Horatio Hornblower is a fictional character created by British writer C. S. Forester in 1937 that has captivated audiences since, and has appeared in a series of 10 novels by the acclaimed author. Forester was a historical novelist, biographer, journalist and screenwriter wrapped into one, and most people are certainly familiar with his most famous work, "The African Queen" which found its way to the silver screen in 1951 with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, based on his own screenplay adaptation of his novel. A&E has taken the epic saga of the swashbuckling Horatio Hornblower and created four television movies that have now been released on DVD in a 4-disc box set from A&E Home Video.
The series of films consists of four adventures surrounding Horatio Hornblower, a naval officer in the British Navy during Nelson’s time. Each story has a complete closure so that they can be either viewed independently or consecutively. If you are anything like me however, you will be glued in front of your TV set for the almost 7 hours of the entire series, completely captivated by the beautiful images and the engrossing stories.
The first film, called "The Duel" introduces us to Hornblower as he becomes a midshipman onboard the "Justinian." Son of a renown physician, Hornblower is a real landlubber, but with high naval ambitions. As he enters the service, another midshipman, Simpson takes an instant dislike in the young sailor and uses his own power onboard to play sadistic and violent games with young Horatio Hornblower. While he attempts to avoid open confrontations, Simpson’s aggressive tyranny among the midshipmen of the "Justinian" and his killing of one of Hornblower’s friends, forces the aspiring officer to take action. But before they can settle their differences, Hornblower is transferred to the "Indefatigable" as war with France erupts. There, he manages to build a reputation for himself as a solid sailor, strategist and heroic combatant.
One day he sets out to rescue a handful of survivors from a wreckage, and realizes in horror that it is the "Justinian". Among the survivors is none other than Simpson, ready to once again start his violent regime among midshipmen.
The second film in the saga is "The Fire Ship." The war with France is getting more fierce by the day and the Spanish are slowly taking a stance towards the French enemy without openly entering the war. But on multiple occasions do the Spaniards destroy English supply ships, leaving the crews on board of ships like the "Indefatigable" for months without fresh food. While Hornblower prepars himself for his lieutenant exams, the "Indefatigable" sail to the African Coast to pick up fresh rations for the starving men, but as it turns out, the settlement is infected by the Plague. To avoid infection of the ship’s members, Hornblower proposes to remain on a separate ship with his men for a three-week quarantine. During that time he gathers first experience as a captain of a vessel himself, and learns that the real challenge of being an excellent officer comes at sea, and not from examinations. By the time he is taking his test, he is not only skilled but also has the ability to show the examiners how his quick and heroic decision making can save hundreds of lives, as a Spanish fire ship is on a collision course with the "Indefatigable".
After two parts on sea, the story takes a turn inland. In "The Duchess And The Evil" Hornblower and a small crew of men manage to capture a French ship, "La Reve". He is rewarded with his first official command and ordered to sail the ship to Britain, taking an intriguing duchess with him as a passenger. Before they know it, Hornblower and his men find themselves in the midst of the Spanish Armada during heavy fog. They are captured and sent to prison, but before they are forced to leave the ship, Hornblower manages to give important documents to the duchess who, as a royal civilian, will go free, while the sailors will be taken captive. Imprisoned on a remote island, Hornblower and his crew forge plans to escape, but all their preparations change when a Spanish ship capsizes and sinks offshore during a storm and the captivated men are allowed to mount a rescue operation.
The last part in the series is "The Wrong War." To defeat the French from within, the British are planning to use infiltration tactics and ally themselves with French rebels. A group of French royalists is determined to put their king on the throne, and to break the new republic. Aboard the "Indefatigable" and other ships, these French rebels are taken to the French coast to execute their strike, but it soon turns out that they are neither prepared, nor willing to face the reality of the war. As the French troops draw closer and the supporting English sailors prepare for a hopeless battle, Hornblower is disillusioned and realizes that this may have been the most fateful mission he has ever been sent on. He finds himself dragged into a war between French Royalists and Republicans, a war he and his men have very little understanding for.
The 4-disc box set A&E Home Video is presenting us here with us quite staggering. The transfers on the discs are beautiful and nicely transferred. The images of the movie conjure up visions of a glorious time when ships where masterpieces of craftsmanship. We all know the paintings of the battles at sea with firing cannons, rough seas underneath overcast skies. Tinged in opal tones, these pictures let you almost smell the scent of the gunpowder in the air. "Horatio Hornblower" does an excellent job in recreating this atmosphere, without being overly romanticized. We still get to see the living conditions and hardship of the time as well, but ever so often we get a glimpse of truly glorious maritime pictures. But the movie also adds a lot of action, spectacle and human elements to the mix in order to create compelling stories that are so powerful that the 2-hours that each episode lasts, simply fly by in a blink. I guarantee that you won’t be able to take you eyes off the screen once during these films. The DVD maintains this quality perfectly with true colors and a great level of detail. Presented as fullframe presentations, the transfers are practically without flaws. Clean and sharp, the colors are strong and saturated but without noise or bleeding. The blacks are also very deep and combined with the good highlights, create an image that has a beautiful visual depth. Running at DVD’s highest video datarate of 9.8 Mps, the transfer is also virtually free of compression artifacts, although slight signs of edge-enhancement are evident.
The discs all contain a single English language audio track in Dolby Digital and selectable English subtitles. The audio is presented in a stereo mix that is well integrated. The music in the movies is very prominent and also well produced, but never drowns out the dialogues, which remain very understandable at all times.
Being a television production it is hardly surprising that it comes only in a stereo version, but it makes you wonder what a well prepared surround mix with a low frequency extension could do to these films. Nonetheless, the cannon roar is coming across with quite some punch and the frequency response of the tracks is very wide and natural, leaving even the most subtle ambient effects fully intact.
The box set also contains a number of supplements, namely a dedicated documentary on each one of the discs. One of them is a "Behind The Scenes" featurette that takes you on the set of the making of the film, while another one covers nautical terms and definitions. Another yet sheds light on the life and work of C. S. Forester and the third one s a feature about "England’s Royal Warship", hosted by none other than Prince Edward of England. All featurettes are very well produced and offer a lot of insight into the time and workings of the Napoleonic wars during which the movies are set. If you enjoy the films, and I am sure you will, there can be no doubt that you will have to watch these great documentaries just as well.
"Horatio Hornblower" is a truly compelling epic and it is a truly stunning DVD release from A&E Home Video. Without a doubt, it is one of the best-looking films ever made about the era, making it an instant classic among historic seafaring dramas. Poetic, powerful and beautiful to behold, "Horatio Hornblower" is a must-see for everyone who enjoys adventurous, historical dramas. Although I personally enjoyed the first two episodes the most, all four of them are of top-notch quality, setting a new standard for television productions. Not only are the production values of this series simply amazing, the heroic stories, the beautiful images and the great acting put "Horatio Hornblower" in a league of its own. To pay proper tribute to this landmark production, A&E has released a box set on DVD that is a complete winner and leaves nothing to be desired!