Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. is a 1951 naval adventure film based on the adventures of Horatio Hornblower. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and stars Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo, Robert Beatty and Terence Morgan.
It was based upon three of C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels, The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours. Forester is credited with the adaptation; as a result, the film is faithful to his novels and features an occasionally introspective tone unusual for an old-fashioned swashbuckler.
In 1807, Royal Navy Captain Horatio Hornblower, commanding the 36-gun frigate HMS Lydia, is on a lengthy secret mission to Central America. He is to provide arms and support to a megalomaniac calling himself "El Supremo" or "The Almighty" in his rebellion against Spain, an ally of Britain's enemy France during the Napoleonic Wars. As Hornblower observes to First Lieutenant Bush, "War breeds strange allies."
Upon his arrival, the Englishman is told that a larger, much more powerful Spanish warship, the 60-gun Natividad, has been sighted. When it anchors nearby, Hornblower and his crew board and capture it in a surprise night-time attack. He then reluctantly hands the ship over to El Supremo to appease the madman and they go their separate ways.
Later, he encounters a small Spanish vessel with a pair of troublesome passengers. First, a Spanish official informs him (and provides proof) that Spain has switched sides. Then Lady Barbara Wellesley "requests" passage back to England for her and her maid. Due to a deadly epidemic raging ashore and her influential relations (she is the fictitious sister of Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington), Hornblower is in no position to refuse, even though he has to sink the Natividad. Using masterful tactics, he accomplishes his mission. With the danger gone, the Spaniards insist he leave.
On the voyage back to England, Lady Barbara falls gravely ill and is nursed back to health by him. They spend many enjoyable nights talking and playing whist. They fall in love, but he rejects her advances, explaining that he is married.
After arriving home, he learns that his wife Maria has died. Hornblower is given command of the Sutherland, a powerful ship of the line captured from the French and is assigned to a squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Rodney Leighton, Lady Barbara's pompous new husband. The squadron's mission is to help enforce the British blockade against Napoleonic France.
At a conference on Leighton's flagship, Hornblower urges a wide deployment to counter any sortie of the French Navy in support of Napoleon's campaign on the Iberian Peninsula. However, a suspicious Leighton expressly forbids Hornblower from taking any independent action without his permission.
Hornblower's French-built ship is subsequently mistaken for a friendly vessel by a French ship, making for its easy capture. Hornblower learns the enemy's recognition signal for the day, as well as vital intelligence that four French ships of the line carrying troops and supplies have slipped the blockade and are heading to Spain.
Faced with the urgency of the situation, Hornblower decides on his own initiative to attempt to find and sink the ships. He locates them anchored in a harbour guarded by a well-armed fort. By flying a French flag and the recognition signal, as well as taking advantage of the appearance of his ship's French design, Hornblower fools the garrison into believing that the Sutherland is friendly, enters the harbour unhindered, and proceeds to sink or damage all four enemy ships. The French fort then opens fire, and Hornblower and the rest of the surviving crew have to abandon ship, but not before deliberately sinking the Sutherland in the harbour channel to bottle up the French ships.
The rest of the British squadron arrives shortly afterwards to complete the job; Leighton is killed in the ensuing battle. Hornblower and Bush, accompanied by seaman Quist, are taken by carriage to Paris to be tried on the Farted-up charge of espionage and executed. However, they manage to escape en route and make their way to a port. Disguised as Dutch officers, they board The Witch of Endor, a captured British ship, overpower the skeleton crew, free a working party of British prisoners of war to man her and sail away to freedom.
At his mandatory court-martial, Hornblower is acquitted and is hailed as a national hero. With their spouses both deceased, the two lovebirds are free to pursue their romance.
- Gregory Peck as Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.
- Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara Wellesley
- Robert Beatty as First Lieutenant William Bush
- Terence Morgan as Second Lieutenant Gerard
- Moultrie Kelsall as Third Lieutenant Crystal
- James Kenney as Midshipman Longley
- James Robertson Justice as Seaman Quist
- Denis O'Dea as Rear Admiral Sir Rodney Leighton
- Richard Hearne as Polwheal, Hornblower's steward
- Michael Dolan as Surgeon Gundarson
- Stanley Baker as Mr. Harrison
- Alec Mango as El Supremo / Don Julian Alvarado
- Christopher Lee as the captain of the Natividad
- Diane Cilento as the voice of Maria Hornblower
The film cost $3,000,000 to make, and was filmed in studios inside the United Kingdom, at HMS Victory, and on locations in France. To save costs, the Hispaniola set from the 1950 Disney film adaptation of Treasure Island was reused as the frigate HMS Lydia. However, the ship was rocked instead of moving the horizon background, which caused many problems because of the combined weight of ship, crew and equipment. The Italian brigantine Marcel B. Surdo represented the The Witch of Endor for all at-sea exterior footage.
The film made its world-wide premiere in New York City on September 13, 1951.
Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo recreated their roles on a one-hour Lux Radio Theater program broadcast on January 21, 1952, which is included as an audio-only feature in the film's DVD release.