Thursday, August 15, 2013

Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N ( 1951 )

"War breeds strange allies" 

Captain Hornblower pointedly remarks this after embarking with his crew on a secret mission to Central America to supply armaments to "El Supremo" a fanatical rebel leader who plans on organizing an attack against France's Spanish allies. The year is 1807 and while Napoleon's forces were attacking in Europe a diversion such as this would be large enough to make France send some military support to North American defense in support of their Spanish ally. "El Supremo" is hardly the kind of man one would want to make terms with, as Hornblower soon finds out. 

The first three novels in C.S Forester's Hornblower saga ( Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, Flying Colors ) were purchased by Warner Brothers in 1938 for material for their swashbuckling star, Errol Flynn. 

C.S. Forester had made a name for himself during the 1930s as an author of novels with military/naval themes ( Brown on Resolution, The African Queen, Death to the French ). He was called to Hollywood to write up an adventure story, working under Arthur Hornblow and Niven Busch. Forester came up with a tale about a pirate in seventeenth century England. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers was in the process of making Captain Blood with Errol Flynn and it used the same key historical elements he was hoping to use. Instead of starting on another project he bounded on a freighter for home and met a photographer, Barbara Sutro, onboard. During the voyage he had his new novel worked out with its lead characters...Hornblower, Bush and Lady Barbara!

The Hornblower series became a success and Hal Wallis considered making the film with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh as the stars but difficulties within Warner Brothers studio hampered the production and it was shelved for many years. 

Then in 1948, the project was once again brought up but quickly quenched when studio heads saw the disappointing box-office receipts for The Adventures of Don Juan, starring Errol Flynn. Clearly the public's taste in gung-ho adventures were changing they surmised...or else their boyish hero Errol Flynn was starting to show his age. Warner Brothers was already in the process of grooming a younger actor to replace Flynn as their adventure star - Burt Lancaster - but the role of the grunting British sea-captain Hornblower did not seem suitable for Lancaster. Hence, they chose Gregory Peck on loan-out from David Selznick studios to lead. ( Stewart Granger and Richard Todd could have been other possibilities but who knows what contractual arrangements they were tied to at the time. ) 

One-eyed Raoul Walsh, a master of filming the adventure genre, was called in to direct and filming commenced in the summer of 1950. Most of the interior shots were filmed in the United Kingdom, while the outdoor locales were filmed on location in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, on board the HMS Victory, and on the set of the former Hispaniola built a year earlier for Walt Disney's production of Treasure Island. She got a fresh paint job and a new name, the HMS Lydia, and was back in action. But as Errol Flynn would have told the production crew, "It's bad luck to rename a ship".

Although Peck gave a fine performance as Hornblower, he lacked the charisma that would have inspired his men to lay down their lives for him. The bosom-buddy comradery was missing between Hornblower, Lt. Bush ( Robert Beatty ) and seaman Quist ( James Robertson Justice ) that would endeared them to the audience more. This is where the Errol Flynn/Alan Hale teamings of yor were sorely missed. 

However, in spite of this, Captain Hornblower manages to pack an adequate punch, full of adventure, beautiful sets, and colorful characters.  It remains a top swashbuckler for many Brit and Yankee buccaneers and features some spectacular naval battle sequences including one particularly rousing broadside exchange between the 36-gun HMS Lydia and a 60-gun command ship led by "El Supremo" in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Captain Horatio Hornblower was released in the UK on April 10, 1951 and in the US five months later. It received good reviews from critics both abroad and in the states and became one of the top ten box-office hits in the UK that year. 

This post is our contribution to the wonderful  2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by Sittin on a Backyard Fence and Scribe Hard on Film. For a complete schedule to the month-long event, click here.


  1. Wow, I didn't know any of the history of how Forester came to write the novels, or how the movie came to be made. Fascinating! I do like this movie a lot, though not as much as the A&E series that stars Ioan Gruffudd.

  2. Yes, for some reason the history behind the Hornblower novels has been obscured a bit. Maybe the origins of the series wasn't romantic enough to justify widespread comment. I'll have to check out the A&E series, I've certainly heard alot of praise for it throughout the years!

  3. I love this movie, but I did not know any of the background! Thanks so much for sharing.

    And yes, please check out the Horatio Hornblower series with Ioan Gruffudd. It is quite good. Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica is also in it (he is in one of the earlier episodes, then plays a very large role later in the series).

    Thanks for another great contribution!