Why should the Caribbean pirates have all the fun?
Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills) is a retired Elizabethan privateer whose life suddenly gets shot to pieces. He is framed for murder by his own brother, dumped by his fiancee, kidnapped, sold into slavery… What I’m saying is this guy has a chip on his shoulder. So he joins up with the Barbary corsairs and becomes the dreaded Sea Hawk. Now for that revenge…
Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1940 version. Click here to skip to the talkie review.
“I’ll kill the next person who says I’m violent!”
Available on DVD and via streaming.
Chances are that when you think of The Sea Hawk, you think of the 1940 Errol Flynn vehicle; the silent version is pretty much relegated to historical footnote.
Here’s what you have been missing out on:
The movie is directed by Frank Lloyd, who would go on to make the most famous version of Mutiny on the Bounty. There are magnificent full-size ships. English ships, Spanish ships, Barbary galleys… Plus duels aplenty, galley slave mutinies, and some rather splendid ship-to-ship combat performed (so good that the scenes were re-used and re-used for Warner Bros. talkie swashbucklers). Oh, and a few matters of love, loyalty, faith, family and bloody revenge. Interested yet?
The film opens in Cornwall soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills, silent Hollywood’s resident brainiac) was one of Queen Elizabeth’s privateers. Now retired from his life of buccaneering, he plans to marry the girl next door, Rosamond (Enid Bennett). However, Rosamond’s guardian, Sir John Killigrew (Marc McDermott) objects to the match. He considers Sir Oliver to be little better than a pirate and such a violent brute is not worthy of Rosamond.
Oliver responds by marching over and slicing Sir John apart in a duel. He spares his life but warns him that he will not be so merciful next time. I think you can probably see a flaw in our hero. If someone objects to you because they feel you are too violent, perhaps the best move is not to slash them with a sharp object. But Oliver is a hothead and so slash he does.
Rosamond is understandably upset but Oliver is able to win her back. However, she makes him promise that he will come to her before he uses his blade again.
Both Rosamond and Oliver have a brother who figures into the plot. Oliver’s younger brother, Lionel (Lloyd Hughes), is an immature kid who depends on Oliver for everything. Rosamond’s brother, Peter (Wallace MacDonald), is even more hotheaded than Oliver and has a deep hatred for both the Tressilian boys. And why, do you ask? Well, Sir John is partially to blame but, well, it’s kind of awkward… All right, all right. It’s a pretty young woman who has been accepting favors from both Peter and Lionel.
Peter spends the beginning of the film trying unsuccessfully to pick fights with both Oliver and Lionel. Finally, he finds Lionel alone in the forest and attacks him. Lionel defends himself and is forced to kill Peter. Now he is in a pickle. Even though it was a fair fight, he had no witnesses. The law will call it murder. Lionel drags himself home where his brother takes care of everything. Oliver tends to his brother’s wounds and promises to shield him. What neither of them know, however, is that Lionel’s injuries left a trail of blood leads from Peter’s body to Oliver’s door.
The violent, temperamental Oliver is instantly blamed by everyone, including Rosamond. Well, you have to admit that it looks pretty bad. As the accusations against his brother get louder and louder, the panicked Lionel has a plan. No one suspects him. And if Oliver were to disappear… Well, it would be as good as an admission of guilt. That would make Lionel forever safe from prosecution and a wealthy man in his own right as he is Oliver’s only heir.
Lionel ventures out and meets with Jasper Leigh (Wallace Beery, gulping down scenery whole) a none-too-honest sea captain. Oliver is shanghaied in a trice and Lionel is left master of the estates and new contender for the hand of Rosamond.
Once they are out to sea, Jasper has Oliver brought to him for some negotiations. Jasper has a plan of his own. He offers to take Oliver back to England if the price is right. Before matters can be settled, though, the ship is captured by the Spaniards and Oliver finds himself in a far more serious predicament. As a former privateer, he can’t expect much mercy from the Spanish. He is chained to an oar on a galley.
