Hornblower:The Wrong War (aka Frogs and the Lobsters)

The Wrong WarReview: Hornblower:The Wrong War (aka The Frogs & Lobsters)
100 min

This episode is based on The Frogs & Lobsters from the CS Forester novel Midshipman Hornblower. The story is based upon an actual historical event, The Battle of Quiberon (1795), in which French émigré forces landed in France with British assistance to fight the republican forces.

The British are assisting French émigré troops in attempting to overthrow the French Republic. Hornblower is tasked with accompanying Colonel Moncoutant, the Marquis of Muzillac, ashore and with blowing up a bridge. A unit of the 95th commanded by Major Lord Edrington is also accompanying them. However Republican forces overwhelm General Charette in the north and eventually head south to Muzillac forcing Hornblower and Edrington to retreat back to shore and the safety of Indefatigable.

Captain Pellew receives orders from Admiral Hood to take General Charette and his émigré troops to France where they will seek to overthrow the French Republic. Despite the fact that a copy of the plans has been stolen likely by French agents, Hood orders Pellew to proceed and forbids him from telling Charette about the theft. Pellew does not believe it has much chance of success and worries about the human cost. Hood simply says they will count up the cost later at leisure.

The 95th of Foot under command of Major Lord Edrington arrives accompanying a unit of French royalist troops. The French troops do not look as crisp and ready for battle as the 95th. The French troops that are going Muzillac which Hornblower is accompanying, is commanded by Colonel Moncoutant, the Marquis of Muzillac. He is also brings a guillotine to use when he arrives. Moncoutant appears pleasant enough but the guillotine is a foreshadowing of what is to come later. After arriving in France, Hornblower and his men take charge of a bridge and mine it with explosives. Meanwhile the former lord of Muzillac returns and is welcomed by its new mayor, a former linen merchant. Moncoutant does not accept his authority and tours his former home with the mayor, Hornblower, and Edrington. It is in a shambles and it enrages Moncoutant to see many of his prized belongings turned into kindling for fire. He later executes the mayor when he refuses to raise the old French flag and almost kills a young boy for singing the revolutionary song. He is stopped by Hornblower.

Moncoutant erects the guillotine and begins executing citizens, which sickens Hornblower. At dinner latter that night with Moncoutant and Edrington, Moncoutant offends Hornblower with his views on humanity. Hornblower takes offense and reminds him the common British sailor brought him over to France. Moncoutant teases him that he sounds like a republican. Hornblower leaves the dinner and meets the young woman who was serving the meal. She was the teacher before Moncountant closed the school down and was next to the boy who sang La Marseillaise that Hornblower saved earlier in the day. He escorts her home (the school) and stays with her to prevent French troops from entering (there is one attempt).

The next day brings signs of possible attack at the bridge and to the British troops nearby but it turns out to be a feint. Hornblower discovers wagon tracks indicating heavy laden carts had passed through with cannon. This is later confirmed by the school teacher. Up north where the main force landed, they have come under intense artillery attack and General Charette is killed. Master Bowles escapes dressed as a French Republican soldier and heads south. However the Indefatigable is becalmed requiring using a longboat to tow it back to the area where Hornblower landed. The ominous sound of cannon fire indicates to Pellew that Charette has fallen under attack by republican forces.

As troops start heading south, Moncoutant is too busy executing to listen to Hornblower’s warnings. Both he and Edrington realize they are on their own and prepare to withdraw hoping the Indefatigable will be there. Hornblower brings the school teacher with him since she was seen with him (and likely would be ill-treated as a result). However her ankle is injured while fleeing and she is killed on the bridge by republican troops. The bridge is blown up but Hornblower is in despair. The remaining French royalist troops with the British flee. Moncoutant does put up a defense of Muzillac but it is overwhelemed and is captured. He is then executed by guillotine as he shouts “Vive La Roi!”

On the beach they make a final stand against the oncoming French troops. Thankfully the Indefatigable shows up and scares them away with its cannon. All evacuate and Pellew meets with Hornblower. Hornblower is filled with grief over the death of the woman and the failure of the mission. He says they were not wanted. While he never says it, Pellew agrees. But he also points out that no matter what happens to them, they must be leaders and not crews see their grief.

Deviations from book
1. Hornblower was still midshipman as his promotion does not occur until the end of Duchess and the Devil.
2. Major Edrington was a major in 43rd Regiment of Foot, not 95th.
3. There was no female teacher that Hornblower became acquainted with. Nor did he have dinner with Colonel Moncoutant.
4. The fates of Charette or Moncoutant are not depicted.
5. Indefatigable was already on station so the evacuation was under fire but they were all able to escape but the major’s horse had to be killed as he could not take it with him.

This is my least favorite adaptation from Midshipman Hornblower. This is because it falls into the simplistic trap of making it an antiwar themed episode which was not the point of the original story. From the beginning it is a cynical ploy to use French loyalist troops to put pressure on the revolutionary government in Paris. Pellew thinks the idea is foolish but Hood commits the British to the plan. Worse when a copy of the plan is stolen by French agents, Hood chooses not to inform Charette and orders Pellew to not speak of it either. Pellew is uncomfortable with the plan knowing it will likely fail. Hood seems unconcerned with the potential loss of life and says we can count costs at “our leisure.”

