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Horatio Hornblower: The Fire Ship (review)

Captain’s Log?

Gene Roddenberry is said to have based much of Capt. James T. Kirk on C.S. Forester‘s Napoleonic War hero Horatio Hornblower. I can’t say that I see much of Kirk in the young Hornblower A&E’s four-part movie series is showing us. In fact, The Fire Ship, the second in the series, has him behaving a decidedly un-Kirk-like manner.

It’s 1795, and Our Hero (Ioan Gruffudd) is now acting lieutenant on Indefatigable. War with France continues to rage, and Spain’s neutrality is wavering. When Indy comes across the wreckage of a British supply ship sunk by Spain, rescued from the sea is Capt. Foster (Star Wars‘ Denis Lawson) of the British frigate Dreadnought, a passenger on the sunken ship. If there’s a Kirk in The Fire Ship, it’s Foster. A lover of reckless tactics, he seized command of the supply ship and ensured it was sunk rather than captured by the Spaniards, in the process very likely killing most of his own crew.
Despite the fact that Horatio’s beloved Capt. Pellew (Robert Lindsay) is no fan of his fellow captain, Horatio thinks Foster is the greatest thing since, er, unsliced bread, and follows the older man around like a puppy. “He is truly a great man,” Horatio drools. “To be half the man he is would see my life fulfilled.” “Be careful, Mr. Hornblower,” another, wiser, officer warns. “Such greatness always has its price.” Horatio spends The Fire Ship learning this lesson well.

Horatio has uncomfortable command thrust upon him, the result of Spain’s continued disruption of British supply lines (the film’s title, incidentally, comes from the weapon the Spanish use: a ship engulfed in flame sent as a battering ram into the enemy’s vessel — in an era of wooden ships, a potent weapon indeed). On half rations due to low supplies, Indefatigable‘s crew is being riled up by seaman Bunting (Andrew Tiernan), who is spreading rumors that Indy‘s officers are eating like kings while the crew starves. Horatio takes it upon himself to contain Bunting, and the situation spirals downward into disaster. When disease at a port Indy calls at sends Horatio into quarantine, commanding a supply ship housing the other exposed crew, among his small group is Bunting, trying to desert Indy after being caught and beaten for stealing food. Things go even further south, and Horatio finds himself in an ethical dilemma over Bunting that has no easy way out.

Through it all, Gruffudd continues to prove that he’s more than just a pretty face (although, my goodness, he does have a beautiful, wide grin that, Horatio being such a serious young man, he doesn’t have the opportunity to bestow upon us near often enough). In each increasingly intense confrontation with Bunting, for instance, Horatio more than just holds his own against the rougher, tougher, older man — he psychologically overpowers the other man; he’s right in Bunting’s face with an unexpected fierceness. Gruffudd has It — a screen presence and a charisma that can’t be described but must be experienced.

In true adventure-story form, nothing in The Fire Ship goes easy for poor Horatio, but that’s how heroes are made, no? James Kirk would revel in disaster, happy for the opportunity to show off, but though Horatio performs admirably in tough situations, Our Hero agonizes. “I fear I must question my readiness for command,” he says just before he takes the exam that could see him promoted to full lieutenant. Horatio beats himself up over hard decisions Kirk wouldn’t think twice about. Horatio is too devoted to duty, to the rules, to be truly Kirk-esque. He just isn’t self-centered enough.

Maybe the Horatio Hornblower of Forester’s novels would be more to Kirk’s liking (I haven’t read the books, so I can’t say). Or maybe Hornblower grows into his Kirk-ness when he becomes a captain himself. All I know is, I never liked Kirk, and I’m glad young Horatio isn’t much like him.

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