At this point, you are probably saying “Can’t this man catch a break?” Glad you mentioned it. One break coming right up.
Oliver is chained next to Yusuf (Albert Prisco), an Algerian gentleman of some influence before his capture. His uncle is Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers (Frank Currier) and famed corsair.
Yes, indeed, we are going to see some Barbary pirates. In case you forgot, the Barbary pirates primarily engaged in kidnapping, slave-trading and extortion for protection. They operated out of Northern Africa primarily in areas controlled by the Ottoman Empire and remained active until the 19th century when their power was broken by European and American military campaigns. In Queen Elizabeth’s day, though, they were a fearsome lot.
So it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the Spanish galley Oliver and Yusuf are imprisoned on is attacked by Barbary corsairs. In fact, it is none other than Asad-ed-Din himself. Oliver and Yusuf escape their chains in the mayhem and cause some carnage of their own. Yusuf is killed in the melee but not before he introduces Oliver to his uncle.
So, a few years pass and Oliver has a new identity. He is now Sakr-el-Bahr, the hawk of the sea. He has converted to Islam and is now one of the most dangerous and feared of the Barbary pirates. Asad views him as a son and probable successor. Oliver is back on top. Well, except that his ex-fiancee hates him, he has a score to settle with his rat brother and he can never ever go home. But otherwise good.
During one of his raids, Oliver happens upon his old friend Jasper, who has been a slave on a Spanish ship all these years. Oliver realizes this is an opportunity to get a message home. He has certain documents that can prove his innocence but he hid them in his house before he was kidnapped. Oliver decides to risk trusting Jasper. It may be his only opportunity to set things right in England. Jasper is to go to Cornwall, fetch the documents and give them to Rosamond. Jasper does as he is told but Rosamond burns the message unread.
Jasper returns to Oliver with the bad news. And it gets worse. Rosamond and Lionel are to be married in a month.
What was that? Oh, just Oliver’s sanity.
He’s got a good ship, a loyal crew, time on his hands… It is time for him to settle accounts back home.
The Sea Hawk was a critical and commercial success upon its release in 1924, with the ship battles being particularly praised. In our world of CG everything, they are still extremely impressive. In fact, the whole picture has a pleasantly grimy film of dust, sweat and sea salt.
The costumes, while not perfect in their accuracy, do an excellent job of conveying the Elizabethan/Barbary atmosphere and Milton Sills knows how to rock a turban and earrings. As for the scenery, the ocean is deep, the forest is lush and the Aligers marketplace is as marketplacey as one could wish. The tinted print released by Warner Archive also features hand-painted torch flames in a later night scene. Yes, there is no doubt that this is a beautiful film but it is a realistic beauty. I will take it over computer-enhanced modern films or the candy-colored behemoths of the 1950′s.
Milton Sills passed away from a sudden heart attack at the very dawn of the talkie era. His death is doubly tragic because it prevented him from establishing himself in the new artform and thus cutting him off from many modern viewers. Sills was a popular leading man but relatively few of his films survive. The Sea Hawk itself required extensive restoration and the aid of footage held in foreign archives.
Sills was renowned for his manly roles and he brings an intensity to the film that is welcome. He is particularly good once the movie finally sets out to sea (there is a lot of build-up and backstory to get through first) and he is able to get down to the business of piracy. The role of Sir Oliver is a juicy one (Rudolph Valentino was reportedly interested in the part) but because he teeters between hero and villain, the character could have easily gone badly in the wrong hands. Sills takes a brooding, wily approach and succeeds marvelously. (Though he does indulge in a bit of hamminess when his character gets emotional.)
Enid Bennett, best known as Marian in Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood, is the sensible, violence-abhorring heroine and I think she is far better in this than in her more famous role. Rosamond is in mourning for her brother and she firmly believes that Oliver murdered him but she is unable to completely hate him. Bennett plays her scenes very well, letting her love for her renegade pirate flicker through even at times when Oliver is acting like a complete cad. She and Sills have an easy, unforced chemistry.
