Director: Michael Curtiz
By Roderick Heath
If Raiders of the Lost Ark represents the adventure film reborn, The Sea Hawk is its classical ancestor at zenith. Few director-star collaborations provided more pleasure, and yet have resulted in surprisingly few encomiums of the kind that, say, Hitchcock and Grant or Stewart, or Ford and Wayne, have earned over the years, than that between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn. That could be, perhaps, because both men are feted for what they did obviously well, whilst remaining strangely under-regarded. The eruptive, malapropism-prone Curtiz, born in Budapest as Mano Kurtesz Kaminar, first rose to fame in European cinema before he followed a path to Hollywood that was well-worn, and yet he quickly installed himself as one of the town’s arch professionals, and one of its most inimitable stylists, surviving and flourishing where so many others sank or settled for less. Curtiz’s development of a muted but acutely animated kind of expressionism proved a perfectly adaptable style that loaned a veneer of intrinsic mythos to even the most humdrum and realistic material, mixed with an eye for quicksilver visual exposition and mise-en-scene, and a grasp on shooting and cutting together action sequences that deserved comparison with Eisenstein and DeMille. Curtiz’s style found its most perfect purpose in a run of filmmaking from 1935 to 1945 that produced several of the works by which people still define the very essence of Classic Hollywood, including Angels With Dirty Faces (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, which Curtiz took over directing when William Keighley was taking too long), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945).
Similarly, Flynn, who tackled almost every type of lead role, is nonetheless one of those stars bound to be associated forever and ever with one specific kind of movie and part. His embodiment of the swashbuckler was here at his absolute height: he brought his own distinct mix of romantic sensitivity and a certain ardent, intrinsic rebelliousness to the template first laid down by Douglas Fairbanks, of the grinning, devil-may-care, impudently charming, infinitely athletic man of action. The Sea Hawk both continues and slightly distorts the formula laid down by Curtiz and Flynn in their earlier collaborations, Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also set Flynn’s personality in high-contrast conflict with the imperious Renaissance matriarchy of Elizabeth I. Here the terms of reference were closer to the historical action of the other entries. Flynn’s usual object of romantic interest, Olivia de Havilland, is swapped for the under-used Brenda Marshall, a slightly harder, chillier personality, albeit one who melts darn well, fit for a slightly harder, chillier brand of the genre. If I’ve chosen to speak of The Sea Hawk rather than The Adventures of Robin Hood, perhaps the most perfect swashbuckler ever made, or Casablanca, a study in the chamber-piece adventure movie, to celebrate this one, it’s partly because The Sea Hawk fascinates me in how, whilst sustaining the innocent, ebullient traditions of the pre-WW2 swashbuckler, it can be seen assimilating a darker new reality into its form, intuitively reshaping itself to match an oncoming era of total war. On the cusp of the era that would spawn film noir and see the adventure film sink largely to candy-coloured lampooning, The Sea Hawk looks at times awfully like proto-noir in the least generically familiar of contexts. The Sea Hawk flaunts Warner Bros. production resources, not stretched to a limit as Robin Hood did, but employed with an exacting sense of talent employed for appropriate results, crammed to the rafters with terrific character actors and technical wizards.
By the time The Sea Hawk was made, WW2 had begun in earnest, and whilst released still in the time of the US’s official neutrality, this Warner Bros. production took an overt tilt at an historical parable of Hitlerian ambition through the prism of Elizabethan England’s conflict with imperial Spain. Warner’s adventure films might have seemed the escapist flipside to the studio’s famous run of social-realist and gangster films, and yet they internalised similar values; Flynn’s heroes were usually patriotic, but in a fashion that demanded they fight corrupt oligarchs and tyrants domestic and foreign, often even driven to sacrifice or destroy themselves or commit an act of betrayal, if a greater cause demanded a forbidden act. The Sea Hawk tweaks the dynamic insofar as the Flynn’s often outright rebellious attitude to authority, which often segued late in the tale to a new loyalty as the corrupt fell and regimes changed, here his relationship with Elizabeth is based on differing definitions of defensive patriotic action. The Sea Hawk’s opening immediately establishes the agenda: Philip II (Montagu Love), characterised as a majestic egomaniac, gesticulates at the world map upon his wall, his shadow falling in classic Curtiz style upon the continents fashion like a stain, as Philip airily declares that soon “it will no longer be a map of the world, but of Spain!” Philip’s wrath has been drawn by England’s recalcitrance, in particular its sponsoring of privateers, or “Sea Hawks” as they’re dubbed here, to justify the film’s title after tossing out the Rafael Sabatini source novel. Secretly planning to build the Armada to swamp England’s resistance, Philip sends his ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) to browbeat Elizabeth (Flora Robson) into curbing the Sea Hawk raiders.
