When the good folks at TCM recently chose Gregory Peck as their Star of the Month, it gave me the chance to revisit an old favorite that I had seen many times over the years, but not for quite a while, Raoul Walsh’s Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951). Now, I am not normally a big naval-adventure guy; I’ve never read Patrick O’Brian’s work, and despite my affection for Peter Weir, I was “just whelmed,” as Dad used to say, by his Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). But I’m here to tell you that after seeing this film in my youth, I went out and bought and read all eleven volumes in C.S. Forester’s superb series about the Napoleonic Wars.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Forester was an excellent writer, and although his filmography is relatively lean, as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike (1952), “what’s there is cherce.” The very same year in which Peck hit the high seas, Humphrey Bogart earned his overdue and only Oscar opposite Kate in the screen adaptation of Forester’s The African Queen. Another BOF fave, Cary Grant, starred in Stanley Kramer’s The Pride and the Passion (1957), based on Forester’s The Gun, and starting in the 1990s, Ioan Gruffud (later well cast as Reed Richards in the disappointing Fantastic Four films) made an excellent Hornblower on A&E.
Warner Brothers apparently acquired the property as a vehicle for studio mainstay and longtime Walsh collaborator Errol Flynn, but that idea fell by the wayside for various reasons, and I can’t say I’m sorry. I am second to none in my affection for Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he would have been wrong for the part (as would Burt Lancaster, also considered). TCM host Robert Osborne tells us that when the indigenous critics gave Peck high marks for this British-made film, it was rare for an American playing a Brit; significantly, leading lady Virginia Mayo was reportedly cast only after several British actresses proved unavailable or uninterested.
The praise is justified, for Peck is excellent in the role, although bolstered by skillful storytelling in which we learn about Hornblower’s character—or at least his public persona—from what his officers and crew say about him. He must be ramrod-straight on the outside to command their respect and obedience, yet part of his appeal is that no matter how often he succeeds, he is full of self-doubt. This ranks with Moby Dick (1956), On the Beach (1959), and The Guns of Navarone (1961) among my Peck favorites, and while I have issues with his two Alfred Hitchcock films, Spellbound (1945) and The Paradine Case (1947), those do not concern Peck’s performances.
Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. (as it is known in its native land, “R.N.” standing for Royal Navy) doesn’t exactly feature an all-star cast, yet there are some interesting names among the supporting players, starting with Robert Beatty as his best friend, Lt. William Bush. Beatty later appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1969), and Richard Matheson’s miniseries The Martian Chronicles (1980), while an unnamed Spanish sea captain is played by Christopher Lee, briefly engaging in swordplay with Peck. Also among Hornblower’s crew are James Robertson Justice and Stanley Baker, both of whom were reunited with Peck in Navarone.
Ordered to aid a Central American tyrant rebelling against Napoleon’s ally, Spain, Hornblower secures him a Spanish ship, only to learn that Spain has changed sides and he must destroy his prize. Circumstances compel him to take Lady Barbara Wellesley aboard, and after she displays courage under fire his admiration grows into something more, but because he is married and she engaged, their love seems impossible; returning home, he discovers that his wife has died in childbirth. Captured on their next mission and sent to Paris for trial, Hornblower, Bush, and Seaman Quist (Justice) escape en route, steal a ship, and return to England, where a widowed Barbara awaits.
Hornblower fans may be surprised to see that according to the credits, this film is based on “the novel” by Forester, since Captain Horatio Hornblower—the first book to appear, but not the first chronologically—is now published in three volumes: Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors. Forester is credited with adapting the film from his work, presumably accounting for its fidelity despite the inevitable compression. The other scenarists were Aeneas MacKenzie, who co-wrote the Flynn/Walsh They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and the team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, Oscar nominees for the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).
There must have been a special place in Guy-Movie Heaven waiting for Walsh when he got there in 1980, and although a British naval saga might not immediately seem his cup of tea, it fits into his half-century as one of Hollywood’s greatest action directors. He worked with Bogart on The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and Bogie’s breakthrough hit, High Sierra (1941). Walsh also directed Flynn in Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim (both 1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Objective, Burma! (1945), and Silver River (1948), among others, while James Cagney’s gangster classic White Heat (1949) was an earlier Goff-Roberts-Mayo collaboration.
Composer Robert Farnon, whose BOF-centric credits include The Road to Hong Kong (1962), Bear Island (1979), and the series The Prisoner and The Champions, was adept at capturing the story’s many moods, from rollicking to romantic. Indeed, those moods helped endear Captain Horatio Hornblower to me, especially in its judicious use of humor, as Bush repeatedly wagers (and wins) on his captain’s actions. With Mayo as lovely and appealing as she was opposite Bob Hope and Danny Kaye in, respectively, The Princess and the Pirate (1944) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), this offers thrills, laughter, and love—in short, something for everyone.