Unfortunately, she is not given as much time on screen as one would expect for a leading lady. This lack of attention to the character of Rosamond weakens a film that already has a distinct shortage of women (even for a swashbuckler!) and makes the love story slightly less enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.
Wallace Beery, by this time an experienced scene-stealer, gives the most colorful performance in the film. His larcenous sea captain possesses no conscience but he does has a bit of loyalty left in him. Jasper is just the sort of lovable lunk that Beery specialized in playing. Lloyd Hughes, always a bit of a weak actor, does overdo his panic a bit but his weakness generally works in his favor. Lionel is always overshadowed by Oliver and Lloyd Hughes doesn’t stand a chance against Milton Sills.
Director Frank Lloyd is probably best remembered today for the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty and the painfully boring Best Picture winner Cavalcade. The man had a way with ships, let that be said. With people… Well, in this film, Frank Lloyd seems to be far more assured in dealing with ships, cannons and swords than with emotions.
This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if The Sea Hawk were a pure action swashbuckler. Unfortunately, there is a central love story, fraternal jealousy, harem intrigue, a hero who changes his religions the way most people change their socks… Not everything can be handled by a well-placed broadside, is what I’m saying. It’s not that the emotional scenes are bad. It’s just that they lack the oomph that would lift this film from very good to being one of the greats. I just wish that the character-based scenes had been given the same spark as the fight scenes.
However, for the most part, spectacle wins the day. Highlights include the appropriately grungy galley-slave scenes, the marvelous sea battle between the Spanish galley and the Barbary corsairs and, of course, the Sea Hawk’s reign of terror on the high seas.
Another interesting aspect of this film is the treatment of the assorted cultures. The residents of Algiers in many ways fall into the cliches of the time period: the ladies involved in harem intrigues (and I mean “harem” in the Hollywood sense) and the gents ready to snatch up any European lady who comes their way.
On the other hand, though, many of the Algerian characters are portrayed in a positive light and are shown to be honorable and genuinely devout in contrast to the hypocrisy of many of the European characters. The English supporting characters in particular are shown to be backstabbers, gossip-mongers, ready to betray one another a the drop of a hat and prepared to instantly throw a rope round the neck of any suspected criminal, no matter how flimsy the charge. The Spaniards in the tale are not characters so much as living plot devices engaged in melodramatic villainy.
The Sea Hawk is a rousing, red-blooded adventure story. It has its flaws but these are easily outweighed by the nautical spectacle and the enthusiastic performances of Milton Sills, Enid Bennett and Wallace Beery.
Where can I see it?
The Sea Hawk is available on DVD from TCM/Warner Archive. Their release features a splendid organ score by Robert Israel. I fell in love with it during the opening credits the instant I heard the first notes of Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s In the Mountain Pass from his Caucasian Sketches.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have Milton Sills, two-fisted adventurer, in the 1924 seafaring action movie The Sea Hawk and in that corner we have Errol Flynn, swashbuckler extraordinaire, in the 1940 kinda-remake. Which hawk of the seas will be named champion? Let the fight begin!
The Talkie Challenger: The Sea Hawk (1940)
Available on DVD.
Errol Flynn was a swashbuckler from the very beginning. His 1935 smash hit Captain Blood established him as star and also created the winning formula that would again be employed in 1938′s The Adventures of Robin Hood, his finest film. Flynn would be the lovable rogue; Olivia de Havilland, his initially-irritated-but-later-charmed leading lady; Basil Rathbone would oppose him with steel; and the music would be by Erich Korngold.
Adapting the novel The Sea Hawk was an obvious choice for Flynn. It was by Rafael Sabatini, who had written Captain Blood, which meant lots of rowdy adventure. However, in spite of owning the rights to the novel, Warner Bros. opted to jettison the original tale in favor of another wholly different story.
Sabatini’s title was retained for marketing purposes but the only element that remained was the hero’s stint as a galley slave of Spain and Sabatini is not given story credit. It is pure speculation but I imagine that the studio heads felt that the original tale’s story of religious disillusionment, betrayal and revenge would not play well to audiences who were concerned about the growing threat of fascism.