The galley taking Alvarez and niece Maria (Marshall) to England, under the captaincy of Lopez (Gilbert Roland) and driven by slaves committed to the oars by the Inquisition, falls prey in the English Channel to the most infamous of the Sea Hawks, Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), who swoops upon the Spaniards and pulverises their ship before boarding. The Sea Hawk thus really kicks off with its biggest action set-piece, signalling an intent to play with the usual narrative structure, and, as Flynn and several of his familiar company like Alan Hale appear, deliberately evoking a feeling of stepping in where one of the earlier Flynn-Curtiz swashbucklers left off. The action that follows is close to perfection in form and function, and, like the desert chase in Raiders, has a solid spot in my private list of all-time great action sequences. If all the infrastructure of classic Hollywood was worth anything beyond putting interesting actors together in small rooms, it was to put together a bit of filmmaking like this, an escalating series of visually thrilling, artful, yet perfectly expedient shots that stands at such a remove from the endemic gibberish of so much modern action filmmaking. Even The Sea Hawk’s classiest twenty-first century offspring, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), couldn’t come close to it for managing both intensity and clarity at the same time in depicting close-quarters carnage.
Curtiz and the production team were evidently trying to match the finale of Captain Blood – a couple of shots from which augment the sequence, including snatches from the first silent version of The Sea Hawk (1923) that film itself interpolated – and to outdo it for flow and tactile detail, a quality of the film as a whole that leaps out. The eternal assumption of the classic swashbuckler, that British sailors were incontrovertibly better shots than anyone else, sees Thorpe’s crew cripple their lumbering, slave-driven foe and board it, albeit a little earlier than Thorpe wished because one of his men, Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan), jumps before he gives the order. The battle sequence proceeds with a micro-managerial sense of detail outlay: the cannon balls of Thorpe’s ship, the Albatross, shattering the hull of the enemy; grappling hooks skewering enemy soldiers; the galleon’s oars shattering as the two ships are pulled together; the frantic, multi-levelled, impossibly teeming shots of the two crews battling; Thorpe getting his trusty lieutenant Pitt (Hale) to force the Spanish trumpeter to sound surrender, saving Lopez in the nick of time from Thorpe’s blade; Lopez requesting that Thorpe leave his ship so he can be the last man to abandon the sinking vessel, the Spaniard finally swinging over to a general cheer.
A level of gentlemanly forbearance and essentially anti-chauvinistic feeling is evoked in Thorpe’s attempts to mollify the outraged Spaniards, giving them run of his decks and treating his unwilling guests to fine dining with captured Spanish silverware, and Maria’s maid (the compulsory, evergreen Una O’Connor) gives the English sailors a tongue-lashing for speaking contemptuously of Spanish culture. But the underlying emotional kick is delivered when Thorpe is reunited with a former crewman, Tuttle (Clifford Brooke), one of the galley oarsmen who could recognise the English Channel purely by the shifting of the swell. Thorpe’s sense of justice and outright contempt for the draconian tyranny Philip is asserting across the globe is established in front of Alvarez and his daughter, planting a seed in her sensibility that proves inseparable from Thorpe. In spite of her attempts to remain icy towards Thorpe for his freewheeling piracy and disregard for international diplomatic niceties, Maria slips quietly and quickly under the spell of his charm.
Hollywood in the late ‘30s avoided engaging with contemporary political realities with an oft-astonishing amount of pussyfooting: when Confessions of Nazi Spy (1940) was released one critic quipped that it was only five years too late. Strangely, but with intuitive aptness, the historical remoteness and playfulness of the Warner Bros. swashbucklers reflected the era’s undercurrents with the greatest concision, growing in force throughout the Curtiz-Flynn films, with the air of oncoming fascism in Captain Blood and the ethnic repression in Robin Hood, as Flynn’s characterisation became increasingly revolutionary: “You speak treason!” “Fluently!” as the classic line in Robin Hood goes. The cheery pseudo-socialism that often bobbed up in these films resurges, here with a cheeky tilt at imperialistic plunder. When Maria furiously spurns Thorpe over his acts of piracy, Thorpe, asks, oh so innocently, whether she considers a thief to be only “an Englishman who steals.” “It’s anybody who steals!” she retorts, only for Thorpe to question, then, just how the Spaniards obtained the Aztec gold she has in her jewel collection. Game, set, match. The Sea Hawk sees Thorpe, constantly warning Elizabeth about the dangers represented by Philip’s ambition and overtly breaking the rules in order to fight the threat before a properly sanctioned war has started between England and Spain, looking like the archetypal premature anti-fascist, and an equivalent of an international volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, contrasting Elizabeth, who tries Chamberlain-esque peacekeeping, until she’s pushed too far and unleashes Churchillian rhetorical force.
