Last week, the Knight and I watched the first three DVDs of the A&E movie series based on C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. In the first one, The Duel, Horatio, at age seventeen, begins his adventures aboard the frigate, “Indefatigable,” where the villain, Simmons, in their first encounter demeans our young hero by dubbing him, “Snotty,” and then beats him black and blue (and nearly to death). Later on they have a duel with pistols. Simmons is the consummate bully-villain. The descriptors, “vicious, cruel, and cowardly,” barely sketch this vile, despicable man who is determined to “break” Horatio.
Horatio, of course, is the consummate gentleman and hero even at his tender years. He does not cower before his tormentor, rather, he conducts himself with honor and quiet dignity even in the worst circumstances. If Simmons had had any shred of decency or humanity, he would have been impressed with Horatio’s stalwart character, and would have sought him as a respected friend. Instead, the more Horatio’s true character is revealed through his noble response to adversity, the more angry and vicious Simmons becomes.
In the second movie, The Fire Ships, Horatio faces starvation and then bravely boards a burning ship that is on a collision course with The Indefatigable and steers it safely away, and then, risking his own life, saves an arrogant, self-serving Admiral from burning to death on the ship.
In the third movie, The Devil and the Duchess, Horatio and his men are prisoners of war in Spain. One night, during a violent storm, a Spanish ship crashes onto a reef near the prison. Horatio and his men, after giving their word to their warden that they would not attempt to escape, rescue the ship’s crew. Horatio is true to his word and voluntarily returns to the prison. Horatio’s men, out of deep respect for Horatio’s integrity, feel it an honor to return to prison with him.
While watching these movies, my empathy for Horatio (as well as my protective-mother instincts) caused me to cringe in fear on his behalf (he, however, did not cringe), and to feel outrage and a desire for vengeance (which he did not succumb to), and, as he suffered, to feel pity for him (he, however, refused to give in to the character flaw of self-pity). So much for my “natural man” tendencies!
Through all his harrowing experiences, Horatio was not “trying” to be noble or heroic, it was the way he was. Nevertheless, his steadiness of character was indeed “tried in the furnace of affliction,” and he was shown to be indefatigable. He was tried and not found wanting. His strength of character and goodness won him the admiration of his fellow officers and crew members. They, in turn, became better individuals themselves because of his inspiring example.
In contrast to heroic Horatio, the “heroes” of too much of cinema and television today are often profoundly flawed characters—they are anti-heroes. Regrettably, these charmingly portrayed characters often lie a little, cheat a little, and take advantage of, or even dig a pit for their neighbors. Too many of them not only regularly give in to anger, pride, self-gratification, and self-aggrandizement, accepting these behaviors as normal, but they also revel in them. They take pleasure in their own shoddy behavior. Their less than sterling behavior is often depicted to viewers as justifiable or humorous. Anything for a laugh. Viewers are encouraged to identify with these tarnished anti-heroes. Sadly, some viewers not only cheer them on—but also mimic their behavior in their own lives, as if they fully expected applause or commendation for doing so.
What happens to us as viewers when we take in a steady diet of tarnished anti-heroes? If we never or rarely ever see examples of truly heroic, honorable, Horatio-like behavior either on TV, in movies, or in real life, how will we be motivated to act heroically in our own lives? Who will teach us how to be truly heroic? Ideally, our family members and friends model heroic behavior. Ideally, we read books that instruct and inspire us. But, if not . . . . Well, I think you get the picture.