A CHARACTER WITH CHARACTER
The Meaning of Archie.
Lean on me, when you're not strong. / I'll be your friend; I'll help you carry on.
For it won't be long / 'Til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on.
- Bill Withers, "Lean on Me" (1972)
(WARNING: This page is rather solemn. An aberration, I promise!)
Everything I'm going to say here has been said before, and by others far more eloquent than I. (I am congenitally incapable of taking anything seriously for longer than three minutes, maximum.)
First of all, it should be acknowledged that not everyone loves Archie, or even likes him. In fact, some people quite detest him and question the necessity of his being in the films at all. These people usually express the wish for the films to stay as true as possible to the text of the Hornblower novels. Well -- this symposium is basically intended for preaching to the undecided and curious, and to the already converted, so I'm not even gonna go there. I will note, however, that it is very difficult to convey the book Hornblower's introspections in a visual medium. One possible means of doing so is to have a narrative voiceover, but this can be cumbersome and distracting. Another way is to provide an alter ego. Enter Archie Kennedy.
Archie is a mirror for Horatio's development and a window into Hornblower's thoughts. The book Horatio is full of self-doubt; this characteristic has been given to Archie. Archie openly voices the uncertainties and fears (as well as humor) that Horatio will not allow himself to show. Archie is also an "opposite-parallel" to Horatio in terms of his career: a basically intelligent, competent person but without Hornblower's luck or intrinsic heroic qualities.
By the time of Mutiny and Retribution, Archie has taken on another function: that of Horatio's conscience. Horatio seethes at Sawyer's mistreatment of Wellard, at the lack of discipline on the ship, at the injustice of it all -- but he is too much a creature of duty to express it (at least, not for awhile). Archie expresses it for him, and quite forcefully. It is Archie who makes the decision Horatio is reluctantly groping towards: "This must not go on."
Yet Archie remains a strongly defined personality in his own right, and someone an audience can identify with and draw inspiration from.
What exactly is it that we (at least, some of us) identify with? Or perhaps more to the point, why should we want to identify with someone who has fits, spends two or three years in a Spanish prison, attempts suicide, panics, and would seem to be doomed to spend his career in the shadow of the brilliant Hornblower? And who, ultimately, dies far too soon?
Because we ourselves (most of us, anyway) are not the stuff that heroes are made of either. A hero is, by definition and by necessity, not an ordinary man. And I would maintain that this is the key to what makes Archie inspirational: despite having all the faults of an ordinary human being, he does manage to rise to the occasion. And even, sometimes, above it. His volunteering to return to the Spanish prison comes to mind, as does his rescue of Horatio on the bridge at Muzillac. By the end of the series, he has committed the ultimate sacrifice for Horatio. Moreover, he has done it all without sacrificing his warmth, humor, or compassion. All in all, not a bad example for we ordinary folk to take to heart.
From time to time, there are discussions about whether or not Archie might in fact be "stronger" than Horatio. The reasoning goes that Horatio has never suffered as severely as Archie has. These discussions, I would politely suggest, somewhat miss the point. The characters of Archie and Horatio are complementary, not opposing -- in both their weaknesses and their strengths. Their friendship is remarkable for its quality of reciprocal sacrifice, and (even if it ain't canon) makes for some of the best television I've seen in a long, long time.
Bill Withers still says it better than I ever could:
Just call on me, brother, when you need a hand.
We all need somebody to lean on.
I just might have a problem that you'd understand.
We all need somebody to lean on.
And that is the last serious thing you'll have to put up with me
saying throughout the rest of this site. My word on it, Horatio!