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Monday, February 06, 2017

Captain Horatio Hornblower

Once upon time Jimmy Carter was making a speech at a Democratic National Convention and was giving a tribute to Hubert Humphrey, whose middle name was Horatio. Carter wrapped up his fiery encomium with a call to recognize the great deeds of Hubert Horatio Hornblower--uh, Humphrey!

Carter could have been forgiven, for he grew up in an era where everyone knew of Captain Horatio Hornblower, a fictional British navy stalwart in the Napoleonic wars, created by C.S. Forester in twelve books. One movie was made from three of those, Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck.

There aren't many swashbuckling movies anymore. The Pirates of the Caribbean series resurrected the pirate movie, but no imitations have flourished, and they stopped at one making films of the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin books with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which was pretty good. But in 1951, when this film was made, movies about warships firing cannons at other were staples, and Captain Horatio Hornblower stands as one of the best of them

Raoul Walsh directed Gregory Peck as the title character. Peck doesn't even attempt an English accent, but he's ramrod straight and impervious to danger. The film begins with his ship, the Lydia, on a secret mission. He has gone into the Pacific to give arms to a rebel against Spain, who turns out to be a maniacal dictator that wants to be called "El Supremo." Peck does as ordered, and captures a Spanish galleon for him. But a week later he finds that Spain has switched sides, and is now an ally of England, so he has to get the ship back.

This first battle scene is so much fun, as Peck's captain, even though out manned and outgunned, outmaneuvers the dictator. The film then hits a lull as the character of Barbara Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington's sister) is put aboard Peck's ship. She is played by Virginia Mayo, and though they start off rough, the two will fall in love, even though Peck is married and Mayo is affianced.

Things come to a rousing finish when Peck, back in Europe, steals a French ship and then sinks four of Napoleon's ships. Some convenient deaths will allow he and Mayo to get back together at the end.

Except for that dreary middle, Captain Horatio Hornblower is good adventure. I must have born too late, because I thrill to those scenes of ships firing at each other, masts snapping like twigs. There isn't too much swordplay in this film, but enough, and it just rouses the blood. This movie is a grand entertainment.

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