“Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) and “Damn the Defiant!” (1962) are thoughtful swashbucklers set in the Napoleonic Wars. After recently viewing the bloated "Battleship" , it was a step back in historical and cinematic time watching these films. It was a pleasant trip. I did not have to turn off my brain while watching them.
“Hornblower” is based on three of C.S. Forester’s novels and he helped adapt them. It was directed by Raoul Walsh ("Battle Cry") and stars Gregory Peck. The movie is set in 1807. The HMS Lydia (a 36 gun frigate) is on a secret mission to provide arms to a tin-pot dictator in Central America. “El Supremo” is a caricature of a megalomaniacal buffoon. When the 60 gun Spanish warship Trinidad arrives, Hornblower leads a boarding party to capture it and then reluctantly turns it to over to El Supremo. Oops! Encounter with a Spanish packet brings news of an alliance between England and Spain and also brings the lovely Lady Barbara (Virginia Mayo) who happens to be the sister of Arthut Wellesley. Cliché alert: Hornblower does not want a female on board, but will change his mind after she helps nurse the wounded and he falls in love with her. It is awkward that Hornblower turned over the Trinidad and now he has to rectify it.
The battle between the Lydia and the Trinidad is epic. Lots of things crashing down. (Sailors needed to wear helmets.) Lots of broadsides to the extent that the Trinidad is a floating wreck that blows up. Adios, El Supremo.
Lady Barbara develops a life-threatening fever. Hornblower nurses her and a romance ensues. ß Surprise! à Complications arise due to the fact that Barbara is engaged and Horatio is married. This being 1951, they kiss and feel extremely guilty about it. This being 1807, their love is doomed. When they return to England, he finds his wife is dead (half of the problem solved) leaving him with a baby and she gets married to Admiral Leighton (Denis O’Dea). Guess who Hornblower’s new boss is? Guess who is a pompous jerk who questions Hornblower’s honor? Guess who needs to die so Horatio and Barbara can hook up?
Hornblower is promoted to command of the ship of the line HMS Sutherland (74 guns). Leighton orders Hornblower to avoid any more set pieces, but that would be boring so Horatio seizes the initiative and decides to trade the Sutherland for four French ships in a port. He cheats by flying a French flag (all’s fair in war, not love) and then wastes the French, but gets wasted in the process. Hornblower, his exec Bush, and a grumpy tar are captured. They are taken to Paris and executed by Napoleon himself. Just kidding. Will they escape and will Horatio end up in the arms of Lady Barbara? I can not reveal that information.
“Damn the Defiant!” is based on the novel “Mutiny” by Frank Tilsley. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert ("Sink the Bismarck"). In England, it was entitled “HMS Defiant”. It is set during the Spithead Mutiny in 1797. The HMS Defiant (a frigate) is on its way to Corsica. It is in the subgenre of dueling leaders (see “Platoon”). Captain Crawford (Alec Guinness) is the humane captain of the Defiant. His second Scott-Padgett (Dirk Bogarde) is a martinet who has “friends in high places”. It’s the classic confrontation between a sailor’s captain (“a happy ship is a good ship”) and a “cat o’ nine tails” solves all problems type leader. Scott-Padgett is sure the ship would be better with his tough love. When Crawford’s son Harvey (David Robinson) arrives on board as a midshipman, Scott-Padgett makes his life hellish knowing Crawford cannot intervene. Meanwhile, a mutiny is brewing below decks led by Vizard (Anthony Quayle).
They encounter a French frigate. They don’t have to reload their cannons! They board and there are a lot of duels and old-school deaths, but no blood. The French ship is taken as a prize and Crawford sends his son off on the prize crew. Check mate, Scott-Padgett. No more voodoo doll. Unfortunately, in the next battle with another frigate, Crawford gets wounded and now S-P is in command. Valuable information about a French invasion comes into their possession, but the crew mutinies due to S-P being a total douche. Crawford convinces the crew to patriotically deliver the information. Word arrives of the success of the Spithead Mutiny, but during the back-slapping a psychopath stabs S-P. High fives from the audience. A definite no-no in the Royal Navy. It’s now the yard-arm or escape to France. Wait, is that a fireship bearing down on the British fleet? Only the Defiant can stop it. Will the mutineers risk capital punishment to save the fleet?
“Damn the Defiant!” is well-acted although Bogarde chews the scenery a bit. He has this Lee Harvey Oswald smirk that is enhissing (the opposite of endearing). It is better than Hornblower at balancing officers’ lives with the lives of the tars. Shipboard duties, training, and punishment are well done. It is also more historical since it is based on the Spithead Mutiny. The Channel Fleet went on strike about poor pay and working conditions and unpopular officers. The sixteen ships elected delegates to negotiate with the Admiralty. Normal routines continued and the mutineers promised to respond to any French threats. Lord Howe agreed to reforms and the mutineers were pardoned. The basic vibe is portrayed in the film.
“Hornblower” is totally fictional (e.g., Wellesley did not have a sister named Barbara), but gets the naval combat pretty close. Both movies used real wooden ships, not models or CGI. The acting is good and Mayo is lovely. Having read the novels, Peck gets the standoffish character of the literary Horatio down, including the harrumphing. The dialogue is not too flowery. The sets and costumes are outstanding. Both movies have the same type of mood-setting scores typical of movies of this type and time. In a sense, we trade shipboard life for shipboard romance. Not a good trade for the guys. However, the two battles are awesome.
“Captain Horatio Hornblower” is a better movie than “Damn the Defiant!”, but both are worthy entries in the Napoleonic naval warfare subgenre. The amazing thing about “Master and Commander” is it maintained the intelligent plotting of the old-school films like these two and added the modern pyrotechnics. Compare that to “Battleship” which took a plot aimed at moronic fourteen year olds and added outlandish CGI bullshit.
Captain Horatio Hornblower - B+
Damn the Defiant! - B