Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini

Let’s review another vintage swashbuckler that was turned into a silent motion picture.

Rafel Sabatini was one of the most popular and prolific adventure novelists of the early twentieth century. His most famous books are Captain Blood and Scaramouche but The Sea Hawk is close behind. I went through a major Sabatini thing in my ‘teens and read most everything he wrote. The Sea Hawk was a definite favorite.

My copy of the Sea Hawk is a paperback Gateway edition. Since the novel was published in 1915, it is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free. The edition I found is illustrated with stills from the 1924 film version, which stars Milton Sills, Enid Bennett and Wallace Beery. There is also a free public domain audiobook from the great folks at Librivox.

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What is it?: It’s the story of Sir Oliver Tresillian, an Elizabethan gentleman and ex-privateer, who is framed for murder by his own brother, rejected by his fiancee, kidnapped, enslaved by the Spaniards, and rescued by the Barbary pirates. Grateful to his rescuers and angered by his suffering, he promptly becomes Sakr-el-Bahr, the Hawk of the Seas, “the pride of Islam and a sword-edge to the infidel.” Oliver lets his rage fester for years until chance throws him an opportunity to revenge himself on the brother who betrayed him and the fiancee who abandoned him.

My favorite part: Sabatini had a great love for swarthy heroes who are misunderstood by their lady loves and who brood over same. Oliver is on the more sinister side of the Sabatini personality chart. (In my eyes, that is always a good thing.)

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Oliver is also fairly morally ambiguous compared to other heroes of the same era. He is violent, temperamental and vengeful. In many ways he constructs his own downfall. After all, his brother would not have been able to frame him so easily if Oliver’s temper were not infamously known all across the land. Oliver straddles the line between hero and villain and is always interesting as a result.

Sir Oliver in the aftermath of a duel that he called for:

In three minutes it was all over and Sir Oliver was carefully wiping his blade, whilst Sir John lay coughing upon the turf tended by white-faced Peter Godolphin and a scared groom who had been bidden thither to make up the necessary tale of witnesses.

Sir Oliver sheathed his weapons and resumed his coat, then came to stand over his fallen foe, considering him critically.

“I think I have silenced him for a little time only,” he said. “And I confess that I intended to do better. I hope, however, that the lesson will suffice and that he will lie no more — at least concerning me.”

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My least favorite part: Sabatini does love his melodrama, there’s no use denying it. Most of it works because the story is absorbing but certain florid descriptions and overripe dialogue were enough to jar me out of the book’s spell.

She rose slowly, a strange agitation stirring in her, her bosom galloping.

Presumably it can also canter and trot?

“You beast! You devil!” she panted. “God will punish you! I shall spend my every breath in praying Him to punish you as you deserve. You murderer! You hound!”

Tell us how you really feel.

“I see,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “And the fear of this, then, is the source of thy whim to acquire her for thyself. Thou art not subtle, O Fenzileh. The consciousness that thine own charms are fading sets thee trembling lest so much loveliness should entirely cast thee from thy lord’s regard, eh?”

Just a bit purple, yes?

I should emphasize that the melodrama and over-the-top dialogue usually work within the context of the story, especially if you are already acclimated to popular entertainment of the period. These examples are the exception.

Silent movie connection: The Sea Hawk was adapted into a highly successful 1924 film directed by Frank Lloyd and starring a suitably intense Milton Sills, who specialized in both cerebral and he-man roles. The film was extremely faithful to the book and featured some marvelous ship-to-ship combat scenes.

Warner Bros. decided to remake the film as a vehicle for Errol Flynn (who had done so well as the titular Captain Blood). However, they opted to jettison to original tale and substitute it with an entirely unrelated story. They merely retained Sabatini’s title for marketing purposes.

The Sea Hawk is an old-fashioned book but that is not a bad thing. It’s fun to take a trip back in time and enjoy a first-rate blood, guts and glory tale with a thick coating of sea salt.

For all of its vintage story telling, however, the book has some very modern aspects. The hero’s anger at religion and his conversion to Islam are both topics that have been examined in modern movies and television with acclaimed results. Further, the popularity of all things piratical would mean that a new film version would have box office appeal.

But don’t forget to watch the 1924 version! It is truly spectacular.