Horatio Hornblower: Retribution (review)

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The Tide Turns…

Picking right up where Mutiny left off, Retribution plunges us into the disastrous aftermath of the battle that saw the Renown run aground and Captain Sawyer (David Warner: Wing Commander, Titanic) removed from duty, at Lieutenant Hornblower’s (Ioan Gruffudd: 102 Dalmatians, Solomon and Gaenor) order. As the officers clean up the literal and figurative mess, Horatio offers a plan to attempt to salvage something of their mission: a surprise attack by land on the Spanish fort, which the Spanish won’t be expecting, certainly not hot on the heels of their attack from sea.
And we’re learning this in flashback, as it is related during testimony at the court-martial of the Renown‘s officers in Kingston, Jamaica. A tribunal of high-ranking officers presides: Captain Hammond (Ian McElhinney) has it in for Horatio, pegging him as unduly ambitious; Horatio’s mentor, Commodore Pellew (Robert Lindsay: Fierce Creatures), defends his audacity as just the thing the navy needs in its commanding officers (and as Retribution unfolds, it becomes harder not to put Horatio somewhere in between). But the navy also needs a fall guy to blame for the mutiny, a scapegoat whose execution will save Sawyer’s good name and heroic reputation.

Obviously, not all that transpired in the wake of the mutiny is revealed in the courtroom. Things are falling apart even more disastrously on the Renown: the crew of malcontents that is loyal to Warrant Officer Hobbs (Philip Glenister), who is in turn loyal to Sawyer, deserts; Sawyer, alert and somewhat come to his senses, is confined to a straitjacket but makes as much of a nuisance of himself as possible; and even Midshipman Wellard (Terence Corrigan) dares to speak up for himself now, a dramatic indication of what a shambles the Renown‘s chain of command is. Lieutenant Buckland (Nicholas Jones), the acting captain, is completely ineffectual — meanwhile, Horatio, positively brimming with charisma, leads his willing men in an increasingly foolhardy attack on the fort. Maybe Horatio is chomping at the bit, as Hammond suggests at the trial. Maybe the ease with which he can take command is all the reason he needs to do so.

The Hornblower movies have all been cracking good yarns, pure adventure tales that are viscerally pleasurably in a way that too few movies — even theatrical ones — are lately. But in Retribution we get darker, richer characterizations than ever, which only makes the story all the more thrilling. Horatio, pal Lieutenant Archie Kennedy (Jamie Bamber), and their just-superior officer Lieutenant Bush (Paul McGann: Fairy Tale: A True Story) become a tight little clique — Archie is more in cahoots with Horatio than he was in the original four movies, less under Horatio’s protection, and Bush proves himself more daring than we might have imagined from the pragmatism he displayed in Mutiny — which only points out to Buckland how entirely useless he is: “You three, you’re so full of yourselves, and of each other,” Buckland tells Bush; it’s an accusation, but it’s also Buckland voicing his own despair. Hobbs’s devotion to Sawyer becomes quite touching, and gets a parallel we can all appreciate when it appears that Horatio may be lost — bosun Matthews (Paul Copley) can barely restrain himself from hugging Horatio when he returns safely to the Renown, in what may be the most charming and most pointed moment of all six Hornblower films. As the officers start turning on one another at the trial — watch Horatio shoot daggers with his eyes at Sawyer’s crony Dr. Clive (David Rintoul) as he takes the stand — it’s that moment on the deck of the Renown, embodying the loyalty and deep affection of men like Matthews and Styles (Sean Gilder: Don Quixote), that makes it all too easy to believe that Horatio’s motives may not be as pure as we’d like to think.

So by the end of Retribution — when someone gets to do one of those “far, far better things” — we’re seeing Buckland as pathetic, Sawyer as tragic, Hobbs as sympathetic, and Horatio as, well, not quite the innocent he had been. A dedication to honor and duty still obsesses him, but it’s now tempered by ambition and the power that his natural genius for leadership gives him. We’ve watched the uncomplicated and modest boy grow into a complex, even enigmatic man, one suddenly aware of his own strength and authority, and struggling with the best way to use it. Which makes for the most inspiring kind of hero: one who has to grapple with moral choices, just like the rest of us.

see also:
Interview: A Chat with Ioan Gruffudd

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