“Duty” is the eighth and final Horatio Hornblower movie and is meant as a companion piece to “Loyalty.” Its production level is just as solid as its immediate predecessor, though the story itself isn’t quite as engaging (it gets close, though). As the title suggests, this is a movie about duty – to one’s country and loved ones. To that end, Horatio Hornblower is consistently challenged to do his duty and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he passes every test he faces. I will say this, though: there is much more of an edge to Horatio in this film – much more than in any previous film.
Review & Analysis
The film opens with a wonderful sequence in which Horatio gets married to Maria. The scenes work very well, playing off the camaraderie between Horatio and his First Lieutenant Bush, his crew and especially with Admiral Pellew. Indeed, Pellew’s toast is very enjoyable, and satisfying to watch. The scenes also highlight Horatio’s initial second thoughts about marriage, as well as Maria’s devotion toward him. Part of Horatio’s journey in this film is to be able to accept his role not just as a captain of a ship, but also as a loving, devoted husband. Indeed, it is in this respect that the film does its best character work.
As for the main plot of the film, we learn from Pellew that an English ship, by the name of the Grasshopper, has gone missing and, following his wedding night, Horatio is to head out and look for it. We also learn that the Grasshopper was under the command of Captain Bracegirdle – the same Lieutenant who had been so supportive of Horatio as far back as the film, The Fire Ships. Not surprisingly, Horatio is that much more intent on discovering what happened to his friend and former mentor.
As Horatio and his crew voyage to search for the Grasshopper, they encounter a small about being tossed about in a raging storm at night. When the survivors are taken on board Horatio’s ship, the Hotspur, it is discovered that they are a married couple, comprising an American girl and a man who speaks French, but claims he is Swiss. As it will later turn out, the man is Jerome Bonaparte – the brother of none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. As you might imagine, this causes a great deal of hand-wringing, fretting and worry both on the Hotspur and in the Admiralty.
While the diplomatic repercussions of having a Bonaparte in custody are being worked out, Horatio finds the Grasshopper run aground in France. In searching the wreckage, Captain Bracegirdle is found. The story he tells raises a great deal of suspicion about what Napoleon might be up to. The unraveling of the mystery is part of the rest of the film’s plot – along with the ultimate fate of Jerome and his wife.
As it turns out, the French have been unloading all of their canon from frigates in order to convert them into troop transport ships – with the help of Wolfe, the nemesis from the previous film – for the invasion of Ireland. Indeed, there are a number of twists and turns before Horatio discovers this fact, including the death of Bracegirdle and a heroic act by Horatio to defuse an explosive before it detonates on the ship. But in the end, of course, Horatio uncovers the plot and uses the Hotspur to destroy the frigates before the invasion of Ireland can be launched.
As for Jerome and his wife Betsy, it is decided that Jerome is to be set ashore in France and Betsy is to be returned to her family via the American ship, Liberty. Along the way, we discover Horatio’s “wedding present” – Pellew’s former steward – had inexplicably struck a superior officer and was to be hanged upon return to England. But sensing the nobility of the man, Horatio “accidentally” allows the steward to escape when Betsy is returned to the Liberty. It’s a sign that despite Horatio’s sense of “duty” he can see beyond it to the larger picture of what is right.
As the film comes to an end, Horatio is promoted to post-Captain and then learns from Maria that he is to become a father – a fitting, and poetic end to the series (it seems unlikely at this point that further installments will be produced).
Overall Grade: B-
“Duty” does a good job of tying things up and leaving the series at a natural conclusion. Certainly, if they wanted to, more films could be made. But if this the end, then the characters and themes have been nicely wrapped up. It’s a testament to how well this series was produced that after eight feature-length films, the stories and characters remain engaging and fresh – and even beg for future tales of action and adventure.