The British troops are shown as ordered, neat, efficient and well drilled. The French look shabby by comparison and obviously have not been well drilled for a while. While General Charette is a courteous gentleman, his second in command Colonel and Marquis of Muzillac Moncountant, is a façade. He is the stereotypical French aristocrat: aloof, dismissive of those beneath him, cruel and vain. He brings the guillotine with him to dispense justice but it is clear it is about vengeance. As soon as he arrives to secure Muzillac and finds his home ravaged, he kills the mayor for failing to fly the old French flag and nearly kills a small child who is singing La Marseillais. He closes down the school and puts the teacher to work in his kitchen. As he rails against the low born, Hornblower reminds him it was the common sailor that brought him over to France.

In the book, Hornblower was shocked by the executions he witnessed and that the polished French officers ordered them. But that was not the only shock he witnessed. On the way into Muzillac he saw French soldiers bringing fresh horses from farms. He also heard musket shots indicating they were probably shooting anyone who did not give them what they wanted. And a empty plough with a body next to it confirmed what was going on and that no one seemed to care. Now what he saw was not unusual for the time. Invading soldiers would often do just that and worse when they sacked towns and villages. Hornblower being at sea would rarely, if ever, see such things. So his shock is understandable.

The loss of the girl, who was not in the book, adds more to Hornblower’s despair at the invasion he thinks was wrong. He utters they were not wanted to Captain Pellew. Pellew agrees with him though he does not say it. And we are left in the end with the idea the whole affair was a way to get rid of some noisy French royals by sending them back to France to be killed. And killed they were because in the real invasion of 1795, it failed. A combination of scattered troops and divisions amongst the leaders caused the attempted rebellion to be crushed. 5,000 died in combat, 6,332 captured. Most of the captured officers and nobles were executed. It ended any attempt for royalist insurrection until the fall of Napoleon.

While I disagree with the scriptwriter’s interpretation of the story, the acting is very good.I think the actor who got the best lines was Major Lord Edrington (Samuel West). He came across as cool and confident in command. He respected Hornblower but also had a dry sense of humor about him. Moncontant was played by Antony Sher who played the unpleasant fellow well. He knew how to make him sound noble and pleasant on one hand, and then quite comfortably order executions with the other. Pellew (Robert Lindsey) had a difficult role of having to hide his misgivings about the expedition to his fellow officers and Charette.

I wish this had been a straight forward telling of a forlorn attempt to invade France in 1795 and Hornblower’s small part of it. Making it into a antiwar themed episode was the wrong approach. Sadly it begins a trend in future dramatizations of rewriting entire books to suit the scriptwriter.

Historical Notes
1. The Battle of Quiberon (1795) began on 23 June 1795 and was over on 21 July 1795. Though several ships were depicted, the actual Royal Navy ships participating were two squadrons of 9 warships, 60 troop transports that carried 3,500 carrying the French and British troops. The British sent men from the 90th of Foot, 19th of Foot, and 27th of Foot along with supplies for 40,000. Admirals Hood and Warren led the expedition. Warren encountered French resistance along the way but repelled it.

2. In the book, Edrington commands a unit of the 43 Foot. This regiment, formed in 1741, saw action in North America first in the French and Indian War and then the American War for Independence. For television it is now the 95th of Foot, which is a rifle regiment and wear the distinctive green jackets. Fans of the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwall and television series probably wondered why this happened. I suspect they probably wanted to toss a nod to the Sharpe novels but there is some credence to tying it into the 95th. In 1803 the 43rd with the 52nd and 95th became the Corps of Light Infantry under Sir John Moore. The unit itself was redesignated as the 43rd (Monmouthshire)Light Infantry. However at the time this story is taking place (1795), the 95th did not exist.

3. General François de Charette was never in England but helped plan the invasion. He was loyal to the old order unlike others who wanted a constitutional monarchy. He did not die at Quiberon and escaped. He was eventually captured, put on trial in Nantes, and executed by firing squad.

4. The character of Admiral Hood is based on Admiral Alexander Hood, 1st Viscount Bridport. From 1795-1800, he was commander of the channel fleet. And he did participate in the mission as noted already above.

5. The character of Marquis Moncoutant,Lord of Muzillac is fictional. Muzillac is the American equivalent of a township (in France a commune) that is part of an administrative division. It is the lowest level of administrative division. TripAdvisor has information about what to see and stay in or near Muzillac. There is an official site for Muzillac. (Note:The site is in French so you will need to use a translator if you do not read French).

6. Inaccuracy: Captain Pellew quotes a famous line from Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” Except it was published in 1798 so Captain Pellew would not know of it in 1795.

7. Protocol error: The scene in which Pellew and Hornblower enter a long boat was wrong. Junior officers enter first and the most senior officer last. This allows the senior officer to exit first.

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