You would think that by the time I got to 500 posts there would be no significant war movies left to review. You'd be wrong. I am now at 600 and still have a long "to be watched" list. Fortunately, I still love doing this blog and intend to keep going. Hell, I haven't even started my 100 Best War Movies posts yet. For my 600th post I have chosen two movies that reflect my love of war fiction and my belief that some of the best war movies are made for TV.
DUELING MOVIES: Hornblower: The Duel (1998) vs. Sharpe’s Rifles (1993)
I am very selective in my historical fiction reading. I like to read series, but most are too historically inaccurate and don’t have enough action. My two favorites are the Hornblower and Sharpe series. Both are set in the Napoleonic Wars. The first is in the very crowded Napoleonic naval warfare subgenre and the second is in the much rarer ground warfare subgenre. Both are written by acclaimed authors – C.S. Forester and Bernard Cornwell. Both are centered around a character who rises through the ranks. Those of us who enjoy this type of historical war novels are blessed to have these two series and doubly blessed to have two outstanding TV series based on them.
“Hornblower: The Duel” (entitled “The Even Chance” in Great Britain) is the first in a series of movies produced by ITV and A&E. This movie introduces Midshipman Horatio Hornblower (Ion Groffudd) as he joins the crew of the HMS Justinian in 1793. “Welcome to Purgatory”, he is told as soon as he boards. It will be closer to Hell for the seventeen year old rich kid. The ship is commanded by an old and worn-out captain and the midshipmen are dominated by a psychopath named Simpson (Dorian Healy). He makes it his objective to make Hornblower’s life as miserable as possible. It gets so bad that Hornblower challenges Simpson to a duel. However, another midshipman named Clayton (Duncan Bell) takes Hornblower’s place, so the rivalry continues. Hornblower gets transferred to the HMS Indefatigable, which is commanded by the no nonsense Captain Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay). He forbids Hornblower to fight any more duels. Hornblower is given command of a gun crew. It is motley. He will have to earn the tars’ respect. And get on the good side of the captain. Luckily, he is a quick study and a born leader. The movie is episodic after the build-up. Hornblower has a time dealing with a French prize ship. Hornblower leads a boarding party that cuts out a French warship. Hornblower rescues the Indy from attack by three corvettes. The movie culminates with the return match with the dastardly Simpson. Hornblower gets killed and the series ends with just one episode. Just kidding.
“Sharpe’s Rifles” was produced by ITV in 1993. I first saw it on PBS here in America. In a move that changed the history of the world, Sean Bean replaced Paul McGann in the lead role after McGann was injured playing soccer. It is impossible to imagine anyone else playing Richard Sharpe. In fact, Cornwell changed the character in the subsequent books to reflect Bean’s portrayal. The series starts in Portugal in the early stages of Wellington’s Peninsula War. Sgt. Sharpe saves Gen. Arthur Wellesley’s life from some French cavalry and is “rewarded” with a field commission. One theme of the film is how Sharpe’s lower class background makes him ill-fitted for the officer corps. He will not be welcomed by the snooty upper class officers. To spark his short temper even more, Sharpe’s promotion is greeted with skepticism by the enlisted men because they are conditioned to believe only their betters are capable of commanding scum like them. Sharpe is given a special mission to find a banker carrying the army’s payroll and get him back safely. He is given command of a small unit of riflemen called the “Chosen Men”. It is a typically heterogeneous war movie group. He’s going to earn their respect and he starts by winning a bare knuckle, eye-gouging duel with a big Irishman named Harper (Darrow O’Malley). Sharpe may now be an officer, but he fights like a “proper bastard”. Although bitter enemies, they won't stay that way. This is the start of one of the greatest warrior duos in war movie history. On the way to the banker, Sharpe hooks up with a Spanish guerrilla band led by a noble named Bas Vivar (Simon Andreu) and a female partisan named Teresa (Assumpta Serna). They are transporting a sacred relic to a town to inspire the Spanish people to rebel against French rule. Sharpe and Teresa do not get along at first. That will change.
