Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues

Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues (2001)
A&E Home Video
Cast: Ioan Gruffudd
Extras: Documentary, Interactive 3D Naval Cannon, Guide to Royal Warships, C.S. Forester Biography

Back in the golden age of Hollywood nothing spelled certain box office success like a rip-roaring swashbuckler. Crowds thrilled to the derring-do of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Powers as they sailed and slashed their way across the Caribbean — confronting the likes of Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains along the way. My how things have changed. The last few attempts to revive this long-dormant genre have met with great critical disdain and even greater financial failure. So it is that "Horatio Hornblower, " a television production no less, has stepped in to fill the gap and once again give fans of sea-going fare something to smile about.

A joint production between ITV (UK) and A&E (US), the first four-part mini-series starred Ioan Gruffudd as young Horatio Hornblower, a midshipman enlisted in the Royal Navy at a time when Britannia really did rule the waves. Based on the classic C.S. Forester novel, "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower," the series was marked by an incredible attention to detail and fine acting that truly brought the story to life.

"Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues" is a new two-part follow-up that is a loose adaptation of the second book in Forester’s series, "Lieutenant Hornblower." While advertised as being two separate movies, "The Mutiny" and "Retribution" are really one, cohesive story split between two DVDs.

"The Mutiny" opens with Lt. Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) awaiting trial in Kingston, Jamaica on the charge of mutiny. Visited by his old mentor, Commodore Sir Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay), Hornblower recounts the series of events that landed him and his fellow officers in their current predicament.

Assigned to the massive 74-gun ship "H.M.S. Renown" under the command of the highly-decorated Captain James Sawyer (David Warner), Hornblower sets sail toward Santo Domingo to protect British merchant ships from attacks by Spanish privateers. It soon becomes apparent, however, that something is not quite right with the good captain. Hornblower himself quickly falls out of favor with Sawyer and is subjected to cruel and unusually brutal punishments.

Soon the other lieutenants begin to feel the effects of Sawyer’s erratic behavior and they reluctantly debate whether to declare him mentally unfit for command. During one such clandestine meeting, Captain Sawyer and the ship’s contingent of Royal Marines are tipped off and come looking for the "mutineers." Coming upon the lieutenants, Sawyer falls, or is perhaps shoved, down a hatchway and rendered unconscious. Seizing this opportunity, the other officers place the captain under the care of the ship’s doctor (David Rintoul) and 1st Lt. Buckland (Nicholas Jones) takes command of "Renown." But Captain Sawyer is not so easily put down and he attempts to retake command of his ship just as it sails under the guns of a Spanish fort.

"Retribution" continues the story with a once again subdued Captain Sawyer trying to remember who it was that pushed him while the crew of "H.M.S. Renown" sallies forth to launch a sneak attack against the fort. Due in large part to the bravery and planning of Lt. Hornblower, the Spanish garrison capitulates and plans are soon made to round up the Spanish ships as prizes of war. But the Spaniards are not as meek as they seem and neither is Captain Sawyer who has, at long last, recovered his memory and is ready to finger the man who he believes shoved him down the hatchway.

While the first series featured a full-scale, sea-going replica of a British frigate, the ship that Lt. Hornblower sails on in this sequel is a much larger ship of the line that would have been far too expensive to build as an actual working ship. As a result, all shots onboard the main ship were filmed on specially built stages in Menorca, Spain and at London’s famous Pinewood Studios. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that at no time did this land-locked footage seem any less realistic than the sea-going scenes from the previous series.

Indeed, it is this very attention to detail that makes "Horatio Hornblower" such fine entertainment. The ships, the costumes, and even the mannerisms and speech of the characters all take the viewer back to the early 1800s. Performances are also universally excellent with many of the supporting cast from the first series returning for this encore presentation. I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed a television mini-series more.

"Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues" is presented in a full-frame, 1.33:1 aspect ratio. While this is how the series appeared when it aired on A&E, it was originally filmed in <$PS,widescreen> and has been shown in that format in Europe. This is an <$OpenMatte,open matte> transfer so no information is lost in the presentation but an <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced <$PS,widescreen> version would have been most appreciated and would have really made this an exceptional DVD set.

That being said, the video quality is, for the most part, solid. The overall image is sharp with only the faintest edge enhancement evident although there is some slight shimmering here and there. Colors are fairly accurate and the palette remains consistent through all types of lighting. Contrast and black levels are decent although some of the darkest scenes tend to lose a bit of detail. There are also a few compression artifacts but they never get too distracting. The added resolution available on DVD offers a huge improvement over the broadcast version of the program and presents "Horatio Hornblower" in a whole new light — albeit not without some flaws.

Audio is offered in what’s advertised as a <$DD,Dolby Digital> stereo mix although it decodes as a surround track. Dynamic range is very limited and the lack of any real bass is noticeable whenever the cannons fire. Surround usage is fairly constant but extremely weak except for the occasional musical cue that swells up. On the plus side, dialogue is always clear and is never overpowered by the music and sound effects. The track is certainly serviceable but a more robust audio mix would have added much life to this old-style adventure film.

The two DVD set also includes a few bonus features. On the disc "The Mutiny," is a 46-minute documentary entitled "Sail 2000: Aboard the Eagle." This is a very nice piece that originally aired on The History Channel and offers a glimpse at many of the tall ships that sailed through New York harbor last July 4th as part of Op Sail 2000. This great event afforded people along the East Coast the opportunity to see hundreds of classic and reconstructed sailing ships in one, giant flotilla. This fine documentary allows those who missed the event to witness these majestic ships in action from the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter "Eagle" and also explores the sail training that goes on aboard that great ship.

Also included on the first disc is what’s advertised as an interactive 3D naval cannon. In actuality this is merely a 3D rendering of a cannon that zooms in and highlights specific parts of the mechanism as they are selected.

Disc two, "Retribution," offers up a few additional, but very weak, extras. First up is what’s billed as a guide to Royal warships. This so-called guide is nothing more than six pages of static text detailing the size, number of guns, and number of crew for the various classes of ships used by the Royal Navy around 1800. No images, no in-depth histories, no attempt to make this feature even the least bit interesting. Next up is a short, three page text biography of C.S. Forester that is very light on the details. As an added insult, the button that leads to this feature has the author’s name misspelled. All in all, the extras on the second disc are a disappointment.

"Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues" is a rousing follow-up to the original television mini-series and fans of the first set are sure to appreciate the continuing adventures of the world’s best-known midshipman (now lieutenant). This two-disc set from A&E offers up a presentation that is far better than the broadcast version but the lack of a <$PS,widescreen> transfer and a more robust sound mix is disappointing. Extras are also a bit light although the Sail 2000 documentary more than makes up for the shortcomings of the other bonus features.

I was extremely excited when "The Mutiny" and "Retribution" were announced and broadcast on A&E and have been anxiously awaiting their arrival on DVD. Even given the minor issues and nitpicks already discussed, I still rank the entire "Horatio Hornblower" mini-series among my favorite DVDs. They don’t make movies like they used to but, fortunately for fans, there are still some fine filmmakers out there who are more than willing to work their magic in the smaller medium of television. I just hope they keep on going as there are still nine more books in the series and it would be a real shame to have our intrepid hero forever stuck as a lowly lieutenant. "Horatio Hornblower: The Adventure Continues" is highly recommended.