Apr 24, 2014

[TV] Hornblower: The Even Chance (1998)

Any Star Trek fan knows that one of the inspirations the creator Gene Roddenberry tapped into while creating the show were the Horatio Hornblower books. Many point out that Captain Kirk himself shares a lot of qualities with the titular character and the Trek fan in me has been rather curious to see just how the connection works out.

Thankfully it turns out there was a series of TV movies under the umbrella title of Hornblower that were created to celebrate the books in their own way. A total of eight movies have been made at this point and The Even Chance represents the first one in the series.

I've had mixed history with historical fiction pieces. A lot of them tend to be heavily heavy dramas that really weigh you down. And while this series isn't exactly light, the core writing behind it certainly provides a lot of fun action and adventure that helps things along.


Synopsis: Hornblower: The Even Chance is a made-for-television movie produced by British broadcasting company Meridian Television. It was directed by Andrew Grieve and originally aired on ITV and later in the US on A&E. The movie draws elements from various Horatio Hornblower stories written by C.S. Forester, primarily Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.

The story begins in 1973 when a young Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) joins the crew of the Justinian. But this places him under the command of one Jack Simpson ((Dorian Healy), who is rather vicious in the way he runs his part of the ship. Eventually Hornblower gets fed up with Simpson's treatment of the crew and challenges him to a duel. Another midshipman, Clayton (Duncan Bell), takes it upon himself to fulfill the duel instead of Hornblower with tragic results.

In time Hornblower joins the crew of the Indefatigable, under the command of Captain Pellew (Robert Lindsay). Hornblower finds himself in command of some of Simpson's former crew, but in time he manages to earn their respect. Hornblower proves himself to be a strong leader who is able to maintain control while under pressure and a savvy tactician when needed. And as he goes on more daring missions, his path eventually crosses with that of Jack Simpson anew as he manages to join the crew of the Indefatigable as well.

I have to admit that I still had some trouble just diving into this story. The early bits that show Hornblower dealing with the harsh life under Simpson sort of went by in a bit of a drone for one reason or another. I guess I just wasn't quite prepared to embrace a straight-out historical drama. But things did start to get more interesting once Hornblower managed a command of his own and really got to step up to the plate as a leader. In these bits the movie really started to shine and I began to appreciate why he's such a hero of literature.

Ioan Gruffudd certainly brings the character to life well enough, but he's certainly no Captain Kirk. And from an acting perspective, that's a pretty good thing indeed, all things being equal. Hornblower in this first movie certainly shows a lot of potential, but it is also clear that he's still growing into his future life as a greater leader. We see the sparks of inspiration here and there, and yet we also see him fail quite miserably at times - the best example of this involving the cargo ship full of rice. It's an interesting part of the movie that I'm trying not to spoil for you too much.

We often associate TV movies as being cheap deals made to score an easy payout somehow, but this certainly wasn't the case here. The production value is more than fair - it's actually pretty top notch. And yes, I know it's a period movie so in theory is just has to "look old", but in truth it's rather creative and the practical effects utilized in the various ship-to-ship fights scenes and other action bits were pretty remarkable and rather stand the test of time, even when viewed with a more modern eye. This was a movie released in 1998 and I still think it's worth recommending to others even today.

Hornblower: The Even Chance is a good start to the series and a nice introduction to our titular hero. The storytelling could have been managed a bit better to keep the pacing interesting and us viewers more involved, but in the end it was still an  enjoyable romp. Thus the movie gets a good 3.5 strategic twists Hornblower manages in order to save his crew out of a possible 5.


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