Dear Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Philo, Moopl, JumJum, Eepz, AppleCore, Kroger Unlimited, Q-Anon+, Catholic Faith Network Online, PutinWatch, Home Depot Tool Time Hammershare, and all other streaming services in existence:
First, I regret calling you cowards and fools in the title of this piece. I regret that you have driven me to it. I am not sorry. I would like to be sorry, but I can’t possibly be, because each day that you wake up in your beanbag office chairs somewhere in Sacramento or Kiev, you fail to make a very easy choice that would make you billions of dollars and end the streaming wars for good. By ignorance or by fear, you fail to add the late ‘90s/early aughts maritime masterpiece Hornblower to your catalogues. The ITV Meridian British classic (which aired in the U.S. on A&E) currently sails the high seas of digital anonymity, unable to find the solid ground of online availability, and in order to watch the thing, you have to watch a lo-fi version on YouTube or do something insane and drastic like smearing yourself with clown makeup and purchasing a DVD. [Editor’s Note: It me]
Despite my rage—and I rage like the very seas, I tell you—there is also some sympathy in my heart. A few days ago, I didn’t know anything about Hornblower. I had heard of the character Horatio Hornblower from some books, somewhere, but didn’t realize it had transitioned to the more exalted medium of television. I only figured it out because of my visiting mother-in-law Mary Ann, who insisted that I finally watch the Russell Crowe vehicle Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World with her. I think it’s her favorite movie. Turns out, it’s extremely good. So good that we were both jonesing for more seafaring adventures, which led me to Google, which led me to some lists compiled by some heroes, which led me to Hornblower.
What is it? Well, it’s a miniseries of eight film-length installments produced between 1998 and 2003, following the life and times of Horatio Hornblower, a seafaring gentleman who rises through the ranks in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era. Hornblower is played by the excellent Ioan Gruffudd, and if you’re like me, your wife will come in during the middle of one of the films, look at Gruffudd, and say, “that’s the guy who plays McNulty on The Wire.” You will stare at your TV screen, hoping not to believe because it’s the kind of thing you wish you had seen first, but then, begrudgingly, you will say, “crap, you’re right.” Only to find out that she’s not right, since Ioan Gruffudd is different from Dominic West, and you should have remembered Dominic West’s name, but the fact is that Gruffudd really does look like a young McNulty.
In any case, this is perfect viewing. Mary Anne and I coasted through five of the eight episodes in her final week here, and the best way I can describe it is to say that it’s pure sea adventure with a trace of wholesome comedy mixed in and a whole lot of English people talking about country and duty. And oh, the ships, the beautiful ships… folks, the ships. The ships. The ships are very good. So are the battles, and the romantic narratives, and everything else. It won’t ask much of you in the way of commitment, but it will offer easy entertainment for approximately 12 glorious hours.
I also genuinely believe that it would be a boon to any streaming service in America, and really, how much can the rights cost? Twelve dollars? A buck-fifty per ep? It doesn’t have the status to command the mega-bucks, but it has the potential to be the next hot thing among this nation’s young tastemakers. Alongside Gruffudd, Robert Lindsay is tremendous as Captain Edward Pellew, and my personal favorite characters are Matthews and Styles, the boatswains played by Paul Copley and Sean Gilder, the latter of whom you may remember as Paddy McGuire from Shameless. Together, they have a general bonhomie that you can only find on the sea (probably), and it’s almost nostalgic to watch them at work.
The best thing about Hornblower is that it operates entirely free from cynicism, which lets you, the viewer, indulge in the action without ethical qualms. Now, don’t get me wrong, in general war should be greeted with nothing but cynicism, and the values that this show represents effectively died with the age of modern warfare in the early 20th century. To see a character like Hornblower cast in, say, the Iraq War would be grotesque. But the world they create is so distinct from anything you would call modern, and the presentation so studiously adventurous in the oldest-school, boys-lit meaning of the word, that there’s no real harm in enjoying two sloops unloading their cannons on each other in the English Channel. It’s so foreign it’s barely real, which makes it effectively escapist.
In every regard, this series is a winner, and it’s baffling that nobody has picked it up and re-introduced Hornblower to a wider audience. Twenty years have passed since it first aired, and it’s just begging to land in America, especially in our quarantined times. When you’re stuck at home on a couch, who doesn’t want to fantasize about being unencumbered on the high seas? Get your act together, streaming services: There’s treasure to be found here, you have the map, and Hornblower marks the spot. You’ve been an anchor until now, but this is your chance to be the wind in our sails. [Fill in 7-9 more nautical metaphors here] SAIL HO!
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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