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'Hornblower' strikes blow for the good guys

It's rare these days to find old-fashioned virtues tacked on to young male characters in the movies or television - virtues like honor, moral courage, and chivalrous defense of the vulnerable. Yet those things are still attractive, even self-evidently desirable, especially when attached to a dashing young hero like Horatio Hornblower.

The A&E network's four-part miniseries (April 4, 11, 18, and 25, airing 8 to 10 p.m.) is based on C.S. Forester's rousing nautical story "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower" (1950). The novel was based on a series in "The Naval Chronicle," a monthly magazine published from 1790 to 1820.

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The Welsh star of the TV miniseries is Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced yo-IN Griffiths), a young actor who will also appear next month as Pip in Dickens's "Great Expectations" (Masterpiece Theatre, PBS).

Already, this bright new talent is getting to polish his acting skills - it's a nice stretch from Horatio to Pip. Few actors of age could pull off the heroic goodness Horatio demands without seeming self-consciously precious.

"I admire [Hornblower's] compassion and his loyalty and his dignity," says Mr. Gruffudd, reached by phone in Prague, the Czech Republic, where he is shooting another film for the BBC. "Even in moments when he has to go against these feelings - when as an officer in the navy he is carrying out an order."

Horatio Hornblower is everything an 18th-century hero ought to be. In the first installment, he comes aboard his first ship, an untried boy of 17 who is bullied by an older midshipman while he learns the ship's pecking order. Goaded into a duel, he is conked on the head by an older, more experienced shipmate who takes Horatio's place in the fight. The death of his friend reveals Horatio's depth of character, and the viewer soon learns what the young man is made of.

Gruffudd does identify with Horatio. As a 10-year-old in his parents' Cardiff, Wales, garden, he and his brother dueled like junior swashbucklers.

"My brother and I both had a stick that would turn into rifles or swords when we played in the garden. We lived in our own world of goblins and dragons," Gruffudd says. "I was brought up with Welsh folklore that had mythical characters. We had to save princesses. And then there were [American] westerns."

Playing the role of Horatio Hornblower was "a boy's own dream - to act out all those kinds of fantasies.... It's so gripping and the [power of the series] is Hornblower himself. He is brave, but he is a flawed character, too.

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"In those situations when he has to compromise his own feelings to carry out an order, I think that interests people [because] he is such a very young man. He's quite clever and quite bright. There is a lot of intelligence here."

Gruffudd sees some of Horatio's qualities in himself, but only to a certain extent. "I personally don't think I can identify with the violent side. He is a naval officer fighting a war. But I don't think I could bring myself to kill anyone."

Despite a "natural instinct" for the role, and the absolute conviction that he could do it, Gruffudd found it challenging. In fact, he was so excited that he did most of his own stunts, climbing up in the ship's rigging, diving into the sea, and taking a few falls.

"None of them was life threatening. But it adds to the overall feeling of reality if the audience can see the actor do the stunt, and not the back of the stuntman's head," he says.

The action takes place during the late 18th century, when France was at war with Britain. Horatio has the chance to act as captain, sailing a captured French vessel home to England.

In Part 2, he rescues his own ship, Indefatigable, from the ravages of a fire ship aiming to ram it. Part 3 has him captured by Spanish allies of his French enemies, from whom he must escape. And in Part 4, he falls in love with a beautiful French schoolmistress when he is stationed in a captured French village.

In all these adventures he behaves with courage and ingenuity. And always, he is an admirable gentleman whose sense of duty sometimes overrules his gentler inclinations.

Gruffudd points out that Horatio's goodness makes a nice change for television viewers. "He's a good character. People today are so attracted to bad characters, to the bad guys.... I think at the end of the 20th century, it's difficult to hold onto those gentlemanly beliefs. But it's romantic, and I think people do hold on to them.

"Our role models, like presidents and prime ministers [haven't been very good lately]. The bad is always in the limelight, and there's not much room for the good things in the media."

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