It’s made clear right at the start of the film that Philip’s intentions are entirely malevolent, planning to sweep away the single bulwark against his spreading influence, so the audience knows that Thorpe’s assumptions are correct whereas Elizabeth has to work purely by instinct, protocol, and expedience. The film’s most insidious villain, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) is characterised as a Halifax or Quisling type, arguing from the midst of Elizabeth’s royal council for mollification of Spain whilst secretly plotting with Alvarez to weaken England as much as possible, including destroying the credibility and effectiveness of the Sea Hawks, in order to ensure the ease of the Armada’s eventual victory, and hoping to be installed himself as a puppet king. Re-armament is the chief plot stake: Philip’s arms build-up, in constructing the Armada, and diplomatic bullying, is, like Hitler’s before the war, put off onto the demands and rights of a sovereign nation, regardless of the logical targets and obvious intent. Thorpe, in turn, prods Elizabeth to build a fleet to meet any threat, but she staves off the necessary moment in not wanting to empty the national coffers, so Thorpe hatches an ambitious plan to step up his plundering, and attack Spanish gold shipments in Panama.
Elizabeth approves the plan, but Alvarez and Wolfingham, hoping to get the jump on Thorpe’s next venture, try to spy on his activities, but actually discover his intention through clever deductions: Thorpe’s efforts to maintain secrecy extend to having charts prepared without place names, but Alvarez and Wolfingham manage to steal a glance at the charts whilst under preparation and are able, thanks to an astronomer (Halliwell Hobbes), to determine the location purely by the shape of the land and an unexpectedly revealing decorative motif. Such a deftly clever little plot pivot is another reason I love The Sea Hawk, as it points to the genre’s counterbalance of physical action with a demand for wiliness and intelligence in both heroes and villains. Alvarez and Wolfingham are splendidly smooth, aristocratic bad guys, although Alvarez is less a villain than a man doing his national duty, and who gets his comeuppance not on a sword but when, in delivering grim news about Thorpe’s venture to Panama, he tries to needle Elizabeth, only for his own daughter to faint in a heap in despair: “Your arrow hit the wrong mark,” Elizabeth chides him drolly.
Thorpe’s ill-fated Panamanian venture sees him stumble into a well-laid trap, seeming to capture the across-land gold caravan, only to then be almost caught in an ambush: Thorpe and his men flee into the jungle, cueing one of the all-time great examples of the much-satirised “stumble through the swamp” sequence, complete with random, separated members of the crew lurching through the parboiling, mosquito-infested marshes, going mad and dying one by one: “It’s too bloomin’ hot!” one screams as he claws at his own flesh before collapsing. What’s left of Thorpe’s crew fights its way through to the coast in sight of the Albatross. But the Albatross proves mysteriously deserted as they row back to it, in a sublimely eerie sequence that builds to the inevitable realisation that the crew of the ship has been slaughtered, with corpses hanging in the rigging, and Spanish troops, under Captain Lopez, waiting for what’s left of the would-be raiders. No gentlemanly courtesies for these prisoners: Thorpe and company are soon committed in a show trial before the Inquisition and sentenced to die at the oars of the galleys. Suddenly The Sea Hawk’s reversed structure becomes coherent, as the film deliberately destroys the Merry Men crew and reduces Thorpe to the abject slave he was set upon freeing at the start, bringing a new edge of threat and suffering to the scene, and homoerotic S&M fantasy blends weirdly with perfervid concentration camp parallel, with anticipations of Ben-Hur (1959). Thorpe, his last remaining fellows, and the potential new crew of English prisoners have to concoct a plan to escape.
