Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Sea Hawk

In the '30s and early '40s, Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn were a dream team, producing some of Hollywood's best Golden Age action films: Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood. These lightweight but lavish costume epics make for thrilling entertainment, with lavish sets and costumes, witty screenplays, meticulously-staged swordfights and Eric Wolfgang Korngold's rousing music.

The Sea Hawk (1940) is an entertaining film, but not one of the better Curtiz-Flynn collaborations. Released at the height of the Battle of Britain, its paralleling Elizabethan England to World War II America is unmistakable and makes it more than just a stylish swashbuckler. It's a reasonably entertaining film that suffers from an uneven pace and some heavy-handed political content.

It's 1585, and Spanish King Phillip II (Montagu Love) is preparing his Spanish Armada to subjugate England. His new ambassador, Don de Cordoba (Claude Rains), and his niece Maria (Brenda Marshall) are intercepted during his voyage to London by privateer Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn), a gallant captain waging covert war with Spain with the tacit approval of Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson). Thorpe falls for Maria, but before their romance can blossom he sets sail for Panama to raid Spanish treasure ships. Unfortunately, he's been betrayed by Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), a treacherous member of Elizabeth's court, and Thorpe and his crew are press-ganged as slaves for the Spanish fleet. Thorpe must escape and get back to England to expose Wolfingham's perfidy, warn Elizabeth of the impending Spanish invasion - and get the girl, of course.

The Sea Hawk retains most of the humor, frivolity and cheerful anarchy common to these films. "It would be just like those Spaniards to surrender and spoil our fun," sneers a pirate before the curtain-raising battle scene. The excellent sea battles and swordfights are staged at a pure fantasy level, and these bits are nothing short of exhilarating. However, the film has pretensions to topicality and seriousness that undermine the cheeriness a bit.

The movie's politics are rather obvious, giving The Sea Hawk a more pointed edge than its peers. King Phillip is a power-mad egomaniac with a world map painted in his office (recalled in the Pirates of the Caribbean films), dreaming of global Spanish hegemony. Elizabeth and her advisors publicly try to keep peace, with Flynn's gang an Elizabethian Eagle Squadron fighting evil on their own initiative. The dastardly Wolfingham is not a misguided conservative but actively allied with the Spaniards. Tellingly, the film ends with Elizabeth's pre-battle soliloquy rather than the Armada battle itself, a stirring cry for the defense of freedom: the real battle is yet to be fought.

Dramatically, The Sea Hawk is a mixed bag. Because of its thematic baggage, the film is very talky, with Flynn and his co-stars having to navigate long swaths of dense dialogue, from political speeches to exposition. These lengthy debates and speeches, and a long digression in Panama drag the film to a crawl in spots. The middle third seems to drag on forever, though the action picks up in time for the rousing finale. Still, compared to the brisk pacing and breakneck action of, say, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk is slow and uneven.

Behind the camera, Curtiz is as good as ever, and despite a lack of Technicolor it's certainly a beautiful and visually captivating film. The battle scenes are rousing and well-staged, with appropriate scope and excitement. The highlight is the climactic duel between Thorpe and Wolfington, an intricately-staged, thrilling set-piece that may well be the best swordfight in film history. Anton Grot delivers remarkable set design and costuming, and it wouldn't be a Curtiz film without a beautiful Korngold score.

Errol Flynn is in top form, as chivalrous, witty and heroic as ever. Brenda Marshall is fine replacement for Olivia de Havilland, and Flora Robson (55 Days at Peking) makes a wonderfully regal and commanding Queen Bess. The supporting cast is made up of dependable Warner Bros. stock actors: Claude Rains (Casablanca) and Henry Daniell as slimy villains, Alan Hale (The Adventures of Robin Hood) as Flynn's sidekick, Donald Crisp (The Man From Laramie) as a sympathetic nobleman and Una O'Connor (The Informer) in comic relief. Other familiar faces like Whit Bissell (The Magnificent Seven), Edgar Buchanan (Ride the High Country) and Gilbert Roland (The Furies) can be spotted in bit parts.

The Sea Hawk is worthwhile, even if it's far from a masterpiece. Bogged down a bit by topical" concerns, it's still respectable matinee entertainment.

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