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An Old Hero for a New Age


One of the most difficult scenes in "Horatio Hornblower," A&E's four-part adaptation of C.S. Forester's seafaring adventure novels, occurs in the first installment tonight when newcomer Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced YO-in Griffiths) has to jump into the icy waters of the Black Sea.

"It was a little bit dangerous actually," says Gruffudd, who stars as Hornblower, a new recruit to the English navy as the story opens. "There were 6-foot swells and it was bitterly cold. The second I dove in, I just wanted to get warm. I am glad I did it . . . you can tell it's me, so that adds to the whole experience."

It is the whole experience of young Horatio Hornblower that A&E hopes will provide an enticing draw for viewers weary of more cynical fare. As the story unfolds, the still untested boy that Gruffudd plays quickly proves himself to be honorable and decent to the core--an old-fashioned hero.

"This [story] is such a contrast in so many ways to the age in which we live," says A&E's Delia Fine, A&E's executive producer of the project, which was shot in the Crimea, Turkey and Portugal.

"In the Hornblower world, it's all about honor, courage, your good name and pushing yourself to do the right thing," says Fine of the series, which has two-hour episodes set to air each Sunday this month.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the movies chronicle Hornblower's transformation from a shy, bullied 17-year-old midshipman to his rise through the ranks. Eventually, Hornblower is given command of his own ship.

Director Andrew Grieve, best known for his work at the helm of the "Poirot" episodes of PBS' "Mystery!" series, which starred David Suchet, had been a huge fan of the Hornblower books as a youngster.

"It is the romanticism and the way Hornblower makes [the men in his command] love him, basically," says Grieve, referring to the motley crew of sailors the young Hornblower inherits and molds into a fighting force.

"I can remember getting a lump in my throat reading about his men responding to him," continued Grieve, who was so enamored with the books he eventually did a four-year stint with the merchant navy.

Shooting at sea proved to be the biggest headache of the 12-week shoot. "Some of the days it was quite rough. The seas were bad and the ships were rocking around quite a lot," Grieve says. "People were naturally sick, which also makes it difficult to film."

Because each of the segments re-creates the naval battles of the Napoleonic conflicts, a full-scale replica of the 24-gun frigate, the H.M.S. Indefatigable, was constructed. It was the first British frigate to be hand built from wood in 150 years.

"It is a proper seagoing ship," says the director, who staged the battle sequences using a combination of sets, models and real ships. "By putting them all together you get the illusion of a battle. We had one frigate and one smaller ship which was a schooner. Then there were a whole bunch of models which were 20 feet long."

As to Hornblower himself, Grieve says it was necessary to go with a virtual unknown for the lead. "It would have been difficult to get a big name because he had to be a very young man. Most very young men are not successful yet."

Previously, Gruffudd was seen--albeit briefly--on the big screen as the officer who rescued Kate Winslet from the ocean in "Titanic."

"Ioan did a screen test for me along with a lot of other people. His screen test was so good, it was impossible not to cast him," Grieve adds.

Besides, Gruffudd bears an uncanny resemblance to Forester's descriptions of the young Hornblower. "It's everything about his curly hair, his dark eyes, his features which are not beautiful but handsome, his lankiness. All of those are described by Forester," says Grieve.

The 25-year-old Welshman acknowledges he felt a lot of pressure carrying such a huge production on his shoulders, but came away from the project feeling a real affinity for Hornblower.

"He is compassionate and people respect him and like him," says Gruffudd. "He is a leader of men--not in a physical, manly way, but by encouraging them. He's a great character."

Just as his Hornblower grows and matures over the course of the films, so did Gruffudd. "It is priceless, the experience of being in front of a camera every day," he says.

"It's been astonishing over the two years of this process to watch [Ioan] literally grow up both on and off screen," adds Fine.

Viewers will be seeing even more of Gruffudd next month as Pip on the PBS "Masterpiece Theatre" production of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations."

"Horatio Hornblower" airs Sundays throughout April at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E. The films encore Tuesday, April 13, 20 and 27th at 7 p.m. The network has rated the series TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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