BP Saturday Night Movie: Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951)

You’ll have to excuse me. I wasn’t expecting to find an American girl on a British ship in the middle of the South Pacific during the Napoleonic Wars.

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Based on the novels by C.S. Forester

Starring Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo

I pretty much got what I wanted with this Warner Brothers historical actioner, a lot of cannonade and “clear for action.”  Using irrefutable Hollywood logic, a series of novels about a Royal Navy officer stars British actors in every role except the two leads. Oh well. Peck is at least stolid enough to make you think he’s was schooled across the pond. Warners apparently sought Peck after concluding that the young Burt Lancaster wasn’t right for the part.

Same can’t be said, however, for Mayo, who plays the imaginary sister of the Duke of Wellington, and sounds like the only member of English nobility to have grown up in St. Louis, Missouri (which Mayo, in fact, did–although she was considered a pretty hot tomato at the time this picture was made.) The lack of spark between the two threatens to sink this seafaring picture. You want to slap Capt. Hornblower broadside and tell him that no one will ever be as loyal to him as his own first mate  (Robert Beatty). When either the Spanish or the French show up, it’s a relief for all involved.

Still, when the iron balls start flying fore and aft, the movie is pretty gripping. And between the shouted orders, the square-jawed captain, and the scenes of the masts and rigging continually falling down around the crew’s ears, it’s pretty easy to see this as an influence on every Star Trek space battle and the like ever filmed.

By the way, they are apparently never going to make a sequel to Master and Commander (2003), which is a pity. Russell Crowe is one of the few actors working today who can match the sheer physical presence of the Hollywood mainstays.

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