Sunday 11 March 2007

The Sea Hawk (1940) Michael Curtiz

It's a swashbuckler directed by Michael Curtiz, so of course it's an Errol Flynn movie. It's also 1585 and the Spanish are trying to take over the world. The only thing that stands in the way of their successful advances are the English, and they have plans to take out them too. The Armada is being built but in the meantime King Philip has other ideas and so sends Don José Alvarez de Cordoba across to England as his ambassador. Luckily for the English, the sanctioned pirates known as sea hawks who rove the channel are on the ball and Geoffrey Thorpe and his Albatross take out his ship.

There's some intriguing casting going on here, beyond the fact that Thorpe, the Sea Hawk of the title, is played by an American star who was born in Australia and died in Canada. Most bizarre looking is Don José, played by a moustachioed Claude Rains. Una O'Connor plays a personal maid again, but this time as an Englishwoman working for a Spaniard, Don José's daughter, Doña Maria, played by Brenda Marshall who looks and sounds more than a little like a young Hispanic Norma Shearer. Of course it's good to see someone other than Olivia de Havilland as the leading lady for a change. Marshall didn't make a lot of films but she's fine here. A year later she would become Mrs William Holden, and their tempestuous thirty year marriage obviously took up a lot more of her time and attention.

There are other more traditional roles being filled too, especially Alan Hale as a hearty supporting character on Flynn's ship, who of course gets to fall for Una O'Connor as he did so well so often. He also becomes almost demonic by the finale, making this one of his finest roles. There's old faithful Donald Crisp as one of Queen Elizabeth's ministers and a sneaky Henry Daniell as the other. He's not Basil Rathbone but he comes a close second. Similarly, Flora Robson plays the Queen, only three years after Bette Davis had been so memorable in the same part, and she has a good at making it her own.

The story is pure Hollywood and, like almost every historical film made during the golden age, has very little adherence to history. It has a loose connection to events of the times and some of the characters being played are real people, but anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the era would be able to find inaccuracy in every scene at that, sometimes completely blatant inaccuracy at that. The ship's monkey who gets lost in Queen Elizabeth's courtroom and steals more than one scene is about as realistic as Disney's talking teapots, but it's still probably more realistic than the half flattery, half romance between Elizabeth I and her favourite pirate, obviously based on Sir Francis Drake.

What we need to know is that the English are the good guys, the Spanish are the bad guys and of course there's a traitor on both sides: Wolfingham, the Lord chancellor, on the English side, who is therefore bad, and Doña Maria on the Spanish side, who is therefore good, and hey, she's apparently half English anyway. Anything else is stage managed fun, unashamed romantic adventure, in both the old and new meanings of the word. Thorpe heads off on an unofficial non-state sanctioned mission to strip the Spanish empire of the gold it is about to ship home from Panama. Of course the bad guys find out and send the captain that Thorpe captured early on to get there before him and of course Doña Maria finds that out and goes to tell him but of course she's too late and... well you could write much of this yourself, if not as well.

The thing is that everyone involved knows precisely what they're doing and they could do it in their sleep, from director Michael Curtiz and his crew of costume designers, musicians, cinematographers, fight choreographers and so on, to the cast. I was never a huge Errol Flynn fan and to my mind most of this doesn't reach the heights of Robin Hood, let alone Captain Blood, which is my personal favourite. It's certainly far better than his westerns though, which always seemed like bad ideas. People like Rains, Hale, O'Connor, Daniell, Crisp and Robson are just too good to let the side down on a film like this, and backing them up are others like Montagu Love, Halliwell Hobbes, J M Kerrigan, Julien Mitchell, Gilbert Roland, Edgar Buchanan and Jay Silverheels, who are always reliable, even when they're in parts so small that they're not even credited.

All of this talent in one place means that the film can't help but be massively entertaining, however much it's awesomely convenient nonsense. The reason the film is remembered so well today is because of where it goes. The last half hour or so is Curtiz and Flynn at their very best, fighting adversity against great odds for Queen and country. This is why Curtiz got to make most of Flynn's films and it's why Flynn was so great a heroic leading man in the Fairbanks Sr tradition. It's also where much of the textbook got written and why films like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are still stealing from it today.

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