10 February 2010

Horatio Hornblower and the law of the sea

Thanks to a Barnes and Noble sale and a moment of weakness with my credit card, I picked up the complete Horatio Hornblower series on DVD last week. My well-travelled VHS copies may finally be retired, bless. And rather than be productive around the house I had a marathon; the 1999-2003 series is comprised of eight 100-minute episodes, plus I capped it off with the 1951 Gregory Peck movie. Both are based on C.S. Forester's 11-volume Hornblower book series. Set around the Napoleonic Wars, they tell the story of a young naval officer who rises through the ranks almost as rapidly as Captain Kirk did Starfleet (a not-unfitting comparison, considering the Hornblower series' influence on Star Trek). There is plenty of swashbuckling to be had in the series as you might expect, duels and swordfights and sea battles galore. The production values are also excellent, with the greatest attention paid to detail. And let's not forget the cast. Oh, the cast!

But this blog is about law in literature, you say? There is plenty of that too. The legal code these sailors are subject to can be a harsh one. Men are flogged for theft, negligence and questioning orders while the entire ship's company watches on; officers must justify their command decisions before a court martial; and Hornblower's own daring tactics often test the extremes of interpretation under the Articles of War. The Admiralty is always the ultimate authority, but we also see repeated examples of the ship's captain being his own law enforcer when at sea. During one episode a French ally announces his intent to lodge a complaint about his treatment aboard ship with one of Hornblower's superiors; Hornblower responds with finality, "On this ship, I am the admiral." Yet even Hornblower, for whom duty is all, struggles to carry out some of the naval code's edicts, most notably when an otherwise good man is automatically sentenced to death for striking a superior officer.

The series never calls any particular attention to the role of law at sea, it is simply ever present. To be at sea in His Majesty's Royal Navy is to be subject to its laws, and those laws are enforced with swift regularity.

Now I realize this post is about the TV adaptations, not the original texts. I read the first book in the series, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower about ten years ago and, while every adaptation takes liberties of course (*cough* the elves coming to protect Helm's Deep *cough*), do remember thinking the TV adaptations were fairly faithful. I'm planning to get more of the books read in the near future.

Fire as you bear, Mr. Bush.