We live in an age without heroes. We may be the first age to dispense with heroes. We have celebrities instead.
Even fictional heroes these days are more like celebrities than real heroes. Or they’re flawed heroes, with the emphasis on the flaws. Or they’re anti-heroes. They aren’t heroes in the sense that heroes used to be understood. They don’t behave in a truly heroic way. They don’t stand for heroic virtues – self-sacrifice, courage, honour, selflessness, duty.
We live at a time when Hollywood celebrities are congratulated for their courage for expressing exactly the same political views that everyone else in Hollywood expresses.
Perhaps this is all part of the gradual loss of hope, and loss of confidence, that western civilisation has experienced over the course of the past century.
I can still (dimly) remember a time when we had heroes although they were already starting to go out of fashion with our intellectual elites. I can still remember when real heroes were celebrated, and fictional heroes provided inspiration.
One of the great fictional heroes, and perhaps the last great British fictional hero, was Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester chronicled Hornblower’s entire career, from humble midshipman to famous admiral, a career that spanned the whole of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hornblower was introduced to the world in 1937 and featured in a dozen novels over the following thirty years.
Forester did not write mere Boys’ Own Adventures. He was a writer who understood that the world is a complex place and that it contains evil as well as good and that heroism is not always straightforward. Nonetheless Hornblower was a true hero. He was by no means perfect but whenever it counted he proved that he had the right stuff.
I devoured all of the Hornblower novels when I was young and still believed in heroes. I have very fond memories of them. Which is why I’ve been very reluctant to watch the British Hornblower TV series which was made between 1998 and 2003. By the late 90s British television was already riddled with political correctness and I had grave doubts as to whether they would have been capable of doing justice to Hornblower.
I’ve finally weakened and tonight I watched the first of the Hornblower TV movies, The Even Chance (later retitled The Duel).
Were my forebodings correct? Well, partially. For my tastes it tries a bit too hard to be dark and edgy, especially in the first half. A bit too much emphasis on the horribleness of everything, a bit too bleak and a bit too much gore. And definitely too much of what our American cousins like to call profanity.
Things do pick up as the movie progresses and it does start to become rather more heroic. Hornblower makes some blunders and doesn’t always handle things well but he is a 17-year-old midshipman and a hero is someone who is able to overcome his own weaknesses and learn from his own mistakes and he certainly does that.
On the whole it was not as good as I’d hoped, but nowhere near as bad as I’d feared. When it comes to the television of the past twenty years that’s about as much as one can hope for.
And it has inspired me to revisit the Hornblower novels, and to try to track down the 1951 American film Captain Horatio Hornblower (which I remember as being quite good).