Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                 Writers: Howard Koch & Seton I. Miller
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Henry Daniell and Brenda Marshall

This is another near-perfect swashbuckler from Warner Brothers directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn. The only thing that makes it less than perfect is the absence of Olivia de Havilland. Other than that, however, there is nothing to complain about in this masterful film. Though a revamping of the novel Beggars of the Sea by Seton Miller, the film was named after the 1924 hit that had been filmed of the Rafael Sabatini novel The Sea Hawk, the same author who provided the source material for Flynn’s first great success, Captain Blood. And like that masterpiece, this film also boasts a magnificent score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Add to that a stellar principal cast that includes Claude Rains, Henry Daniell, Donald Crisp, Flora Robson and Brenda Marshall, as well as character actors Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, Halliwell Hobbes, Edgar Buchanan and Whit Bissell, and it’s no wonder that this film continues to be a favorite among fans of classic film.

The film begins in 1585 with Montague Love as the king of Spain, intent on world conquest. Only England stands in his way, and so he sends Claude Rains to assure Queen Elizabeth I of his peaceful intentions while also implementing his plan to conquer the island. But before they can get to England the ship and its beautiful cargo, Brenda Marshall, are captured by Errol Flynn wherein he frees the British galley slaves and appropriates the valuables for the queen. Rains, of course, professes outrage. Flynn, of course, falls for Marshall. And, of course, once she realizes he is not a pirate but a good man trying to right the wrongs of her country, she falls for him too. Meanwhile, queen Flora Robson is reluctant to invest any money at all in her navy, much to the consternation of admiral Donald Crisp. And Henry Daniell’s continued support of the friendship of Spain makes him suspect right from the start.

Act Two begins with Robson tacitly condoning an expedition by Flynn to Panama in order to intercept the Spanish gold there. And with Flynn halfway around the world it will give Rains and Danielle an opportunity to drag Robson into a war without her best sailor. In Panama the screen changes from rich black and white to sepia, and to good effect. The great Sol Polito is the cinematographer on the picture. He had worked with Curtiz and Flynn on five previous films including Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Dodge City. Curtiz himself is masterful as always, with brilliant shots like the one above the ship when Flynn captures the Spanish galleon, or his exquisite use of shadows in the climactic duel between Flynn and Daniell. The screenplay is by Howard Koch who would go on to a new adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter and Casablanca with Julius and Philip Epstein. While there aren’t as many humorous lines as in Captain Blood, it’s still a great story that manages to avoid a lot of clichés.

Errol Flynn had put on a few miles since Captain Blood, but he still had a vigorous screen presence and is ably assisted by his old cohort Alan Hale. Veteran villain Claude Rains is up to his old tricks, but in a more muted way, and Henry Daniell is his usual wonderfully supercilious character. But the most distinctive aspect of the film is undoubtedly the film score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It would be the last swashbuckler he would write and he made it a brilliant farewell, updating elements of his previous scores for Flynn, the love theme from Captain Blood, the frenetic energy of Robin Hood, and the queen’s theme from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and many fans consider it his finest score. This would also be Flynn’s last swashbuckler for Warners, with the exception of the tongue in cheek The Adventures of Don Juan. The film was a success with fans and critics and The Sea Hawk remains one of the all time classics to this day.

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