Aboard at a Ship’s Helm
by Walt Whitman
by Walt Whitman
Generally, when I find a film based on a book, I try to read the book as well as watch the film. This is what I did when I learned that Howl’s Moving Castle began life as a novel; I read the book.
Sometimes I enjoy the book and film equally, while at other times I enjoy the book more than the film. This is the case with the Hunger Games trilogy. The cinematographers for the films did not do the books true justice on a number of levels – and there was no need to make Mockingjay into two films. No need at all.
There are times, however, when I prefer what I see to what can be read. In the case of the Horatio Hornblower television series, this is what happened. Though I may someday read the books, I think that I will probably always enjoy the TV series over the novels.
I first saw the Hornblower series when it aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater. I do not remember how old I was. I know I was young enough not to understand some of what was said or implied in certain cases. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; I enjoyed the adventure and got the gist of the important dialogue. For a child, it is enough.
The novels starring Horatio Hornblower were written by C. S. Forester in the 1930s and possibly into perhaps the 1950s. They star the fictional hero Horatio Hornblower, a young captain in His Majesty’s navy. Forester eventually worked back from Hornblower’s position as captain to show how he rose through the ranks, and this is where the television series starts.
In the late 1700s, after America has won her independence from Great Britain, Horatio Hornblower becomes a midshipman aboard His Majesty’s ship, the Justinian, in order to pay a debt that his father owes. The captain of the Justinian is a friend of Dr. Hornblower, and so he accepts Horatio as a midshipman with facility.
The day he gets aboard the Justinian is a wet, grey day. Having never been aboard a ship before, Horatio has a little trouble holding down his dinner and throws up when he is introduced to the other midshipmen aboard the vessel. Two of these – an older man named Clayton and a man about his own age, Midshipman Archie Kennedy (Jamie Bamber) – soon become fast friends with the seventeen year old Hornblower.
Aside from this incident, Hornblower finds the world of the navy to be pretty decent. At least until the most senior midshipman, a bully named Jack Simpson, returns to the Justinian. Simpson is about thirty and still a midshipman; at the time, a midshipman could start out as young as eleven. The senior officers tutored the midshipmen in the arts of seamanship, tactics, and navigation until they could earn the rank of lieutenant. Unfortunately, Simpson is as dumb as a stump when it comes to mathematics. He could not navigate a bathtub, let alone the oceans. Worse, he is a bully and a coward, and he takes out his frustration at being forever a midshipman on the other, younger midshipmen, who are all terrified of him.
All except for the new midshipman. Hornblower is not afraid to stand up to Simpson, which is bad enough. But when he also proves to be far and away the best at mathematics aboard the Justinian, Simpson turns up the heat on him. Life aboard ship becomes almost intolerable, and when Simpson insults Hornblower during a card game, the young midshipman decides to try and rid both the ship and the navy of this scourge by challenging him to a duel.
His challenge shames Clayton who, knowing Hornblower will lose the match, knocks him out and takes his place. Though he wings Simpson, Clayton himself is badly injured and dies of his wounds not long after. The day he dies is also the day King Louis XVI is beheaded in France, leading England into war with the French Republic.
This leads Hornblower, Archie, and the other Midshipmen to be transferred to His Majesty’s ship, Indefatigable. The Indefatigable was a real ship, commanded by the real Sir Edmund Pellew, the captain of the frigate within the film series and the books (played by Robert Lindsey to perfection in the TV series). Pellew tells Hornblower in no uncertain terms that he does not think much of a man who lets others fight his battles for him, before ordering him to take part in no more duels while he is aboard the Indefatigable, or “the Indy,” as the crew calls her.
In the meantime Hornblower is given command of Simpson’s division from the Justinian. This division crew consists of Styles (Sean Gilder), a brawler who tends to leap into fights at the first opportunity; Matthews (Paul Copley), an experienced seaman and the senior member of the group; Finch, a small man who is at least as old and seasoned as Matthews, and young Oldroyd.
Hornblower finds the crew chasing down rats in the hold and betting on Styles’ ability to kill them. Styles doesn’t do this with his hands but with his teeth; his hands are tied behind him and he has to catch and kill the rats with his mouth.
This sort of sport is not allowed aboard ship, of course, and Hornblower makes it clear that while he commands their division, Matthews, Styles, and the rest will not play these games anymore. Not long after this the Indy captures her first French prize, but Hornblower is not above deck for the engagement because a member of his division is injured in the fight and he helps take the man down to sickbay. He later distinguishes himself in battle, after a fashion, earning Pellew’s interest. But Hornblower’s happiness aboard the Indy is dimmed when, coming to the rescue of a sinking British ship, he himself ends up helping a bedraggled Simpson to safety.
The episode reaches its climax in another duel between Hornblower and Simpson, which Simpson does not walk away from. For this reason, in the U.S. the first episode of the Hornblower series is called “The Duel.” In England it is known as “The Even Chance.”
There are eight episodes in the Hornblower series. Starring Ioan Gruffudd as Horatio Hornblower, this was my first introduction to the actor. Later, when he was tapped to play Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four films, the first words out of my mouth on seeing him were, “That’s Hornblower!” And so it has remained. Whether he appears in 102 Dalmatians or the latest remake of The Jungle Book, the first words I say on seeing him are, “There’s Hornblower!” It is lucky for me that he loves the character so much!
I enjoy the first four episodes of the Hornblower series more than the last four. There is a joi de vive they have which the following four lack. For this reason I prefer them to the sequels. Still, whichever half of the set you enjoy more, you ought to try the series if you have never seen it before. It is well worth your time and, no matter the cost, it is a great investment if you purchase it. 😉
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
Aye tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;—
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!