightenment. Let’s hope we model their lesson.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

It was with both some excitement and nervousness that my wife and I went to see the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” yesterday.

Over the last few years I’ve worked my way through about half of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, on which this movie is based. I’ll make it through all of them eventually. Most O’Brian fans I’ve met think every one of the series of his books is of such high literary quality that they all deserve Pulitzers. Generally I’ve found every other book to be a huge hit, and the other one usually leaves me yawning. The less than stellar books often deal with a morass of tangled political problems in obscure regions of the world 200 years ago. In other books, such as the very first book, the obscure nautical terminology gets so high and deep that even someone immersed in the Navy would have a hard time figuring out what O’Brian is talking about. O’Brian liked to show off his microscopic detailed understanding of the early 19th century. If you are into obscure details about 200 year old sailing ships then you will welcome the detail. If not you will find the books dense and at times irritating: too much information!

On the other hand when O’Brian is good he is really, really good. Of those I’ve read the one that really knocked my socks off was book six, “Desolation Island”. O’Brian fans would say you have to read them all in sequence to appreciate them. I would say if you have to pick one of the books to take for a spin this is the one to pick up. It packs in one book just about everything you could want in a naval story: intrigue, romance, ferocious battles at sea against high odds, visits to obscure islands in the middle of nowhere, spying and all those little but human details that add so much depth to a story. This one, for example, has to do with a prisoner ship that Captain Jack Aubrey has to sail to Australia. Disease breaks out shortly after the ship sets sail. The pacing is perfect and the novel becomes almost impossible to put down.

With books like this it is easier to forgive O’Brian’s frequent lapses into obscure naval and political events, or his often long and rambling sentences, or chapters the length of some novellas, or the often meandering way he writes when it often seems he is saying nothing at all. When I read him I often wish he had worked from a clear outline.

O’Brian created perhaps the most compelling character ever created. No I’m not talking about “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, the captain. Aubrey often comes across in the book as a fairly shallow fellow. It is the surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, who has me buying and reading the next book. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character in any novel or set of novels with his depth. He is one of the most complex characters ever created. He is at once a brilliant surgeon living a hundred years ahead of his time, a counter spy, Irish, a papist, a scientist, an entomologist, a humanitarian, and a man deeply caught up in the passions of the human experience.

So I had trepidations about seeing the movie. Could it live up to the books?

And the answer is no. However, the movie does fairly well capture the essence of the books without necessarily putting it into context. Russell Crowe portrays Jack Aubrey more like Patrick Stewart portrays Captain Jean Luc Picard. In fact, I kept thinking Patrick Stewart could have done a better job with the part, except perhaps he is too old for it. This Captain Aubrey is some sort of weird synthesis between Captains James T. Kirk and Jean Luc Picard. Almost wholly missing from Crowe’s portrayal of Aubrey is Aubrey’s wild and childish side. In a port Aubrey could be a hellion. But we don’t see him in port.

Paul Bettany is perfectly cast as Dr. Stephen Maturin. It is Maturin, not Aubrey, who is the real heart and soul of the books. Bettany does Maturin just right. Admittedly for a novice it can be a bit hard to understand why he has this fascination for insects, birds and mammals. My wife thought it was almost ludicrous when the good doctor chooses to operate on himself, but those who have read the books know this is par for the course. Maturin is a Renaissance man without a streak of hubris.

As for the rest of the movie, it is likely that 19th century naval life has never been captured so convincingly. The chase and battles with the French ship Acheron are first rate and capture the grit and terror of engagements at sea in an unforgettable manner. I knew Peter Weir, one of my favorite directors (“Dead Poets Society”) would have the right stuff. It is hard to believe that naval ships in that time were populated largely by teenagers and young adults. This story is true to the facts. Near the end of the movie Aubrey leaves one of his lieutenants in command of the ship while they board the Acheron. His voice hasn’t even quite broken.

My understanding is that the producers are hoping to produce many sequels. I hope they succeed so the characters can be fleshed out in more detail on film. There is nothing in this movie, for example, that hints at Maturin’s work in counter intelligence. Nor do we have any glimpse of Maturin or Aubrey’s deep passions for women, or how they wrestle with the loves of their lives: Diana in Maturin’s case, and Aubrey’s frigid wife Sophie in the other. Based on this movie I will definitely see the sequels. Moviegoers at least got a taste of Aubrey and Maturin. Now they deserve the whole enchilada.

The critics were right in that Russell Crowe does tend to chew up the scenery. But Paul Bettany manages to shine in spite of the spotlight on Crowe. These two, who worked together recently in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, are perhaps a pair that will work well together in many future movies.

So now that I’ve had my Aubrey/Maturin film fix I can look forward with even greater anticipation to the release of “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” on December 17th. Only 31 days to go — not that I’m counting.