Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo, Robert Beatty, James Robertson Justice, Denis O’Dea
Synopsis: Captain Hornblower, in command of the H.M.S. Lydia, is on a secret mission to provide support for a Spanish rebel, making no contact with land for eight months. After turning over a captured Spanish ship of the line to the self-styled “El Supremo”, Hornblower is informed Spanish is once again an English ally, and as such he must recapture the recently turned over vessel. On his trip back to England, he is charged with transporting Lady Barbara Wellesley, sister of the Duke of Wellington, back home, as she attempts to flee the Yellow Fever that is rife in Portugal.
A review by Film Nerd.
Made well before the recent series starring Ioan Gruffudd, this 1951 film has the charm that only films of that era seem to have. Despite the fact that this is another British icon here played by an American, the simple gravitas of any Peck performance makes this a very small quibble. The fact is that Peck was a generation defining actor, and his portrayal of Hornblower is absolutely superb. Despite having many different performance traits to how Gruffudd played the role, there is actually a physical similarity between the two actors, making it very plausible that we are watching the same character after a further 15 years at sea.
As mentioned in my review for “Loyalty” and “Duty”, that feature left off with just enough lead up information to let this film flow somewhat directly on. Hornblower has been married for that fifteen years, creating another level of tension as he starts to develop feelings for Lady Barbara. The great man cannot be entirely blamed though…Mayo is absolutely radiant in the role. Their relationship is one that grows from taciturn acceptance of the situation, to being forced into each others company in such away that they cannot help admire each other as human beings. Hornblower’s marriage is not the only obstacle though. Lady Barbara is due to be married herself on her return to England, to Hornblower’s superior, Rear Admiral Leighton (O’Dea).
Though the romance is what many would remember most from the film, it is also intelligent to have a strong focus on action when they are apart. When the sea battles rage, we have splinters flying everywhere, full masts and spars falling to deck, and Hornblower, always in control and in command. The effects have dated, absolutely, but they are still very effective. There is also space in the film to examine how Hornblower interacts with his crew. Fittingly, the mutual respect between Lt. Bush (Beatty) and his captain are on display. Even more so, one able seaman is selected to show Hornblower’s respect for all men under his command. The man selected for this role is Quist (Justice), who is quite bitter against his Captain until Hornblower singled him out for a task, to which he exclaims in wonder “He know’s my name!”
The film may not have the depth or focus on detail that the Gruffudd series had, but what it lacks there it gains in the romanticism of this piece, representing the sea as a fickle mistress, who will treat you right if you understand her. It is in every respect Peck’s film, amazing given that Erroll Flynn had originally been earmarked for the role. This is a film from the classic era of Hollywood, and should be enjoyed as such.
4 stars (out of a possible 5)
Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. on IMDB
Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. on Rotten Tomatoes