The Even Chance

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The Even Chance
Genre Action-adventure
Costume drama
Based on Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
by C. S. Forester
Screenplay by Russell Lewis
Directed by Andrew Grieve
Theme music composer John E. Keane
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Andrew Benson
Cinematography Neve Cunningham
Editor(s) Keith Palmer
Running time 100 minutes
Production company(s)
Budget £3 million[1]
Original network ITV1
Original release
  • 7 October 1998 (1998-10-07)
Followed by The Examination for Lieutenant

The Even Chance is the first of eight Hornblower television adaptations relating the exploits of Horatio Hornblower, the protagonist in a series of novels and short stories by C.S. Forester. The Even Chance is the name given to this first film in the United Kingdom, while in the United States it is known as The Duel. Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd plays the title role.


The film begins in January 1793 as a 17-year-old Hornblower joins a ship of the line, Justinian. Hornblower is introduced to his shipmates, one of whom is the ruthless Jack Simpson, who rules the midshipman's berth as the bully he is.

Hornblower becomes suicidal under Simpson's malignant rule and finally finds opportunity to challenge him to a duel. An older midshipman, Clayton, feels guilty that he himself has not stood against Simpson. He knocks Hornblower unconscious, takes his place in the duel and is killed. Simpson, on the other hand, recovers to fight another day.

Hornblower goes on to join the frigate, Indefatigable, under the command of Captain Pellew. Midshipmen Kennedy, Hether, and Cleveland go with him, as well as Simpson's old division which, due to Pellew's ire, becomes Hornblower's division. Hornblower's conduct under the pressure of battle eventually wins the respect and loyalty of these men.

Simpson joins Indefatigable (known by her crew as the Indy) when Justinian is sunk by a rogue French ship called Papillon. The Indy and her crew take on a cutting out expedition into the Gironde, take Papillon, and sail to rejoin Indefatigable. During the operation, Simpson attempts the murder of Hornblower, and sets Kennedy adrift.

The French Ship, Papillon, now in the hands of the British, is sailing back to the Indy when the Indy comes under fire from three French ships. On the way back to the Indy, the Papillon comes under fire from shore batteries, killing the two officers superior to Hornblower, Lt. Eccleston and Lt. Chadd. Shortly before the most senior officer (Eccleston) dies, he tells Hornblower to take command. Simpson attempts to challenge Hornblower's authority, but Hornblower tells Mr Bowles (the ship's master), that if Mr Simpson resists "you have my permission to shoot him". Simpson is then taken below whilst the Papillon sails back to the Indy.

The Indy is now taking heavy fire from the three French ships, and Hornblower orders the Papillon not to lower her French colours. The Papillon then engages the French ships forcing them to surrender. After the battle, Mr Simpson and Hornblower are called to Captain Pellew's cabin. Accused by Hornblower of attempted murder, Simpson challenges him to a second duel, which Hornblower accepts (after receiving permission from Pellew).

In this second duel, which takes place on a beach, Simpson shoots at Hornblower before the combatants are actually told to fire. Simpson claims, dubiously, that it was a misfire, running forward to see if his opponent is still alive. But Hornblower is not badly injured. Simpson is then told that he must stand his ground and take fire. Faced with this prospect, Simpson pleads pathetically to Hornblower for his life, revealing himself for the coward he is. Hornblower fires into the air, claiming that shooting the now defenseless Simpson is "not worth the powder". Smarting at this insult, Simpson attempts to knife Hornblower, but is shot dead just before he reaches him by Captain Pellew, who is standing concealed on a cliff above the beach.

As the film draws to its end, Captain Pellew tells Hornblower precisely how impressed he has been by his actions. Pellew anticipates that Hornblower has a great career ahead of him, if he continues as he has begun.

Related works[edit]

This episode does not follow the plot of the corresponding chapter in C. S. Forester's Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. In the original story, the mathematically minded Hornblower devises a plan by which he secures himself an "even chance" against a more skilled adversary. As the offended party, he has the choice of weapons. He asks that one of the duelling pistols be loaded while the other remains empty, the combatants having to toss for it and then stand a yard apart and fire at each other at point blank range. As it turns out, the captain has secretly given orders that neither weapon be loaded, the resulting lack of a shot blamed on a misfire, and Hornblower comes out of the duel unscathed. Suspecting the truth, Hornblower proposes to challenge the captain to a duel, only to be told that such a challenge would be unlawful.[2]

The episode also incorporates material from several other stories in the novel Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. Among these are "Hornblower and the Cargo of Rice", for Hornblower's ill-fated command of the Marie Galante, and the chapter "Hornblower and the Man Who Felt Queer", for the section concerning the Indefatigable's expedition against the Papillon. The episode also diverges from the plot of this chapter in several respects, mostly related to the addition of Simpson and Kennedy to the event (in the book, Simpson is not transferred to Indefatigable, and Kennedy does not take part in the expedition).[3]


  1. ^ "Costume battle goes to sea". BBC News. 23 September 1998. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  2. ^ Forester, C.S., Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (Oxford University Press, 2000)
  3. ^ Forester, C.S., Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (Chivers Press, 1994)

External links[edit]