The story opens in 1793, with young Midshipman Horatio Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) as he boards the military vessel Justinian. Taken almost immediately with a bout of seasickness, he finds most of his comrades reasonably understanding once he penetrates their harsh exterior. The single exception is Simpson (Dorian Healy), a vicious adversary and crew bully determined to bring him to heel. The torment is short lasting. Having endured one beating, Horatio is prepared to put his foot down. The other midshipmen, including Archie Kennedy (Jamie Bamber) and Clayton (Duncan Bell) warn him against drastic steps.
Horatio's opportunity for possible triumph comes when Simpson offhandedly accuses him of cheating at cards. Demanding that the shipman take it back or fight a duel, Horatio isn't surprised when Simpson accepts the challenge wholeheartedly. Clayton, despite his own feelings of cowardice, cannot stand to see Horatio suffer at the hands of a notoriously excellent shot. He overpowers his friend, taking his place in the duel. But their natural rivalry is far from over. Horatio is transferred to The Indefatigable, a war frigate under the hand of Captain Pellew (Robert Lindsay), while Simpson remains with the Justinian. Since Clayton's death, Horatio's desire to stand up to Simpson has become stronger, but his captain forbids him from accepting or issuing another challenge while under his command.
After proving his courage and cleverness in battle, Horatio is given a new assignment... to deliver a captured ship and its cargo safely into England. But treachery lies in the defiant eyes of the Frenchmen and the sea is not warm to newcomers. Quarrels set momentarily aside, Horatio is about to face a new challenge unlike that which he has ever attempted... and will either loose his life in this venture or find the honor and future that awaits him as an officer of the British Navy. Horatio is the strongest individual in the leading cast but even his goodness cannot overshadow Captain Pellew, who has become a viewer favorite if merely for his fatherly affections toward the midshipman. The series is well known for its villains, and Simpson sets a pace for the tales to follow.
While the violence is brutal and the language sometimes rough, the characters become likable in a very short time, and you begin to respect and admire the leading men. The film reveals the brutality of war, and the necessity to stand up for yourself. Cowardice is seen in everyone but Horatio. Throughout the series are instances of gory violence (bloody stumps, fistfights, explosions, the black plague, fresh raw meat and maggot-infested food rations; a man shoots himself in the head, another is shot at point blank range); sensuality includes suspected references to homosexual preferences (none), and womanizing; a man and woman spend the night together (off-screen), there is some innuendo; backside nudity is seen twice in "Mutiny / Retribution," and in the same episode, a woman kills a man in the midst of a brief sexual encounter. Language includes numerous British insults and profanities and several uses of GD.
Other than the violence and it being a male-dominated drama, the flaws are few, far outweighed by the positive elements of the story. The series teaches honor, responsibility, and valor. Even with all their quips, both Bush and Hornblower are excellent leaders, able strategists, and willing to go any length to protect their men. Good old-fashioned values such as these are needed in today's society. Horatio Hornblower proves a good man can exist in a corrupt world.