Wednesday, July 13, 2016

THE SEA HAWK (Warner Bros. 1940) Warner Home Video

By 1940, the year Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Hawk had its debut, its star, Errol Flynn was sitting pretty. Within eight years, Flynn had gone from virtual unknown to one of Warner Brother’s most bankable – and unlikeliest of – stars; a sex symbol as at home in a cod piece and Elizabethan collar as in chaps and a ten gallon or, better still, bare-chested to leave his adoring female fans swooning. The Tasmanian-born adventurer had many pursuits crammed into one lifetime. Movie-making just happened to be the cog that kept the rest of his wheels spinning. Some of Flynn’s less admirable thirsts would eventually lay claim to his reputation, prematurely ravaging his trademarked good looks and manliness. But in 1940, Flynn was at the top of his game. Not only had he cut a swath through some of the studio’s most lavishly produced action movies, but Errol Flynn had also managed to hold his own opposite WB’s resident diva, Bette Davis – no small feat, and perhaps one begrudgingly recognized (though never acknowledged) by Davis on the set of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Despite Davis’ chiding of Flynn as an inferior pretty boy, he continued to prove to the studio there was more to his mystique and appeal than a cleft chin and flashing eyes. In some ways, Flynn’s appeal straddles the chasm between Clark Gable’s brash and rugged virility, and, Rudolph Valentino’s more fluid machismo. Unlike Gable, Flynn looked impossibly chiseled in tights and high collars; a rogue in some of the most flamboyant trappings, and unlike Valentino, there was never any doubt where men were concerned as to Flynn’s own predilection for female companionship. In short, Errol Flynn was a man’s man, lusting after life and women – though not always in this order.
Warner Bros. had been particularly clever in marketing their ‘new find’ back in 1935 with Flynn’s breakout in Captain Blood – another Michael Curtiz swashbuckler based on yet another novel by imminent nineteenth and early twentieth century adventure novelist, Rafael Sabatini. Over the course of the next decade, Errol Flynn’s repertoire steadily matured beyond the flounced shirt and knee-high calf-skin boots. Warner’s put Flynn in westerns, contemporary melo- and wartime dramas, and the even the occasionally romantic comedy and musical. He seemed to excel wherever he appeared, perhaps because, as an actor, Flynn never took himself seriously – only the work. In between the movies, Flynn dabbled in any number of extracurricular pursuits to satisfy his varying appetites; sailing, boxing, carousing with an endless cavalcade of eager female admirers throwing themselves at his head. Olivia de Havilland was his mainstay for a while; the two frequently cast as sparring lovers on the road to matrimony.  Behind the scenes, she loved Flynn dearly, though increasingly was to discover their interests in life diverged. He wanted money and fame. She desired respect for a job well done. On the set of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) things reached a critical breaking point; De Havilland planting a healthy and very public wet kiss on her costar after the cameras stopped rolling. Reflecting on this moment years later, De Havilland added, “…and might I say, Mr. Flynn had some trouble with his tights.”
But behind Flynn’s Teflon-coated façade few knew how terribly his immune system had been compromised after a virulent bout of malaria, contracted while working in Papua, New Guinea. At the height of his screen popularity, Flynn also suffered a near-fatal heart attack while playing famed pugilist James J. Corbett in Gentleman Jim (1942). The incident was later written up as exhaustion to keep the press at bay and preserve Flynn’s public image.  But it was always something of a personal regret for Flynn he was denied military service in WWII based on these two aforementioned criteria. For Flynn was a born adventurer who would have relished the opportunity to prove to the world his capacity for daring do went far beyond the he-man image cultivated by the studio. Basil Rathbone, formally trained in the art of sword-fighting, and who jousted with Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) bore the actor some ‘polite’ malice; generally fond of rubbing Flynn’s nose in his own illusion, telling screen gossip Hedda Hopper, “I don’t mind being sacrificed to Errol in the movies because everyone knows in a real sword fight I could easily kill him any day of the week.”
Warner Bros. took great pains to preserve Errol Flynn’s public persona. That he could never entirely live up to this concocted paragon in private gradually began to fray his nerves. Yet, even as he succumbed to bouts of alcoholism and a healthier than usual spate of sexual liaisons, Flynn could not escape himself; his feeble attempts, capped off by a charge of rape in 1942 (subsequently leading to unflattering innuendo about his cocksmanship and the notorious moniker, 'In like Flynn' which he would never live down). In 1921, a similar charge against then reigning comedian, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle had pummeled his seemingly indestructible career into cinders. But Errol Flynn’s reputation at the box office remained untarnished by allegations he a sprinkled paprika on his member and forced a young girl to perform several gratuitous acts for his own pleasure. Flynn would remain shielded from the pall of his private life for almost another decade. But by then no amount of pancake makeup could conceal what his severe after hours debauching had done to his once sturdy face and streamlined body; aged eight to ten years further along the road of life. Like so many stars gone before him (and come and gone since) the last act of Errol Flynn’s professional career remains unworthy of his talents; movies capitalizing on the Flynn that was, progressively proving a disappointment at the box office, since the myth no longer ran a parallel course with the reality plainly visible for all to see on the screen.
