Peter Weir did more than just read Patrick O’Brian’s books when he began pre-production on his seagoing adventure film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” For more practical advice, the Australian director turned to several crew members of the Emmy Award-winning A&E; cable series “Horatio Hornblower.”
And for good reason.
Over the last six years, A&E; and its British partner, Granada, have produced eight two-hour movies based on C.S. Forester’s popular novels about a young, brave English seaman (played by Ioan Gruffudd) who comes into his own during the Napoleonic Wars. The first series of four adventures won the Emmy for outstanding miniseries in 1999; the second series received seven nominations in 2001. Hornblower’s latest tour of duty airs tonight and Wednesday on A&E; with the movies “Loyalty” and “Duty” based on stories from the third “Hornblower” novel, “Horatio and the Hotspur.”
In these two episodes, the former wet-behind-the-ears midshipman not only is given command of a ship, he also gets married, faces death and defends the Crown against Napoleon’s crafty forces.
“Hornblower” also is riding the wave of popularity of “Master and Commander” as well as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” which arrives on DVD and videocassette today as well.
Andrew Grieve, who has directed all of the A&E; movies, says the success and efficiency of the “Hornblower” films gave other producers the confidence to tackle projects set on water, which always is treacherous.
“Traditionally, people have been shy of them because they are difficult and can go wrong very easily and go over budget,” Grieve said. “There have been some disasters. Peter Weir did talk to the principal people on the crew I use before we started.... The feature film is obviously different from television in that they have a lot more money and time, but I think basically the problems are the same -- how to film at sea without really going to sea.”
The “Hornblower” production set sail for just two weeks of its 12-week schedule. After all, the producers and A&E; had only a fraction of the $100-million-plus budget “Master and Commander” had.
“We filmed this in the U.K. in Cornwall and Devon,” Grieve said. “We also had a set, believe it or not, that was built in the middle of an airfield in Oxfordshire right in the middle of England. But you do have to go to sea a bit, so we [rented] a frigate. Then you have models and you have sets, and the job of the director and the production designers is to make sure it looks like one vessel. I think we do that pretty successfully.”
“We take a lot of prep time,” added A&E; executive producer Delia Fine, who won’t divulge the “Hornblower” budget. “We think they look good, and that takes a lot of care and thought on the part of the production design team to be able to pull this off on a television budget.”
Fine, who has been a fan of the Forester books since her school days, said audiences love these seagoing tales because there is an “enormous, intrinsic fascination with both this time period and the romance of the sea and these ships and the extraordinary risks that these men took every day. We feel that we live with so much ambiguity and so many gray zones, both ethnically and morally, that it’s enormously attractive to go into a world where there was conflict and there was war going on but the men on Horatio’s ship know what they are supposed to be doing. Everyone is interdependent, and everyone has a job to do.”
The series also has succeeded because the tall, lanky Gruffudd perfectly embodies Hornblower’s earnestness, heroism and flaws. And just like his character, the Welsh actor has grown and matured over the last six years. When he landed the role of Hornblower, he was 24 and had been seen stateside in only small parts in “Wilde” and “Titanic.” Now 30, he’s a well-established actor in England and is ready to conquer America. He and his girlfriend moved to Los Angeles in January, where he’s filming the midseason CBS series “Century City.” He just completed the role of Lancelot in the Jerry Bruckheimer feature “King Arthur,” which will be released this summer.
Fine says A&E; wouldn’t commit to “Hornblower” unless the right actor was found.
“It was a real challenge,” she said. “Whomever we cast as an actor had to be young enough to be believable as a teenager, but you had to be able to see in him the seeds of greatness -- that this face was going to grow up to be the leader of men. With a young actor, you don’t have a body of work to look at, but I remember flying over to London and meeting Ioan, having a long talk with him about it and thinking he could do it.”
“It was the most sought-after part of that time for actors my age,” Gruffudd remembered. “I think originally they wanted someone like Jude Law or an established name.”
Gruffudd acknowledged that not only hadn’t he read any of the Forester novels before he got the role, he hadn’t even heard of “Hornblower.” And his only sea voyage was taking the ferry from England to Ireland.
“I hadn’t been attracted to the sea,” he said. “But having done these I can see the romance of it and the dangers. I am definitely a fair-weather sailor.”
Unlike Russell Crowe’s powerful Capt. Jack Aubrey of “Master and Commander,” Gruffudd said, Hornblower “isn’t sort of a leader by force and power. He’s a leader by understanding men and getting them to do things without shouting. If he dared to shout and bark orders, they would laugh at him.”
And he’s also at sea on land, especially with the opposite sex. “They don’t have relationships with women at sea,” Gruffudd explained. “He’s not a very good husband. He’s not relaxed physically [around his wife]. He’s flawed.”
“Hornblower is very complicated in terms of his emotional life and so on, but when it comes to duty he’s not complicated at all,” Grieve said. “He knows absolutely where his duty lies and he’s very clear about it”
Grieve noted that there are plenty more “Hornblower” novels that can adapted for the series. The series will continue depending on how the movies perform this week. And schedule permitting, Gruffudd is eager to go to sea again.
“It could be something unprecedented to have an actor play every stage of a character’s life,” Gruffudd said. “So I could play him until I am 50!”