The Sea Hawk (1940)

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*. This is one of the great if not the greatest pirate film, though there are no pirates in it. Technically Captain Thorpe and the other Sea Hawks are privateers. There’s a difference.
*. It reunites a lot of the talent from Captain Blood: most notably star Errol Flynn, director Michael Curtiz, and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It also takes its title (and little else) from another novel by Rafael Sabatini, the author of Captain Blood.
*. But in the intervening years Warners had gotten even better at this material. After films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex they had every aspect of the swashbuckling historical romance down pat: costumes, sets, models, music, choreography . . . it was all in place.
*. Errol Flynn, who had starred in both Robin Hood and Elizabeth and Essex, had also grown into the part of the handsome, athletic leading man. In Captain Blood he was still very much a rookie, but learning so fast that they reshot a number of his earlier scenes.
*. Most of all, he had developed a relaxed presence, effortless charm, and a sense of humour. But he doesn’t play it broad. In the one entirely comic scene, where he encourages the mosquito-tortured Alan Hale to hold his breath, he doesn’t even crack a smile. But you can tell he’s having fun throughout, and is now completely comfortable holding the camera in every scene without even seeming to try. He is doing more with less.
*. Look carefully at the scene after the jungle ambush where he seems to collapse for a moment and then immediately picks himself up because he knows he has to put on a show of strength in front of his men. It’s a really nice little moment, but if you blink you’ll miss it.
*. His swordplay was getting better as well, and he puts on a good show here against a double for Henry Daniell. Daniell (who went on to play the tortured doctor in The Body Snatcher opposite Boris Karloff) made a good villain, but couldn’t fence at all. The wonderful shadow-play of their swordfight might have been meant as a bit of a distraction, but it’s so wonderful you don’t think for a moment of any ulterior motive.

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*. The studio wanted Olivia de Havilland, again, to play opposite Flynn, but I think Brenda Marshall is better suited for the part of Dona Maria. She has a more sultry, foreign look (I was reminded of Demi Moore). In fact she was of Norwegian descent (her real name was Ardis Ankerson), though born in the Philippines. I think she’s very good, and plays a strong lead against Flynn’s always somewhat feminine persona. Note how in the carriage scene she is the first to profess her love, and takes the initiative in kissing him.
*. I’ve written before of how circumscribed a genre the pirate film is, with certain elements that have to keep reappearing. In the face of this, a bit of invention goes a long way. Here are a couple of examples.
*. The grappling scene is a stand-by, but in the opening battle here (the only sea battle in the film, actually) the Albatross is boarding a Spanish galleon, which has long oars sticking out below decks. As the two ships are pulled together these oars bend and snap, something we hear even more than we see. The sound effects are wonderful, and the whole sequence was made possible by the special tank (the Maritime Stage, as it was called) that Warners had just built, kitted out with two full-size replicas of the warships.

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*. Another obligatory scene is the initial round of courtship between the pirate and the lady. This is usually played out in a conventional way, but here Curtiz makes it more interesting visually by having Flynn up on deck staring down at Marshall and then dropping the pin in the water to gain her attention. It’s basically a Shakespearean balcony scene on board a ship, and it looks great.

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*. You can see how everything came together in the scene where Thorpe and his crew return to the Albatross after being bushwhacked in Panama. We begin with a great process shot that is both beautiful and convincing as the small boat rows out to the anchored ship. We suspect something is wrong. The script is alert here: one of the men in the boat thinks it’s a trap. Our own fears are being openly expressed. But he is quickly hushed, dismissed as gunshy after the jungle ambush.
*. Korngold’s score becomes forbidding and suspenseful, more effective even than the rousing fanfares elsewhere in the picture. Then, when the men climb aboard the ship, the music stops. Given the pervasiveness of Korngold’s themes and the held-breath silence of the ship, this immediately heightens the tension. Now we know something is wrong as we listen only to the creaking of the rigging.
*. The direction aids our sense of paranoia. There’s a startling overhead shot, looking down on the deck. But nothing is revealed. What’s going on? Then we see bodies, including one indirectly, the shadow of a hanged man.

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*. Again, there is nothing terribly original about the scene itself. The pirates walk into a trap and are captured. But in every department the presentation is handled perfectly, with talent and invention at work in nearly every frame.
*. Would it have been better in colour? Warners was doing these kinds of films in colour at the time (Robin Hood and Elizabeth and Essex, for example), but they didn’t go that route here, with the only nod to colour being the shift to sepia tones when they go to Panama. It was colourized in 1991 though, if you want to see what it may have looked like. Personally, I’m a big lover of black and white, but for this kind of material I don’t know. Pirates are colourful people. Only a couple of years later The Black Swan would show what could be done with a full palette.
*. Spain as the Evil Empire, complete with galley slaves pulling to the drum and the lash, and a megalomaniac Phillip II casting a giant shadow over a map of the world. We can roll our eyes at Thorpe’s opposition to Spain’s looting of the New World (England’s colonial record was little better), but given the time we have to make allowances. It’s 1940, and Phillip is really Hitler. Meanwhile, only plucky little England holds out against him. This is their finest hour.
*. The pirate film soon ran its course. Here, however, it was mature without being in decline, and all hands were on deck.

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