My, how our Horatio has grown! Only a green midshipman when we first met him, he’s now captain of his own ship, the sloop Hotspur of His Majesty’s Navy, battling the French on the high seas in a bid to bring down the treacherous Bonaparte. If it sounds a bit like Master and Commander, well, that’s because Hornblower and Aubrey are contemporaries fighting the same war and the same Old Boney, and if the thought of the possibility of Ioan Gruffudd and Russell Crowe together on the same ship in those snappy uniforms and wielding swords and buckling swash is simply too delicious, then you, my friend, are not alone.
Oh yes, Captain Hornblower can be my master and commander any day. Not that he’d be particularly interested: he’s married to the sea and the Navy and his first officer, Lieutenant Bush (Paul McGann: Queen of the Damned, Fairy Tale: A True Story), he of the silken voice and even more damnable honor, loyalty, and sense of duty, perhaps, than Horatio himself. In fact, Loyalty and Duty are the titles of the two new Hornblower films, Parts One and Two of an adaptation of C.S. Forester’s novel Hornblower and the Hotspur. And there is much manly nobility to go around, all bowing and scraping to the quiet heroism of Hornblower — Gruffudd (Very Annie Mary, 102 Dalmatians) carries the role, which he’s now been playing for years, with a confident, relaxed ease — all stiff-
But Horatio also gets actually married — to a girl and everything, with the preacher and the cake and the rose petals tossed in the air — though he’s so not into it that one really must reconsider the nature of his relationship with Bush after all. As Loyalty opens, there’s an uneasy peace between France and England, and Horatio, on half pay with no war to fight, is making a poor living hocking his sword and playing whist — yes, our decent, honorable, gentlemanly Horatio is a professional gambler. Pus, the landlady of his cheap Portsmouth lodgings, Mrs. Mason (Barbara Flynn), accuses him of being a “young rake,” which makes you wonder what else he’s been getting up to. He’s certainly not been doing much to court the affections of the landlady’s daughter, Maria (Julia Sawalha: Chicken Run), but she’s gotten it into her head that she’s in love with him, and he, being a gentleman, asks her to marry him, which is just silly. Not only is she a simpering wet-
Me, I’d have disguised myself as a boy and signed onto the Hotspur‘s crew just to be near Horatio and maybe get in on some of the action myself, and he’d have been so impressed by this daring romantic gesture that he’d have fallen head over heels in love with me — politeness would have nothing do with it — and he would have given me a commission in His Majesty’s Navy and we’d have fought the French together till I died tragically and romantically in his arms on a battlefield beach somewhere. Just call me Midshipman Mary Sue. Unless I got distracted, after I signed on, by Major Côtard (Greg Wise: Johnny English), a member of the French resistance against Bonaparte with whom Hornblower is forced to ally himself, because even if Côtard’s fake French accent is pretty laughable, he’s gorgeous and dashing and I might have made it my job to force him to surrender to me immediately, Horatio’s broken heart notwithstanding.
What can I say? These are wonderfully fun, purely escapist movies, boys’ own adventures (as the British would say) that girls can love, too. It’s got secret missions and true love — mostly of the masculine sort, like from old hands Styles and Matthews (Sean Gilder and Paul Copley) and aimed squarely at Horatio — and swordfighting and Hornblower being Captain Kirk-