Within the more realistic confines of Hollywood cinema, Curtiz’s visuals in The Sea Hawk both reflect the lingering influence of the art-moderne touches that permeated the gnarled dream-state historicism of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1923) and the futurism of Metropolis (1926), whilst also anticipating the total stylisation of Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: Part One (1944), in utilising the geometric precision of Anton Grot’s sets, which largely reject the twisted contours of Expressionism that had been the familiar influence on such settings in favour of a kind of historical wonderland by way of Bauhaus, to create Elizabeth’s royal court. An overt, deeply stylised contrast then is constructed between the tangled, busy environs of the ships, the open sea, and the fetid jungle, where power is a matter of guts and muscle, with spaces that express power through voluminous reaches, reducing the players to twisting figures arranged like chess pieces in the political gamesmanship. Curtiz’s love of carefully shaped compositions infuses even the most functional and throwaway shots. The opening battle is a whirl of shots balanced geometrically or on lines of Renaissance perspective painting, conjoined by the newer arts of montage, weaving all into an organic mass. Sol Polito’s camera glides with gossamer grace at low angles as Elizabeth and her cohort of ladies-in-waiting, like petticoated paladins, sweep through the ranks of armoured warriors and plumed, hose-clad courtiers, investing the feminine not simply with beauty but strength through its spectacular contrast with the surrounds, and the reversal of the hierarchy.
Robson’s marvellous Elizabeth, not the grouchy spinster Bette Davis played nor the masochistic self-made idol Cate Blanchett espoused, is a warrior in frilly collars wide enough to serve as radar dishes, strutting about in costumes that contain her homely features within declarations of monarchic strength and wealth. This Elizabeth’s lack of good looks is initially the sport of men’s talk (“They say Elizabeth surrounds herself with beauty in the hope it may be contagious,” Lopez quips), but her flirtatious relationship with Thorpe is a dance of patriotic and erotic fascination, crystallising Thorpe’s similarity to Walter Raleigh – I love the big, hearty, satisfied breath Robson takes in after meeting with Thorpe, his descriptions of gallant action and explanations of daring plans, mixed with flattery, leaves her with orgasmic pleasure. Such liaisons reflect The Sea Hawk’s place in a genre that was always defined by a playfully anarchic take on sexual mores, so often played out in the dance of fascination and repulsion between mischievous, swarthy, criminal, usually lower-class males and ladies fair, dying to be ravished even as they spit in the rogues’ faces. The Sea Hawk however sustains the courtly, restrained take on this essential element of the swashbuckler that Flynn’s films offered, keeping the star’s overflow of randy energy on a tight leash, in comparison to the out-and-out kink in Henry King’s deployment of Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in the reflexive self-satire The Black Swan two years later.
Here Marshall’s Maria, like De Havilland’s ladies from Captain Blood and Robin Hood, is the daughter of the oppressive regime won over by the untamed but innately good male, but whereas in those earlier films the final kiss of hero and damsel set the seal on a reconciliation of social spheres – classes, races, and genders – here Maria is left behind by her father and forced to pick a side in the upcoming war, choosing her mate’s side rather than her sire’s in a matter of moral as well as sexual gravity. Curtiz pulls off a marvellous visual coup in a sequence in which Thorpe visits an increasingly smitten Maria, who gains an almost religious solemnity in regarding the man she now loves whilst holding an armful of roses: “That’s how I’ll always think of you from now on,” Thorpe says to her, likening her to a religious icon he once say in South America, “As Our Lady of the Flowers.” Simultaneously, the image of the two standing in the garden, underneath the palatial sprawl, in a symmetrically balanced shot, gives true visual resolution to the notion of the film’s driving oppositions, the masculine and the feminine, the natural and the civilised, the warlike and the civil, meeting in perfect harmony in the English country garden. Later, in a ripely iconic scene that hovers on the edge of a semi-mystical gulf of longing, just as the last scenes of Casablanca offer, Maria’s attempt to warn Thorpe before he leaves that her father has unlocked his intentions, sees her gazing tragically at his just-sailed ship from a foggy wharf, and Thorpe, not knowing he’s just missed her, still gazing back to land clearly thinking of her, from the stern of his boat.
