Horatio Hornblower: The Duel (review)

The First Action Hero

Prediction: Ioan Gruffudd is gonna be a huge star. Tall and pretty — with his big brown eyes, pouty mouth, and dark curls — he’s kinda like a hero in a Pre-Raphelite painting. And he’s got a lovely Welsh accent. Oh, and he can act, too. The only potential snag in a meteoric rise to ubiquitousness is his name — one news article I read insists he pronounces it “yo-IN,” but another says it’s “Ian.” Then again, we’ve all learned to deal with Ralph Fiennes.

The cable network A&E’s Horatio Hornblower movie series showcases Gruffudd in his first leading role (previously, he was seen as the officer who saves Rose from the frigid ocean in Titanic and as the inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray in Wilde), and he comports himself nicely as C.S. Forester‘s British naval hero (though of necessity he must lose his Welsh accent in favor of an English one). The Duel is the first of four movies A&E will air in April 1999, all loosely based on Forester’s 1950 book Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.
It’s January 1793, and 17-year-old Horatio Hornblower (Gruffudd) reports for duty as a midshipman on the British ship Justinian. The fleet is idle, just waiting around for something to happen — the revolution in France, Britain’s traditional enemy, holds the promise of some action on the horizon. Young, upright, inexperienced, and prone to seasickness even on the stationary ship, poor Horatio immediately becomes the new favorite whipping boy of senior midshipman Jack Simpson (the David Warner-esque Dorian Healy), a nasty piece of work if ever there was one. Things get worse when Horatio — or “Snotty,” as Simpson calls him — inadvertently shows up the rest of the midshipmen by demonstrating his superior brainpower in front of the captain (ya just wanna hug Horatio as he cringes, realizing that the captain’s effusive praise is only gonna garner him a beating later). Horatio endures Simpson’s abuse stoically, until Simpson accuses Horatio of cheating at cards in front of an officer of another ship. This is too much — Horatio demands satisfaction, and challenges Simpson to a duel.

A twist of events ensures that the duel appeases neither Horatio nor Simpson, who in fact grows ever more resolute in his irrational hatred of the younger man. Fortunately, Britain declares war with France, and Horatio and most of the rest of the crew of Justinian are transferred to the frigate Indefatigable. Out from under the thumb of Simpson, who remains on Justinian, Horatio blossoms, ironically as the new officer in charge of Simpson’s undisciplined and rowdy sailors. Through battle and his first command (of a captured French schooner), this teenage greenhorn earns the respect and loyalty of the enlisted seamen, most twice his age and older, with trust, honest praise, and the kind of cleverness that saves all their lives in a pinch. By the time Simpson reappears on the scene, as he inevitably must, Horatio is no longer the rookie, no longer a boy — he’s confident, sure of himself. When Simpson picks up right where he left off, Horatio gets mad as hell — he’s not gonna take it anymore. Horatio (and Gruffudd) practically crackles with virile energy as he faces Simpson in their final showdown.

I love this stuff. As a kid I devoured Robert Louis Stevenson — I especially loved Treasure Island — and The Duel is a ripsnorting yarn, full of adventure and excitement and really wild things. Cocked hats and cutaway coats with big brass buttons, men with ponytails and English accents, cannons thundering and flintlock- and sword-wielding sailors leaping onto the decks of enemy ships, and dialogue like “Damn your impudence, sir!” How can you go wrong?

And ya gotta love the whole concept of the duel. What a gentlemanly way to settle things. We should consider reviving this tradition. How much time and money would the United States have saved if we just gave Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr a couple of pistols and let them fight it out? Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein could have settled the Saving Private Ryan/Shakespeare in Love Oscar thing this way. Madeline Albright and Slobodan Milosevic. The possibilities are endless.

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