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Today, Patrick O'Brian's recent novels about seafaring life during the Napoleonic Wars are enormously popular, but in many ways they're modeled on C.S. Forester's series about Horatio Hornblower that decades earlier held a similar place of affection. With such a wide readership and name recognition, it was inevitable that Forester's books would be adapted to the big screen and to make sure they were faithful, Forester himself helped write the scripts. Though the resulting Captain Horatio Hornblower doesn't skimp on the chases or fighting, it is a thinking person's swashbuckler and who better for such a role than Gregory Peck? (Though king of the swashbucklers Errol Flynn had originally been intended for it.)
Hornblower is given the task of delivering weapons to a Central American dictator who's a British ally in the fight against Spain. When England and Spain make peace, Hornblower is stuck in a desperate fight against a tough shore fort and the dictator's warship (captured from the Spanish). He's also trying to protect Lady Barbara (Virginia Mayo), the Duke of Wellington's sister who is quite sick with a tropical illness and must be taken back to England. To make matters worse, the war with France has not eased at all, and Hornblower soon finds his ship drawn into that conflict, as well.
Gregory Peck had been attracted to the character of Hornblower because he's not the usual hero. "I thought Hornblower was an interesting character," Peck has said. "I never believe in heroes who are unmitigated and unadulterated heroes, who never know the meaning of fear." Much of the supporting cast is British, the result of the Warner Brothers' decision to film in England because they had money in that country that couldn't be exported. (The studio had originally tried to get a Hornblower film going in 1940, even considering William Wyler and John Huston as directors, but had to wait until after the war and thus the frozen funds.) The sea scenes, though, were shot off the coast of southern France, using old ships that were found rotting away in a harbor and then refurbished. Lady Barbara was also supposed to be played by a British actress but studio chief Jack Warner decided to go with Virginia Mayo instead, because he thought she was more attractive. For such a complicated shooting schedule, there couldn't have been a better choice for director than Raoul Walsh, a wonderful action specialist who also had a smart side. You can spot future Dracula Christopher Lee in an early role as a Spanish captain.
During filming, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret decided to stop by and observe the production. Unfortunately, they chose a day when Gregory Peck was off but instead, were able to watch an excitingand loudbattle scene. The production received a letter of thanks from the royal duo.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Producer: Gerry Mirchell, Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Aeneas MacKenzie, Ben Roberts, based on the novel by C.S. Forester
Cinematography: Guy Green
Editor: Jack Harris
Art Direction: Thomas N. Morahan
Music: Robert Farnon
Cast: Gregory Peck (Capt. Horatio Hornblower, R.N.), Virginia Mayo (Lady Barbara Wellesley), Robert Beatty (Lt. William Bush), Moultrie Kelsall (Lt. Crystal), Terence Morgan (2nd Lt. Gerard).
by Lang Thompson