Hornblower: The Examination for Lieutenant (1998)


The Examination for Lieutenant is the second 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 Examination for Lieutenant is the name given to this second film in the United Kingdom, while in the United States it is known as The Fire Ships.


Sir Edward Pellew, captain of HMS Indefatigable decides to put his protégé, Horatio Hornblower, forward for the examination for lieutenant. Leading up to the exam, Hornblower faces many challenges.

Spain has made peace with France and is no longer an ally of Britain – Spanish ships, although technically neutral, begin to attack British ships. Wreckage from one supply ship has already been found by Indefatigable. Indefatigable finds three survivors, among them Captain “Dreadnought” Foster, a famously heroic officer who influences the ambitious Hornblower.

Spain’s actions have deprived the Gibraltar fleet of its supplies leaving Pellew no alternative but to cut rations by half. This leads seaman Bunting (Andrew Tiernan) to steal food. He is caught by Hornblower, reprimanded by Pellew and punished by being made to run the gauntlet.

Soon as Mr Tapling from the diplomatic service arrives, he and Hornblower head ashore to Oran, in Ottoman Algeria, to buy grain and cattle for the fleet. They soon discover that the Plague has broken out. Anyone who went ashore must be quarantined for three weeks before being allowed to rejoin the fleet, so Hornblower is appointed captain of Caroline, a transport schooner carrying desperately needed food and cattle. Bunting is caught trying to escape in the longboat by Hornblower. Hornblower, short of hands on Caroline, but also keen to redeem Bunting, gives him a chance to prove his worth. Later, while they are ashore to load water, they are attacked by Spanish soldiers, and Bunting tries to escape again. Hornblower catches him, but Bunting forces Hornblower to shoot him.

When Caroline encounters HMS Dreadnought, Captain Foster sends a boarding party to take a few sides of beef, despite Hornblower warning him the quarantine has not expired. In the end nobody is infected and they rejoin the fleet, where Hornblower receives a mild rebuke from Pellew for the “wanton extravagance” of allowing his men to eat fresh beef.

Back at Gibraltar Hornblower attempts his exam, a viva voci conducted by a group of senior officers including Foster. The examination begins badly but is interrupted when a fire ship sails into the anchorage. Hornblower and Foster board it and steer it clear of the fleet. In recognition of this, Hornblower is not demoted to Midshipman (as would normally have happened in the circumstances) but keeps his rank of Acting Lieutenant and is allowed to take the exam again sometime in the future.


  • Ioan Gruffudd as Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower.
  • Robert Lindsay as Captain Sir Edward Pellew.
  • Ian McNeice as Mr. Tapling.
  • Denis Lawson as Captain “Dreadnought” Foster.
  • Paul Copley as Matthews.
  • Sean Gilder as Styles.
  • Andrew Tiernan as Bunting.
  • Ian McElhinney as Captain Hammond.

Differences from the Novel

The events of this episode are drawn, with some alterations, from two chapters of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. The section involving the cattle and the quarantine is from the chapter “Noah’s Ark”, and that of the exam and the fire ship is from the chapter “The Examination for Lieutenant”.

The book also has a chapter in which Spain goes over to the French and Hornblower earns the rank of acting-lieutenant, but it is not used in this episode.

The subplot involving Bunting does not appear anywhere in the book.

Hornblower Series

You can find a full index and overview of Hornblower here.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Andrew Grieve.
  • Producer(s):
    • Andrew Benson … producer.
    • Pavel Douvidzon … associate producer, Russia.
    • Delia Fine … executive producer.
    • Vernon Lawrence … executive producer.
    • Stepan Pojenian … associate producer, Russia.
    • Peter Richardson … line producer.
  • Writer(s): Mike Cullen.
  • Music: John E. Keane.
  • Cinematography: Neve Cunningham.
  • Editor(s): Keith Palmer.
  • Production:
    • A+E Networks (in association with).
    • Ecou Films (participation).
    • Meridian Broadcasting.
    • United Film and Television Productions.
  • Distributor(s):
    • A&E Home Video (1999) (USA) (VHS).
    • A&E Home Video (2000) (USA) (DVD).
    • A+E Networks (1999) (USA) (TV).
    • Cinema Club (2002) (UK) (VHS).
    • Cinema Club (2003) (UK) (DVD).
    • ITV – Independent Television (1998) (UK) (TV).
    • ITV DVD (2006) (UK) (DVD).
    • NHK-BS2 (2002) (Japan) (TV).
    • Reel Corporation (2001) (Australia) (DVD).
    • Reel DVD (2001) (Australia) (DVD).
  • Original Network: ITV1.
  • Release Date: 18 November 1998.
  • Running Time: 120 minutes (with adverts).
  • Rating: PG.
  • Country: UK.
  • Language: English.

Video Link

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