Last week was Christmas, and to me, oddly enough, it’s not quite Christmas without Horatio Hornblower. When Bing Crosby is incessantly crooning about wanting a White Christmas, I'd much rather be humming the "It's the INDIE!" theme:
When the A&E Hornblower miniseries came out starring Eoin Gruffudd, I had not read the books. Between seeing the first episode and eventually getting the second from the library, I’d read pretty much all of them. Episodes seemed to come out around Christmas-time. Even if they didn’t, it turned out my cousin was also a fan, so I’d have them on the old-fashioned VHS waiting for when my cousin came to visit at Christmas. Nobody else seemed to share our fascination for watching cannons blowing French frigates to smithereens, so we’d stay up late, the sound turned down and our heads bent close to the screen in order to hear the whisper-quiet dialog while everyone else was sleeping.
Unusually for me, I actually like the movies better than the books. (Though, with such fond childhood memories, maybe not so unusual after all.) The reason for this is twofold: first that I have a hard time interpreting battles visually when I read them. This is also the reason I prefer watching The Lord of the Rings to the book.
The second reason is Horatio Hornblower himself. Television and film adaptations of fictional characters tend to make those characters more one-dimensionally likable in order to make sure they appeal to a broad audience and garner high ratings or hits at the box office. While Hornblower in the miniseries isn’t a flat character by any means—starting as a seasick Midshipman and working his way up the ranks by his naval genius, fighting not only England’s enemies but also his own inner demons of hyper-criticism and crippling fear—it does remain true that the screenwriters toned down much of C.S. Forester’s characterization, which made Hornblower a tyrant to cover his secret self-doubt. He has few—if any—friends with whom he would ever confide his deepest fears and insecurities, and treats even his most loyal officers such as Lt. Bush with aloofness and austerity. Like most heroes, he’s irresistible to women, but he doesn’t treat them with much respect, though this could be part of Forester’s attempt to be historically accurate, since most men of that time would not consider women their equals.
In the novels, C.S. Forester begins his characterization of Hornblower in medias res. In the first publication, The Happy Return (or, in America, Beat to Quarters), Hornblower has already been a Captain for quite awhile, and is almost having a midlife crisis. His career is in a rut, he’s stuck in a passionless marriage, and he’s grieving the death of two children. Though in the middle of the Napoleonic wars he’s not fighting Frenchmen, but their Spanish allies in the colonies, helping arm a Nicaraguan revolutionary modestly calling himself El Supremo and claiming to be the descendant of Montezuma and Aztec gods.
Predictably, things go awry.
Like in most political maneuvers, the politics back in Europe change so that just as Hornblower has successfully enabled this guerrilla war against the Spanish, he finds out that the Spanish have switched sides and allied themselves with the British. Now he’s armed El Supremo just in time to El Supremo to become his enemy. His ship is taken, his people are captives, Bush is injured and even if they escape he’ll have to face the automatic court-martial of a captain who has lost control of his command. It is, literally, his worst nightmare.
In many ways, this is the best of Hornblower, showing his worst fears come to fruition. The petty dictator in him has to step aside in order for the brilliant strategist to save his men and get them home. Another of the best-written novels is Lieutenant Hornblower, in which Hornblower is (duh) a lieutenant and finds himself in the midst of a mutiny against an insane, but cunning, captain of his own. Both of these, as with most naval stories, concern themselves with questions about honor, whether loyalty can be bought with tyranny, whether courage is a lack of fear or merely doing one’s duty in spite of it, and, of course, what makes a good leader.