'Horatio' storms the seas again

'Jesus Christ Superstar' dogged by flaws

"Horatio Hornblower" is back in another ripping, high-seas yarn. It is a delight to see that the sequel to the original television miniseries (first aired on A&E in April of 1999) is richer, more complex, and more exciting than the first. It is just as delightful to note how young Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced "Yowan Griffith") has grown into the role, offering us a refined, manly, and experienced hero of the high seas.

The films are based on the books of C.S. Forester, a series that many young boys of another generation looked forward to with glee. The books follow the adventures of a talented, daring young man as he moves up through the ranks of the British Navy at the turn of the 19th century.

In the new miniseries, Part One: The Mutiny (beginning Sunday on A&E, 8-10 p.m.), a more mature Lieutenant Hornblower ships out with one of Admiral Nelson's star heroes, Captain Sawyer (played with sterling verity by David Warner). But however great a man he once was, Sawyer is mentally unfit to command the ship. Hornblower and his friends realize that every man's life aboard is endangered by the captain's recklessness. When Sawyer is seriously injured in a mysterious accident, the question is, was he pushed or did he fall?

In Part Two: Retribution (airing Sunday, April 15), Hornblower is on trial for mutiny and his mentor, Captain Pellew, is his judge. As the complicated story unfolds in flashbacks, the relationships among the men under duress evolve in likely, yet heroic fashion. Nothing is as simple as the first boyish installment of the story proposes. Amid injustice and madness, integrity, honor, and nobility blossom. No one is merely what he seems in this story.

"He's a bit more calculating," said Mr. Gruffudd of his Hornblower character in a recent phone interview. "But always for the good of the ship. Horatio understands the way the system works now. He appreciates that he could be hanged for mutiny.

"Still, he acts upon his principles - he knows he must act for the good of the ship, and so he's braver and he's wiser than he was [in the first series]. I like the hint that Horatio may have pushed the captain. It's never clear in the novel. But he never acts for personal gain."

Gruffudd says that part of the appeal of the character for him lies in Horatio's sense of honor. "He sees the consequences of all his actions - he doesn't just jump into his decisions, he works out every scenario.... I believe honor exists. I have met people who are honorable. I try to live that way. But it is more difficult now since so many things constantly try to persuade us to look after No. 1...."

The dilemma Horatio finds himself in resembles those found in "The Mutiny on the Bounty" and "The Caine Mutiny." "I think those codes of honor, courage, and comradeship are universal," says director Andrew Grieve. "They are still as relevant as they ever were. It's just that they are not explored as much as they once were. And people are very much more cynical these days. If you set something in the 19th century, you can express them with impunity - [viewers] aren't going to say, 'Oh, come on, people don't behave that way.' They want to accept it, they want to believe it because that's the way people basically are. The majority of people have a lot of decency and goodness in them."

One of the themes so important to the Hornblower series is 'what makes a leader.' We are given a glimpse of Sawyer's previous greatness and Hornblower's weakness. But where courage, a great spirit, integrity, fairness, and inventive intelligence surface in one individual, there is a leader. That's why Horatio Hornblower sails on.

It may have been roundly criticized on Broadway last season, but Gale Edwards' update of Andrew Lloyd Webber's controversial rock opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar" (PBS, April 11, check local listings), makes engrossing television.

The show was a breakthrough in musical theater when it opened in the 1971. Some felt its dynamic rock score might better have been employed in another story. It's just as distressing as ever for some of us to see this central figure of Western civilization reduced to a troubled, if famous man, who doesn't understand what he is up against in the evil of human thought. It's not particularly good as theology or as history.

But what this new version does do is underscore the contradictions of the human mind. The impulse to betray the figure of greatest good is seen to be an ongoing one. As Judas puts it in his opening song, "Heaven on Their Minds": "Every word you say today gets twisted 'round some other way." It isn't just Judas who turns on Jesus.

Jerome Pradon is a remarkable actor who gives Judas layers of intelligence and insight.

Mary Magdalene (Renee Castle) represents the faithfulness of some of Jesus' followers. And Glenn Carter gives Jesus a genuine lovingkindness that translates well to the small screen.

Still, the vision of Weber and lyricist Tim Rice is political and limited.

"I don't think for one second that this portrayal is the real Jesus," said Mr. Carter in a recent interview. "We approached the whole thing as an emotional journey ... but it's incredibly relevant right now. Religious minorities are being suppressed."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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