Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and the Devil (review)

Reality Check

[some spoilers]

I enjoy reading others’ reviews of the movies I write about, but I’ve been disappointed in the coverage of the Hornblower movies online — I couldn’t find any other reviews of any of the movies at all on the Web. So I’ve been forced to lurk at A&E’s message board for the series to learn what other viewers are thinking. There are thousands of messages posted, and a good 75, no, 85 percent of them are of the “Boy, he’s cute!” and “I’m in love!” variety. Sure, there is some actual meaty content: discussions of the Kirk/Hornblower connection, comparisons with C.S. Forester‘s books, technical and historical criticism, even some interesting exploration of why Ioan Gruffudd and his Horatio Hornblower are so damn appealing. But finding the stuff worth reading is a chore. This Sargasso Sea would confound even Hornblower himself.
Of course, this kind of online droolfest is hardly unique to this series and this actor (“Estrogen Brigade” was clever the first time around — now it’s gotten old). But The Duchess and the Devil, the third film in the series, presents a good opportunity to talk about online fandom. The best, most intense film in the series thus far, Duchess puts Our Hero in exactly the kind of situations female fans go nuts for, and Gruffudd gives his strongest performance yet.

Britain remains at war with France and Spain. As the film opens, young Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower of His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Indefatigable leads an absolutely thrilling raid on the French sloop Le Rève, taking the ship with a handful of men and much clanging of swords and bursts of gunpowder from pistols. His daring earns him the right to sail the prize back to England, in the company of a small crew and one passenger: Her Grace the Duchess of Wharfedale (Cherie Lunghi). A bawdy, lusty, thoroughly shocking woman, she’s intrigued by Mr. Haitch, as she calls this “puppy” captaining her ride home. As Indy‘s Capt. Pellew (Robert Lindsay, who’s also at his best here — can’t imagine why gals aren’t slobbering all over him) disembarks Le Rève, he says, “She’s all yours, Mr. Hornblower. Good luck, sir.” Is he referring to the sloop, or was that a terrified glance at the duchess?

The duchess is the first fuel for fandom’s fire. She flirts shamelessly with Horatio, who’s young enough to be embarrassed by her unsubtle provocations and old enough to be considering the possibility of giving in. He’s innocent enough to blush, but is he so innocent that I– I mean she, the duchess, of course, that she would have to show him what to do? Oh, an enticing question to mull over.

Needless to say, Le Rève (which means dream, making Our Hero, oh my, captain of a dream) does not make it to England. Caught in a dense fog, the ship wanders into the middle of the Spanish fleet, and Our Hero and his crew land in a Spanish prison, where they find Horatio’s friend and fellow midshipman Archie Kennedy (Jamie Bamber, another looker), left behind and obviously captured after the raid on the French ship Papillon, back in The Duel. (The nasty fannish mind immediately thinks, Aah! Not one but two pretty young boys in prison!) Archie is recovering from punishment inflicted for multiple escape attempts, and he also suffers from epileptic fits, which gives Horatio ample opportunity to coo over his stricken friend. Though there really isn’t any homosexual subtext here, it doesn’t take much of a leap of fannish imagination to get there — after all, Star Trek fans created an entire subgenre of fan fiction called “slash,” as in “Kirk/Spock,” based on nothing more than a kind word here in one episode, an ambiguous glance there in another.

Gruffudd is an intelligent actor — he makes Horatio more delectable than he might otherwise have been with smart decisions that complicate the character and make him more real and more charming. Horatio is just a boy in many ways, but he’s also determined and clever and emotionally strong, much more so than most of the other people around him. Archie knows this: He’s lost all interest in escaping from prison, lost the will even to live, and when Horatio refuses to give up on Archie, insisting that Archie would “do just the same for me if I were in your shoes,” Archie replies sadly, “But you’re not, and you never would be.” And then, with only a well-timed pause, Gruffudd clues us in that even as Archie knows who’s made of sterner stuff, Horatio himself doesn’t realize. “Archie, I won’t survive if you don’t help me,” Horatio tells him, but instead of leaping into this proclamation, Horatio hesitates, turns away from his friend. This is no cheap attempt to cheer up Archie, as a different reading of that line could have implied. The hesitation says that it’s a struggle for Horatio to admit he feels this way.

Horatio looks soft, but there’s steel underneath — Gruffudd knows it’s there, but Horatio doesn’t. That’s brilliant acting, and then Gruffudd takes it a step further, showing us yet another layer of vulnerability beneath the steel. Accepting responsibility for an ill-conceived, and failed, escape attempt initiated by one of his men, Horatio is punished with confinement in a gated hole in the ground, one too small to either stand up or lie down in. As rain pours down on him and he finds himself in the intimate company of rats, Gruffudd takes Horatio right to the edge of his breaking point, inarticulate cries and uncontrollable shakes wracking his body. It’s a powerful scene, and it makes every woman watching want to take him in her arms and tell him everything’s gonna be all right.

But guess what? Horatio Hornblower is a fictional character. And Ioan Gruffudd is an actor. On television. He lives and works thousands of miles away from you. You are not ever going to meet him. He is not going to leave his wife or his girlfriend or his boyfriend or his dog to turn up on your doorstep. He is not going to read your panting posting with a gasp and say to himself, “Where has this woman been all my life?” It ain’t gonna happen.

If your husband or boyfriend is jealous of your fantasy, you’re probably having an unhealthy relationship with your television.

Ioan is attractive as hell, yes. He’s very talented, yes. But after the 500th posting along the lines of “Oh my God he’s soooo hot!,” I think we can agree that a consensus has been reached. Fantasy is wonderful — we all indulge in it. But show a little class — if all you have to say is “IAN GRIFITH ROCKS!,” don’t post it on the Internet (and if you must, at least spell his name right!). The rest of us really don’t care.

Or better yet, take a cue from Horatio Hornblower himself. “Don’t froth at the mouth,” Our Hero reprimands a sailor as he gawps at the duchess. “You’ve seen a woman before, man.” “Six bloody months I haven’t,” the sailor replies.

Unless all those drooling women on the A&E message board are in prison, they don’t have a similar excuse.

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