The other night, we watched The Sea Hawk (1940) for the first time. We watched this for several reasons, among them because Grace loves the old swashbuckling novels like the one this picture was adapted from. Books by folks like Rafael Sabatini (who wrote this one), Alexandre Dumas, Frank Yerby, and a variety of others, especially Samuel Shellabarger, who wrote one of Grace’s favorite books of all time, Prince of Foxes, itself adapted into a movie in 1949 starring Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, et al.
While I also like these old Hollywood movies, I was excited about this one for a particular reason. Like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), another all-timer that we watched for the first time last year, this was directed by Michael Curtiz. While Curtiz is probably best known for Casablanca, and perhaps only slightly less well-known for swashbuckling fare like this, when I think of him, the first two movies that spring to mind are two of his only horror pictures – and two of my favorite horror films of all time: Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).
I’ve written about those two films at some length various other places, but for those who are just hearing about them for the first time, know that I recommend them, especially Doctor X, as heartily as I possibly can. Not only are they two of the only surviving films shot in what’s known as “two-strip Technicolor,” lending them a lurid and unmistakable palette, they are also just dynamite examples of the horror films of Hollywood’s golden age – and horror films in general.
On those two films, and several others, Curtiz worked with Polish art director and production designer Anton Grot, who, for my money, may have been one of the best who ever plied that trade. The incredible look of both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum owes at least as much to Grot’s work behind the scenes as to Curtiz’s work behind the camera.
Grot and Curtiz are working together again on The Sea Hawk, and while the sets here are not as filled with expressionistic horror or pulpish shadows and angles as those of Doctor X, they are no less impressive, or integral to the mood and function of the piece. From possibly the most impressive ship-to-ship battle I have ever seen, which opens the film in dramatic fashion and for which Warner Bros. had to build a larger sound stage to accommodate the full-scale ships, to minor touches in quiet scenes, the production design and art direction here is always top of the line.
In fact, there’s very little in The Sea Hawk that isn’t a shining example of Golden Age Hollywood operating at the peak of its powers. The actors, including Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Brenda Marshall, Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, and many others, all acquit themselves nicely, while Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth is an absolute force of nature. But the human elements may be the film’s weakest links. Everything from the score (by swashbuckler stalwart Erich Wolfgang Korngold) to the costumes (by the prolific Orry-Kelly) to the scope and scale of the film itself is absolutely top-drawer Hollywood, as they only did back in those days.
Earlier on, though, I was talking about horror, and I want to address the horror bonafides in The Sea Hawk, which absolutely has them, even if we discount the involvement of Curtiz and Grot. One of the things that really sets The Sea Hawk apart from a number of the other cutlass-and-tights flicks of the era is the way in which it deftly handles a variety of disparate moods, from swashbuckling adventure to throne-room intrigue to romance to tragedy to tension and, yes, horror.
Each of these transitions is handled at once dramatically and dynamically, with touches that are often both small and ingenious. Take, for instance, the sequence of the film which takes place in the New World, where the standard “silver screen” black-and-white of the rest of the picture is replaced with a sepia tone that captures perfectly the changed feel of the setting.
This extends to the film’s few moments of genuine horror. The galleys of the Spanish ships, where slaves are whipped into pulling heavy oars, are rendered in an expressionistic scale that calls to mind the great German silent films, while an attempt at escape late in the movie is suffused with more genuine tension than most entire thrillers can ever manage. The desperation of a slog through the swamps of the New World is rendered suitably oppressive, but the real star of the horror show comes when the escaped crew of the Albatross attempt to return to their ship after an ambush.
Worn down and desperate, they row toward what should be their salvation, but even before they reach the ship, it is clear that something is very wrong. As they climb aboard a ship that should be bustling with the rest of their crew, all is silence and the grim creaking of the rigging, a setting as haunting as any ghost ship ever put on film. The real bravura touch, however, comes as they move to explore the deck, and the camera suddenly switches to a top-down shot from high in the rigging, one that expertly conveys the isolation and the unknown danger of the situation in which they find themselves.
These are only a few brief moments of horror in a film that otherwise moves effortlessly across a variety of other tones and moods, but they are no less deftly deployed for all that and for me, at least, they served to heighten what was already a most enjoyable experience with a classic film of yesteryear.