Swashbuckling adventures set aboard ships at sea pretty much disappeared from movies and TV years ago. Every now and then a filmmaker tries to revive the concept, most recently the box-office dud "Cutthroat Island," but the genre has been pretty dormant.
Perhaps that's why A&E returns to the high seas with four films based on C.S. Forester's "Horatio Hornblower." The first movie, titled "The Duel," airs at 8 tonight. Additional films air each Sunday in April at the same time.
In tonight's introduction, the good-hearted, but naive, Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) struggles with a bullying midshipman, earns the respect of his fellow sailors and meets the man who will become his mentor, Capt. Pellew (Robert Lindsay).
All four A&E films are based on Forester's second "Hornblower" novel, "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower." Set in 1793 England, Forester wrote his stories in the early 20th century
Next week's movie, "The Fireships," follows Hornblower's preparations for his lieutenant exam while the crew of the Indefatigable faces rationing due to food shortages. Hornblower learns a legendary captain isn't quite the man he thought and he must capture a deserter.
While this second film moves slowly at points, there's enough adventure to make it a worthwhile TV voyage. That's in large part due to Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced yo-In Griffiths), who perfectly captures Hornblower's depth of character while at the same time making it clear the young sailor still has much to learn.
Gruffudd, 25, is no stranger to films set at sea. He had a small role in James Cameron's "Titanic" as one of the ship's officers just before embarking on his "Hornblower" adventure.
"I went to Mexico for three or four months for the six minutes I was in it," Gruffudd said in a January meeting with TV critics in Pasadena, Calif. "The first audition I had when I came back was for 'Hornblower.' So I did go from one ship to another, and [the 'Hornblower' film series] took about six months to shoot in its entirety."
While he may not yet be a household name - let alone a name most Americans could look at and pronounce -- Gruffudd has amassed an admirable resume in a short time, including a part in last year's art house flick "Wilde." In May, he'll be seen as Pip in the "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre" production of "Great Expectations." But he said "Hornblower" was particularly fun.
"It's a dream for any young actor to play his sort of boyhood dreams," Gruffudd said. "I was brought up playing cowboys and Indians and putting on the costume and hat and brandishing swords. It's a dream come true."
While some actors might try to Americanize their name, Gruffudds is used to having the pronunciation