As a result of this story substitution, we in the audience are done out of seeing Errol Flynn in his prime wearing a turban and earrings. I, for one, feel utterly cheated at this oversight. (Yes, I know turbans were forthcoming in Kim but that is hardly prime Flynn.)
The new tale: Flynn is Captain Thorpe, an patriotic and idealistic English privateer who specializes in freeing English galley slaves held by Spain. Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) scolds Thorpe in public but is secretly pleased. She is concerned by Spain but she is afraid that England is too weak to face the threat head-on. In case you couldn’t tell, some rather overt hints draw a parallel between Spain’s conquests and those of the Axis powers.
Brenda Marshall (the not-Olivia-de-Havilland of the film) is the meh love interest. Gilbert Roland and Henry Daniell share the Rathbone-esque villain duties. Michael Curtiz directs and Korngold once again provides the music. Both direction and music are half-hearted attempts to recapture the old Robin Hood glory. They aren’t bad but I expect more from such talent.
The only aspects of the film that really work are the performances of Errol Flynn and Flora Robson. She plays Elizabeth with both bellowing gusto and kittenish flirtation. Thorpe and Elizabeth are rowdy, bratty and seem to be having a marvelous time as they harass the Spanish fleet. Flynn has much more chemistry with Robson than he does with Marshall (who, in all fairness, is not given much to do except look pretty and occasionally express annoyance at her piratical lover) and this is wisely exploited in the film. As one of Thorpe’s men jests, Thorpe and the queen are able to talk man-to-man.
Also welcome is the sly semi-villainy of Claude Rains and the boisterous humor of Alan Hale Sr. But these are roles both could play with their eyes closed.
The film suffers from a lack of personal rivalry between hero and villain. The splitting of the villain duties, so effective in Robin Hood, only serves to weaken the climactic duel between Flynn and the traitorous courtier played by Henry Daniell. The fight could have just as easily been with Gilbert Roland’s Spanish captain. The characters are essentially interchangeable.
Like many films of the 30′s and 40′s, The Sea Hawk is bright, shiny and clean. The ships have a plastic sheen rather than the natural grubbiness that accumulates with use. With the exception of the Panama sequence (and the famed sepia coloring that goes with it!) the atmosphere of the film is pretty generic. Exchange the ladies’ wigs, get the gents different trousers and it could easily be any European court of any century.
What we are left with is a film that is pretty good but never manages to go beyond that.
And the winner is…
The 1940 film has many potent ingredients but it suffers from the emphasis on a tepid love story, a meandering script and the lack of a powerful villain. Flynn and Robson help things along but they are not enough to save the film.
Whereas the 1924 film always knew where it was going, the tinkering on the 1940 script is not always effective and the seams show. Convenient coincidences stretch the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. For example, Thorpe is able to expose the Spanish villainy and save the day mainly through his being enslaved on a ship that is carrying incriminating documents.
Further, while the 1924 film concluded with a ship-to-ship standoff and a murder trial, the 1940 film concludes this way: Thorpe slays the traitor in the court and Elizabeth prepares to send her fleet against the Spanish Armada. She gives a rousing speech to her sailors and… The End. Huh? First, I am done out of seeing Errol Flynn in a turban and now you are telling me that I don’t get to see the Spanish Armada? The budget, you say? Hang the budget! I was promised an Armada and I want my Armada! This is an outrage! A whole 2 hours of movie and not a single Armada to be seen. I’ll tell you who the real villains are: Warner Bros.
Finally, the 1924 film’s grittiness is just more convincing. Even the sweaty Panama scenes in the 1940 film have a studio backlot feel to them. This could be overlooked if the plot were better but as it is…
While the 1940 version certainly has its moments and is sure to please Errol Flynn fans, the 1924 film is the better movie.
Additional screen caps appear courtesy of A Modern Musketeer.