Saturday, November 22, 2008

Piratical Dudes: The Sea Hawk

Errol Flynn and Alan Hale diggin some pirate booty.

I love pirate movies. Maybe not with the same fanatical devotion as I love submarine movies, but pirate movies are definitely up there in the whole men at sea milleaux. The Sea Hawk (1940) is one of the great pirate movies of all time. Or is it? It starts off very promisingly indeed, with a sea battle in which Flynn captures a Spanish Galleon, all its treasure, a cranky ambassador (Claude Raines having the worst hair day of his life) and, the requisite hot-tempered lady of nobility. The second act of the film changes course and follows Flynn and his men as they ambush Spanish soldiers in the jungle. The jungle? What is this Pirates of the Caribbean II? It's almost as if the producers decided to make a hybrid of their earlier hits Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The Sea Hawk is then probably only 30% pirate (despite slinging about the words pirate, buccaneer, privateer and my favorite "piratical") but it's still 100% fun.

Errol Flynn stars as Geoffrey Thorpe a Francis Drake type of privateer (a pirate who works officially or unofficially for a government). He captures Spanish vessels and treasure in the name of Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) taking public slaps on the wrist all the while getting an official wink and nudge behind closed doors from the grateful and flirtatious monarch. The movie is a perfect two hours of non-stop rip-snorting swashbuckling mayhem and romantic adventure directed by the great Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).

It may be worth noting that there is a novel called 'The Sea Hawk' by Rafael Sabatini and the 1924 silent film version is based on that book about a man sold into slavery aboard a pirate ship who swears his revenge on the brother who betrayed him. Apparently the film's producers started off using the novel and there are some strong anti-slavery themes, but quickly dispensed with all the characters and situations in favor of a strong pro-England message. Given what was going on in the world it is not surprising that movie's main theme revolves a power-mad despot who uses slave labor and intends to conquer the whole globe using his super weapon, the Spanish Armada. The film begins with King Philip of Spain looking at a map of the globe and proclaiming that the only thing that stands between himself and controlling all of Europe is "that barren, rock-bound island" as the camera pans up to zero in on England. It's not hard to understand the context that the scriptwriters were hinting at.

I must confess I have a great fondness for the historical dramas of this period. I love Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Fire Over England, That Hamilton Woman, Henry V and the earlier Flynn/Curtiz collaboration The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. All of these movies hold up England as a great place and emphasize its noble traditions of law and literary art. Some use past military campaigns and leaders as stand-ins to make their case about rallying around the country and forgetting appeasement, but all of them are completely and totally anglophilic. Sometimes the parallels seem quite apt as long as you don't look too closely at history. It's one thing to condemn the Spanish Inquisition as tyranny but one doesn't have to look very hard in Elizabeth's reign to find examples of religious and political persecution. Yet, overlooking hypocrisy as the inevitable effect of a cinema at the time which was unapologetically pro-British and anti-fascist, I still love their sense of scale, grandeur and wonderful actors. These are some of the most beautiful and romantic films ever made by anyone, for any reason.

And The Sea Hawk is a very romantic movie, though the romance doesn't come from the quarter one might expect. The chemistry between Flynn and his love-interest Donna Elmira (Brenda Marshall) is a bit flat. He plays Thorpe as supposedly awkward and tongue-tied around the beautiful lady and the effect is that he just seems half-hearted. Flynn is much better in scenes with Flora Robson, his male compatriots like Alan Hale and even the villainous Henry Daniell. The real romance is between Flynn and the camera. Maybe the reason we don't buy Flynn as an awkward lover is that we can't believe him to be anything but perfectly smooth and graceful at everything he does. In one scene Thorpe and his men escape from the galley of a Spanish ship and move silently in cover of darkness to capture a different ship in the harbor. Even in low light Flynn stands out as perfectly chiseled with fluid movements as he stalks about in his pirate short-shorts.

From the opening sallies of gunfire of Thorpe's Albatross onto the Spanish Galleon, to the final parry and thrusts of the inevitable climatic candle slashing sword fight, the Sea Hawk is thoroughly entertaining. There is also the innovative middle section of the movie set in the jungles of panama which uses a sepia tone to convey the intense heat. It's a remarkably simple technique and just one of the many innovations in the film. The opening sea battle is as good as anything ever put on film and I only wish Curtiz had been given a movie like Fire Over England to make as a follow up since it picks up where The Sea Hawk leaves off, with England sending with a small fleet of scrappy fast ships against the fearsome Armada. In comparison the sinking of the Armada in Fire Over England looks like something my toddler would manage with his plastic boats in the bath tub. While it's true Curtiz only had to create a battle with two ships in the Sea Hawk, but I'm sure he could have pulled it off. I'd bet on anyone that could make Henry Daniell look like he's actually a great fencing master when in reality the man was famous for barely knowing how to hold a sword.

1 comment:

kda0121 said...

The Sea Hawk is my favorite Errol Flynn movie. For years I teetered back and forth between The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Robin Hood has several things to offer that are missing in the Sea Hawk: brilliant three-strip technicolor, Basil Rathbone and a sorely missed Olivia de Havilland.

I'm sure that Warners cast Brenda Marshall in Sea Hawk because the thought she looked "more Spanish". Perhaps she did, but Flynn's scenes with her are the weakest of the movie. Although not for the reasons Jenny suggested. I rather liked Flynn as the shy boy around the pretty girl. I just thought it was more a matter of Brenda not quite being up to the task of the role.

And shouldn't this movie had been made in color? What were they thinking? This was a big, flag-waving production and Warner's decides to scrimp on the budget? Granted, the black and white photography is exquisite, but this movie just screams the to be in color. (There was a colorized version some years back that gave one an idea what the movie might've looked like. Sadly, computer colorization was never really perfected)
And what is a Flynn swashbuckler without Basil Rathbone? I do love Henry Daniell. He played such a snide, little worm. But it would've been good to have Basil around too, especially for the swordplay, as Jen mentioned.

With all that criticism, one wonders how Sea Hawk could be my favorite Flynn movie. Well, in spite of all the things it doesn't have, it is a damn fine movie. It has action, adventure, historical parallels and it has a trifecta of a great cast, script and direction.