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Hornblower: The Complete Series
cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Paul McGann, Robert Lindsay, Paul Copley, and Sean Gilder

director: Andrew Grieve

960 minutes (15) 1998 - 2003
widescreen ratio 16:9
ITV DVD Region 2 retail
[released 16 October]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Based on the popular novels of C.S. Forester, the Hornblower films were a series of TV movies produced for ITV as a replacement for its highly successful Sharpe series that was similarly set in Napoleonic times. Comprising eight feature-length episodes spread out over three series, the Hornblower films are not only well made but also the kind of intelligent popular drama that is far too rare on British television.

Comprising of all eight Hornblower films, this collection follows Horatio Hornblower from his early days as a nervous midshipman struggling to adapt to a life at sea, all the way to his appointment as post-captain by his mentor Sir Edward Pellew. The collection includes:

  • The Even Chance (aka: The Duel)
  • The Examination For Lieutenant (aka: The Fire Ships)
  • The Duchess And The Devil
  • The Frogs And The Lobsters (aka: The Wrong War)
  • Mutiny
  • Retribution
  • Loyalty
  • Duty


  • During these adventures, Hornblower is forced to confront a bully, command a plague ship, aid a doomed attempt by French royalists to topple the revolutionary government, get married, study for an exam, and mutiny against a captain suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

    This is proper Boy's Own stuff as Hornblower outwits the villainous French and shows himself, again and again, to be a man of action and a skilled leader of men. The action sequences are largely well filmed using a combination of CGI and proper sailing ships and the costumes and period detailing are of the same high quality that came to be associated with the Sharpe films. However, for all its bluster and action, Hornblower is far from a stupid series.

    Indeed, while Hornblower is an action series and it clearly keeps a constant eye on the bigger picture that are the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the episodes unexpectedly tend to focus mainly upon far more human and dramatically complex issues such as moral dilemmas and complicated relationships. Indeed, the second series focuses on Hornblower's part in a mutiny and the two films explore the issue under a number of different angles such as the difference between a person's professional reputation and their worth as a human being, and the philosophical difference between one's duty to one's captain and one's duty to one's men and the good of the service. This balance between action and drama is ultimately what makes this series so utterly compelling to watch.

    In addition to excellent direction and superb writing, the series also boasts a number of excellent performances including that of Ioan Gruffudd who portrays Hornblower as a priggish and repressed man who is far happier in the heat of the action than he would ever be with his head buried in a book. Gruffudd is ably supported by veteran character actors such as Sean Gilder (State Of Play), Robert Lindsay (Citizen Smith), David Warner (Straw Dogs and more sci-fi TV series than you can shake a stick at) and Paul McGann (Withnail & I) who foregoes his usual softly spoken part in favour of an inspired piece of against type casting in the role of Lieutenant Bush.

    With the possible exception of some of the fight scenes, in which the series' limited budget shows through, Hornblower is a resounding success on every level and definitive proof that British TV can still produce quality drama when the desire takes it. The series also gladdens my heart by appearing complete in a single box, unlike its earlier releases and the continued treatment of Sharpe. At �60 on the high street, this collection might be a little bit steep but if you shop online you should be able to find it for less than �50, which seems like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for 16 hours of top quality popular drama. Damn your eyes sir, you must buy this for the good of the service!
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