Monday, June 27, 2011

Captain Horatio Hornblower and Its Place in Hollywood History - Reflections and Review by Robert Steven Mack

What is the difference between the old movies and the films of contemporary Hollywood? Some people will argue it is the technology and they are absolutely right. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, film technology (CGI, Greenscreens, etc.) was scarce and limited if even available at all. In fact, it wasn't till the mid-forties that colour film became affordable to studios everywhere. But perhaps the lack of our gain was to their advantage.

The miracle of Hollywood first came into play in the first quarter of the glamorous 20th century. Believe it or not, movies came into the world at a time when it didn't look like they'd amount to anything. That's how it has been through-out Hollywood History: whether it’s casting a star or trying out a new technological invention. It always ends up with those oh so great geniuses rubbing it right under your nose with their “see, I told you so” – acting like your conscience, or the kind I always get from my mother, for example, when I feared my first sailing lesson the other summer and subsequently could not get enough…The concept of a moving picture progressed quickly into an exiting new medium and eventually, a multi-million dollar industry was born.

The transition from silent movies to talking pictures: Have you ever watched “Singing in the Rain?” Before movies could talk, they relied on extravagant costumes, glamorous settings, and superb acting to make them worth the dime people were willing to spend. This worked extremely well and by the time talking came along -pictures that talk...ridiculous!!- well let’s just say the studio executives weren’t impressed. The Jazz Singer changed that and pretty soon the film industry would learn to talk! Indeed, the studio executives liked their new toy and took advantage of this fantastic new invention. So now it was costumes, sets, acting, (later in colour) and plenty of good witty intelligent dialogue. Yet, by the sixties the Hays Code of Hollywood weakened and pretty soon it became a Hollywood rule that sex and violence (plus a good amount of profanity) was the key to a multi-million dollar venue. Away with clever dialogue and beautiful sets. The actors were no longer required to act as the camera and special effect did it for them. And that my friends, is what I propose to be the far-off difference between the dime and the dollar.

So what is the real difference between old Hollywood and new Hollywood? The difference, my friend, is the amount of clever intellectual wit in the dialogue. What today is told by the camera was back then told by the players and their verbal interaction. In truth, watching an old movie is like reading a good book. If you don't know very much, then you will not understand the complicated plots and advanced themes that the oldies have to offer. In the days when movies were only coming into the world, books and plays were the higher medium. In order to compete and reach success movies copied from classics which set the standard for the stories.

Captain Horatio Hornblower: An old film based upon literature was C. S. Forester's classic 1951 adventure film Captain Haratio Hornblower based on his classic books: The Happy Return, A Ship of Line, and Flying Colours. Directed by Raul Walsh and starring Gregory Peck - in a role originally intended for swashbuckling star Errol Flynn – and also Virginia Mayo, Robert Beatty, Terence Morgan, and James Robertson Justise. The author of the legendary adventure series, C. S. Forester wrote the screenplay for the film along with Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, and Aeneas Mackenzie.

Gregory Peck plays Captain Hornblower, a resourceful, strict, and smart seaman who likes to do things his own way. From start to finish the film will not only captivate with its brilliant dialogue and clever directing; but will make you craving for the books. The film is derived from three books but the smooth plot detours make it unnoticeable. There are adventures when they are supposed to be and humor - the romantic comedy touches between Peck and Mayo who plays his forbidden love interest - when comedy is needed. When Peck's wife dies, you are genuinely touched as we see Peck's character reading his deceased wife's letter and trying to figure out his life. Every element fits in this epic adventure of command, duty, and forbidden love. At times it has a peculiar ring to it for a swashbuckling war film. Its intellectually told not from the "once upon a time there was this guy and these people who did this and then that" but more as a journey through Capt. Hornblower's turning point in life. He is established at first as a strict no-nonsense captain who is resourceful and intelligent. As the film goes on we get an inside view of how his relationships with Lady Barbara (Virgina Mayo) and those who serve under and above him. In short, this film is a pure joy to watch.

Incidentally, on the special features of the dvd I found a Lux Radio Broadcast featuring Peck and Mayo reprising their roles in a cleverly devised radio program adapted from the film into a one hour time frame. I also thought that that the commercials for Lux toilet soap was equally interesting. (Think “soap opera”…haha) In any event, I think anyone who loves an adventure would love this movie. I think that it would also be interesting to read the books.

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

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