Horatio Hornblower: The Wrong War (review)

Adventure and Adversity

In the song “A Pirate Looks at 40,” Jimmy Buffett croons, “Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call / Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall,” and later, “Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late / The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder / I’m an over-forty victim of fate / Arriving too late, arriving too late.”

Okay, Buffett’s on the other side of the law here, but I bet he’s a Horatio Hornblower fan.

The cannons don’t thunder. The nagging feeling that life today is not as exciting as it once might have been has got to be part of why A&E’s Hornblower series has been so much fun. “When we put on this uniform, Mr. Hornblower,” Horatio’s Capt. Pellew tells the young man in The Wrong War, the fourth and final film, “we entered into a life of adventure and adversity.” Our Hero is terribly upset and looking for reassurance that he’s chosen the right path for himself when Pellew offers this nugget, and though it seems to soothe Horatio only a little, I gotta say, adventure and adversity sounds like fun to me.
Now a commissioned lieutenant, young Mr. Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) finds both in spades in The Wrong War. His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Indefatigable is ferrying a force of French Royalist refugees from England back to France in a daring, nay, foolhardy, attempt to retake the country from the Republicans and restore the monarchy. Indy‘s Capt. Pellew (Robert Lindsay) is not thrilled with the mission — he has no confidence in the Royalist general, and he knows that a copy of the invasion plans has fallen in Republican hands. Our Hero is assigned the task of playing diplomat, keeping things pleasant between the stuffed-shirt Earl of Edrington (Samuel West), who’s commanding a unit of British infantry aiding in the Royalist effort, and the sadistic Colonel the Marquis de Moncoutant (Anthony Sher), in love with his guillotine and interested only in chopping off peasant Republican heads. Horatio also must babysit a stone bridge on the expected route of the French Republican army, to keep the enemy from crossing it at all costs. All looks hopeless right from the outset. “This’ll end badly, Mr. Hornblower,” one of his men tells him. “You mark my words.”

Thrown in for good measure is a star-crossed romance for Our Hero. It feels rushed and tacked on to the rest of the story, and doesn’t quite work — there’s more chemistry and feeling between Horatio and his pal Acting Lieut. Archie Kennedy (Jamie Bamber) than between Horatio and the young schoolteacher, Mariette (Estelle Skornik). The romance is a sour note, but a minor one, and the only one to be found in the series. Anyway, as with any woman who dares to intrude into a tight-knit group of men, she’s doomed, and Horatio is left heartbroken and bereft.

(A beach landing in France, a bridge to protect at all costs or destroy lest it fall into enemy hands, a young man reevaluating his life in the midst of war… It’s Saving Lieutenant Hornblower — sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Once again, Gruffudd turns in a performance that has huge starmaking potential. His Horatio makes the viewer long to see today in men the kind of honor, integrity, and gentlemanliness that seems not to exist anymore, and maybe never did. And here’s the rare actor willing to cry onscreen, knowing it doesn’t diminish his masculinity one bit. His Horatio in tears over the disastrous events of the whole film, Gruffudd, simultaneously restrained and overwhelmingly emotional, is simply breathtaking to watch.

Fabulous performances from the entire cast are part of what make all four Hornblower movies so glorious. Lindsay’s Pellew, with his dry, dry wit and touching, fatherly concern for Horatio: “He’s one of my best officers… I would regret his loss,” Pellew tells the French general in The Wrong War, and Lindsay makes it the understatement of the 18th-century. Bamber’s Archie, supremely lacking in confidence: Bamber plausibly makes him all quivering vulnerability without the supporting framework of an inner strength like Horatio’s. And amongst the sailors under Our Hero’s command, Paul Copley as Matthews and Sean Gilder as Styles undergo completely believable transformations over the course of the four films as they are utterly won over by Mr. Hornblower’s firm but gentle authority.

The Wrong War ends with Horatio and Archie high atop the mainmast of the majestic Indefatigable, its beautiful sails billowing in the wind. As the camera (obviously helicopter-mounted) pulls away, Horatio, a huge grin on his face, looks off to the horizon, and we get further away as Indy puts to sea for more adventure and adversity. It’s a magnificent scene, enough to bring tears to your eyes — in an interview, Gruffudd said he “felt like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic” filming that. The Hornblower movies share a similar theme to that other movie set on a boat, that of giving in to the urge to explore, be free, and live life to the fullest.

Still, I’m left, finally, after these four wonderful movies, with two pressing questions: How often did the tallish Ioan Gruffudd crack his head against all those ceiling beams and doorjambs he was constantly ducking under on Indefatigable? And did all those English actors get a secret thrill out of getting to call all those Frenchmen “frogs”?

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