High Crimes on the High Seas
As a kid, I loved Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island: is there a cooler book for a lazy summer day than that one? I wish someone had told me about C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books — they’re another dose of adventure on the high seas that I could have used as a kid, and certainly lazy summer days are in shorter supply now that I’m a grownup.
Thankfully, A&E’s Hornblower movie series is back with two new installments, and settling in with them is almost as good as lying out in the backyard in the warm sun with a book that sweeps you up in rousing escapades and exotic locales. And these new films offer the darker thrills of a Stevenson novel. Grimmer than the first series of films, which began with The Duel and ended with a 1999 Emmy for Best Mini-Series, Mutiny and its continuation, Retribution, throw Our Hero into moral quagmires unlike any he has faced before.
Mutiny opens in 1802, in Kingston, Jamaica, where Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd: 102 Dalmatians, Solomon and Gaenor), in prison, receives a visit from his former commanding officer, now Commodore Sir Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay: Fierce Creatures). Sir Edward, to put it mildly, is not pleased to see his young protege in the clink — “You’ll hang, hang!” he barks in a disappointed, fatherly rage, for “black, bloody mutiny.” But Horatio is no longer the callow youth to be cowed by a superior officer, even one whom he holds in such deep regard as Sir Edward, and as he tells his mentor of the “disaster” aboard the HMS Renown that led to his imprisonment, we begin to see how Horatio has matured in the three years since his last adventures.
On a mission to the West Indies — to take advantage of the distraction a slave uprising is causing among the Spanish dons, with whom Britain is still at war — the Renown‘s senior officers find themselves enduring the increasingly erratic behavior of their commander, hero of the empire Captain James Sawyer (David Warner: Wing Commander, Titanic). While Sawyer plies the ordinary sailors with double rations of rum and allows them to fight to their hearts’ — and fists’ — content, he is snide and sarcastic with his officers, doling out excessive punishment for perceived infractions and seeing conspiracies in every private conversation.
Tiptoeing around Sawyer are First Lieutenant Buckland (Nicholas Jones), Second Lieutenant Bush (Paul McGann: Fairy Tale: A True Story), Third Lieutenant Hornblower, Fourth Lieutenant Archie Kennedy (Jamie Bamber) — Horatio’s pal from the HMS Indefatigable and the first series of films — Midshipman Wellard (Terence Corrigan), and Dr. Clive (David Rintoul), the ship’s physician and close friend to the captain. The early scenes of Mutiny feel like they spring from nothing more than wary exchanged glances among the officers, all of them afraid of setting the captain off on another paranoid rant, and, in varying degrees, actively attempting to keep him from getting agitated. The tension builds till it is almost unbearable.
Almost from the moment we first see Our Hero onboard the Renown, though, mutiny seems to be brewing behind his steadfast calm. The sometimes puppyish impulsiveness of Midshipman Hornblower has grown into a controlled fieriness, and Gruffudd has grown into a more restrained, more intense actor, letting us see Horatio’s seething in the set of his jaw and in his blazing eyes. Where the Horatio of the earlier films was a boy fighting for the respect of the men above and below him in the chain of command, now he is a man walking that chain of command like a tightrope — when is it more right to step out of the chain than to remain on it? Though Horatio initially defends Captain Sawyer verbally to the other officers — Archie in particular — he is fighting with himself, aware of the prospect of losing both his life and his honor should the crew rebel in what he must realize is a mutiny he would lead. Gruffudd’s is an even more commanding presence than ever, giving his Horatio the impetuousness of a natural leader, so it’s hardly surprising that when injustice piled upon indignity piled upon insults finally leads the officers to take the ship, it is Horatio who instigates it, and it is to him that even his superior officers defer.
Bookending Gruffudd and his more mature Horatio are Terence Corrigan’s Wellard and David Warner’s Sawyer, at the opposite ends of Horatio’s tightrope. Corrigan’s Wellard, the chief target of Sawyer’s irrational rage, is Horatio three years ago — painfully young and uncertain and not yet able to wield command, he is our measure of how much Horatio has grown. And Warner’s performance is an extraordinary depiction of a descent into madness — it’s startling to see a captain turn on his men, particularly when the fair and just Sir Edward had been our previous prime example of heroic captaincy.
But there is no clear villain in Mutiny — Sawyer’s viciousness is the result of illness, and even his most devoted supporter, Warrant Officer Hobbs (Philip Glenister), is reacting out of the same loyalty that binds bosun Matthews (Paul Copley) and bosun’s mate Styles (Sean Gilder: Don Quixote) — both also promoted from the original series of films — to Horatio. So by the time the insurrection on the Renown is in full swing, your blood will be boiling along with Horatio’s, but you’ll also be as torn in deciding what separates what is right, what is legal, and what is dictated by sheer necessity, right or wrong be damned.
Interview: A Chat with Ioan Gruffudd