Of course, in spite of its modernist touches and the elements that reflect a sub-genre entering a state of flux, The Sea Hawk still often embraces and defines the big, unabashedly fanciful, theatrical, slightly campy quality that defined the classic swashbuckler, in moments like the lengthy, rivetingly structured escape sequence that resolves in the liberated crew burst into singing, in perfect harmony, along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music. Korngold’s music, like Max Steiner’s, although arguably in a more sophisticated manner, maintained direct links between Hollywood scoring and the Vienna music schools, capital-R Romanticism, and the legacies of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both of whom had praised the prodigious young Korngold. Korngold’s lush style eventually fell way out of favour before becoming, in the late ‘70s, the model again for anyone who wanted to make an adventure film and needed the sweeping emotional thunder Korngold’s work offered. Here his work, particularly the major heroic theme and its constant partner, the central romantic theme which ebbs and soars to the rhythm of ships upon the waves, is indelible and arguably even better than his great work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The effect of that fade-out upon the boisterously singing crew is precisely the glory of films like this, even if it’s a touch embarrassing, especially in how it caps off the escape, the culmination of the steady, musically intricate build from deadly, intense silence to frantic, liberating action.
The escape from the galley is just as good a piece of filmmaking as the opening battle in a subtler fashion. Again, there’s a ferocious sense of realistic detail and storytelling rhythm as the galley slaves, grimy, sweaty, hairy, quietly and carefully work their plan to escape, picking away at the embedded hooks that keep them chained to their oars, sliding the chains out from their shackles, in feverish, desperate, ingenious labour. The English then slowly, remorselessly work their way up through ship as an embodiment of the resurging repressed, strangling their captors and infiltrating the neighbouring ship where the plans that confirm the Armada’s purpose are in the hands of Spanish officers, and Thorpe has to wrestle with one as he tries to dispose of them over the side. Doubtlessly Spielberg was thinking about this scene for the opening of Amistad (1997), and it feels like a draft for generations of prison escape movies and heist movies – as in Rififi (1955), the escape sees the men attempting to break their bonds in as near-complete a silence as possible – and other entries in more familiarly realistic genres. The finale shifts gears into another proto-genre, the spy movie, as Thorpe has to sneak back into the queen’s palace where now he’s a proscribed outlaw and Wolfingham’s cadre has cut off access to Elizabeth, to bring her news of Philip’s plans. This demands using the cover of Maria’s carriage: she’s incidentally at the wharf as her uncle plans to leave on the Spanish ship that Thorpe and his followers now possess, only to find the mysterious stranger in her cab is her lost lover. Thorpe then has to make a dash through the cordons of spies and guards, and Flynn gets to cut loose as a swordsman, ticking off the now-iconic moments of any good swashbuckler, including taking on three enemies at once in a whirlwind of physical genius, until Thorpe tries to elude his pursuers only to lock himself into a room with Wolfingham.
The essential, ritually demanded climactic duel promptly erupts, for a third and final piece of bravura cinema, with the witty touch of Thorpe being the one clad in a Spanish uniform, which Wolfingham airily announces he should be wearing. Curtiz enlarges some of the flourishes of Robin Hood’s final battle as the duellists leap and tumble, crash over furniture and through windows, and dance across the cavernous spaces, shadows projected like titans against the castle walls. Daniell, though a great actor, clearly wasn’t as athletic an opponent for Flynn as Basil Rathbone, and the duel is augmented with more stunt doubling therefore than Rathbone needed on Captain Blood, Robin Hood, or The Mark of Zorro (1940), and thus the near-lethal sense of physical unity those duels provide is slightly despoiled by deft edits. And yet you’d have to be paying the closest kind of attention to really notice before the twentieth viewing. By this point, the Kafka-esque quality of the settings, the grand halls of the palace now shadow-flooded and oppressive, and the attendant mood of oncoming tyranny, has become dominant. Thorpe bests Wolfingham but, unlike other Flynn heroes, he is finally driven into a corner and at the point of being skewered by Wolfingham’s guards when Elizabeth, fetched by Maria, arrives to save his neck. The fade out leaves the audience not with the sense of missions fulfilled and final romantic clinches, but conflict only just begun, as Elizabeth gives a rousing speech upon launching the first of her new fleet to take on the Armada with obvious morale-raising purpose. In movie terms and in real life, a long fight was only just starting.
The great old swashbucklers seemed to have sadly short lives, with Fairbanks dead at 56, Power at 45, and Flynn had only another 19 years of life ahead of him, albeit years he crammed with experience and indulgence far beyond most and which accorded strangely with the aura he gave off on screen of mercurial manhood. He died with an awful swan song, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), just after he’d gained new appreciation as an actor with The Sun Also Rises (1957) and Too Much Too Soon (1958), where he exhibited the harsher lessons of growing old with a fearlessness equal to his heroic image. And yet, as long as the cinema continues to exist, I think, the image of Flynn in his prime will continue to reign over cinema’s fantasies like his Sea Hawk ruled the oceans.