“Hornblower: The Duel” was a big budget production and it showed. The Indefatigable is actually the Grand Turk (a replica of the HMS Blandford) which is a 22-gun corvette with twelve pound guns. It is supposed to represent a 44-gun frigate with twenty-four pounders. The film is lensed so the action appears to be on a larger ship. The exteriors and interiors allow the movie to be nicely instructive on shipboard life. The below deck set is authentic. You can learn a lot about what is was like to serve on a British warship in the age of fighting sail. The plot manages to hit on midshipmen training, burial at sea, firing sequence, boarding, women below decks in port, and of course, dueling. But this is not a documentary. The story is entertaining and the characters are intriguing. The story revolves around two themes. One is Hornblower’s growth as a leader. The other is his conflict with Simpson. The first follows a traditional arc, the second is what sets the movie apart. Simpson is one of the greatest war movie villains. The final duel closes the movie with a cherry on top. The casting director deserved a bonus. The actors are all perfect in their roles. Hornblower dominates, but it is truly an ensemble movie. The movie launched Gruffudd to stardom and just like Bean as Sharpe, it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. Healy is not a cartoon villain and he makes his character’s death very fulfilling. Lindsay’s Pellew ranks among the great cinematic ship captains. And he gives life to one of the greatest Royal Navy heroes. There is nothing TV about the production. The dialogue is excellent. The music fits nicely. The sound effects make you feel you are on the ship.
“Sharpe’s Rifles” lays the groundwork for the rest of the series. Sharpe’s personality is firmly established by Bean and the series’ dynamic of Sharpe’s struggles with the officer system begins. The characters are fleshed out nicely by a good cast. This includes the fascinating Teresa. She is a vengeance minded heroine who mentors Sharpe. The romance is not Victorian and truly reflects the characters’ inner feelings. Teresa will be a recurring character and their love is a real strength of the series. As for as the bromance of Sharpe and Harper, the series opener nails that down. The plot flows smoothly and the tying in of the two missions is well handled. There is a villain (Harper) in need of redemption and a villain (Bas Vivar’s collaborator brother) in need of a sword stabbing. Both of these arcs are satisfactorily rendered. Considering its low budget, “Sharpe’s Rifles” does a great job with what it has. The main thing it has is Sean Bean, but credit must also go to the screenplay which faithfully reproduces Cornwell’s novel. The dialogue is noteworthy with plenty of soldier slang. Don’t expect to hear any salty language or see any graphic violence. This is not an HBO production. Similar to “The Duel”, one can learn some interesting facts about the British army in this movie. In general, we are enlightened about the classism in the army. The movie passes on the historical simplification that all officers were effete snobs and all the infantry were the scum of the Earth. Specifically we learn about the wonders of the Baker rifle.
Besides the historical period, there are some similarities between the two movies. Both have a main character who has to grow into his job. Hornblower uses his brain, Sharpe starts using his brawn and gradually learns to relate to the men. They both have a nemesis, but the resolutions of the conflicts are very different, yet fitting. Both main characters have tough task masters who are actual historical figures. Both have to earn the respect of the men who they are put in charge of. In both movies, you can learn a lot about the British military. There are good battle scenes in each, although the budget of “Hornblower” allows for more realism and less of a made-for-TV feel. The violence is not graphic in either.
Considering the similarities, it is hard to judge the two. “The Duel” has better action. The character development is better in “Sharpe’s Rifles”. You get to know Sharpe’s men better than Hornblower’s gun crew. “Rifles” is stronger when it comes to covering history. The situation on the Peninsula is clearer than the situation in the English Channel. It has a subplot involving Bas Vivar and his brother that touches on the conflict between traditional values and the new Napoleonic emphasis on reason. On the other hand, “The Duel” is more instructive on sailor life than “Rifles” is about soldier life. In fact, the only movie that tops “The Duel” in presenting life aboard a Napoleonic warship is “Master and Commander”. “Rifles” does a better job recreating the novel. It follows the plot quite closely whereas “The Duel” deftly improves on several chapters from Mister Midshipman Hornblower.
I have a hard time choosing between the two movies. I am fonder of “Sharpe’s Rifles” as I am a huge fan of the novels and of Sean Bean. However, from an impartial viewpoint, “The Duel” is probably the better war movie. I would think most war movie lovers with no dog in the hunt would find it better. There is no real reason to choose. Both are extremely entertaining. With that said, let me point out that when one discusses the best war movies, one should not be limited to theatrical releases. Some of the best war movies were made for TV and yet most lists do not include them. My list of the 100 Best War Movies will include any war movie, no matter the format. These two movies will both be on that list.
GRADES : The Duel = A
Rifles = A-