And right in the middle of Flynn’s glory days came The Sea Hawk; the caustic Curtiz hand-crafting a thunderous epic that played to Flynn’s strengths; cast as the free-spirited Geoffrey Thorpe, commander of the Albatross in service to her Majesty, the Queen. Backed by all the class ‘A’ treatment a top-flight studio like Warner Bros. could afford, Flynn could not help but come across as a larger-than-life legend in his own time; marauding across these open waters and decapitating a small waxworks of candles during his climactic duel with the treacherous Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell). Perhaps recalling Rathbone’s comments on his fencing prowess, Flynn had added considerable practice, and, in comparing his swordplay from The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, to the exhilarating display he gives in The Sea Hawk, one is immediately struck by a number of vast improvements to his form; his lines and movement, somehow cleaner, sharper and with added grace. When he slices the air (and furniture) with his blade, he does so with a casual finesse and arrogant confidence; perhaps, even a renewed appreciation for the weapon firmly clutched in hand.  Fair enough, Flynn was always guaranteed to win the duel. But he moves with a monumental elegance that evokes the screen enigma and larks of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.; unabashedly charismatic, with a feisty grin to spare. And the sword fight in The Sea Hawk is particularly brutal, sustaining cuts and slashes but never the lethal wound to deprive Flynn of the poise necessary to win the hour and the day.      
Flynn has less success convincing us of Geoffrey Thorpe’s undying love for the Spanish Ambassador’s niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall). Perhaps it is the other way around. Whatever the case, The Sea Hawk’s one incalculable sin is the absence of Olivia de Havilland as Flynn’s love interest. Marshall is an exotic creature to be sure. Orry-Kelly’s high-collared, cleavage-boosting costumes serve her well. But she lacks the spark of sexual fire de Havilland could produce at will, particularly when her costar was Errol Flynn. In 1940, the couple’s passionate affair was definitely on.  But de Havilland had committed a cardinal sin in 1939; going over Jack Warner’s head – by appealing to his wife – to be allowed to co-star in David O. Selznick’s Technicolor masterpiece; Gone With The Wind.  The actress had acquitted herself rather nicely of the part of Melanie Hamilton in that movie. But this was not to Warner’s liking, particularly after his own plans to loan Selznick both Flynn and Bette Davis for GWTW had been turned down. Was Jack Warner master of all he surveyed, or as pliable as putty? A precedent needed to be set. And so, immediately following her loan out to Selznick International, de Havilland was quietly put on a suspension – cordially denied the option to appear in another A-list production (for her studio or anyone else’s). De Havilland would be brought to heel…or so Warner thought. He was mistaken. But more on this another time and in another review.  
The Sea Hawk benefits immensely from Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller’s taut, dramatic screenplay which bears absolutely no earthly resemblance to Rafael Sabatini’s novel but is, in fact, founded on a heavily rewritten screenplay by Miller. Like most all the picture’s the studio made during this period, The Sea Hawk has that ‘out of the gate’ breakneck pace of a vintage ‘ripped from the headlines’ crime drama. The gangster movie had built up the studio’s reputation throughout the Depression-ridden 1930’s. Now, Warner would go confidently toe to toe with the brocaded gloss and pageantry a la an MGM screen spectacle; the result - a high octane swashbuckler with the finest production values of any adventure yarn yet to be told.  In fact, Warner commissioned the construction of two massive galleys built inside an even more colossally impressive sound stage; a mammoth tank flooded with water to a depth of twelve feet and surrounded by a cyclorama of stormy clouds: faux realism to stage the picture’s epic battles at sea.
In hindsight, The Sea Hawk bears the mark of producer, Hal B. Wallis - the best in the business - yet another slickly packaged entertainment. Known for his integrity and attention to detail, Wallis’ contributions on The Sea Hawk are oft overlooked, or rather, eclipsed by Curtiz’s bombast behind the camera and Flynn’s flickering eroticism in front of it. Padding out the superb cast are Flora Robson, who donned the wig and bodice yet again, having played Elizabeth I – first – in Porter’s Fire Over England (1937).  Resident character actor, Claude Rains is an imposing Don José Alvarez de Cordoba; the wily Spaniard plotting the overthrow of the monarchy. Rains remains one of the most fondly remembered supporting players of the Warner stock company; a superior thespian with a mellifluous voice and commanding presence. In spite of his rather meager physical stature, and the smaller part he was repeatedly asked to play, Claude Rains is an indelible part of the picture. Jack Warner also hedged his bets by casting Alan Hale as Flynn’s comedic sidekick yet again – a part he frequently played and relished with equal aplomb. Finally, there is Henry Daniell, one of filmdom’s enduring and exquisite villains. 
The Sea Hawk begins in the map room of King Philip II of Spain (Montagu Love) declaring his unquenchable thirst for conquest; to dominate that “puny rockbound island as barren and treacherous as her Queen.”  Even as he is amassing his armada, Philip sends special envoy, Don Alvarez, as his ‘goodwill’ ambassador to allay Queen Elizabeth I’s suspicions. The court of Elizabeth is divided. With a firm understanding of her diminished treasury and her peoples’ fervent desire for peace, Elizabeth is reluctant to heed the advice of her ministers who implore her to invest in the country’s rearmament.   In the meantime, Don Alvarez’s ship is captured by the Albatross and ‘the sea hawks’ – privateers who sail and scavenge the seas with England’s complicity. The Albatross’ captain, Geoffrey Thorpe is loyal to Elizabeth and, in fact, a favorite at court. Thorpe’s crew takes Don Alvarez and his niece, Dona Maria by force to England. En route, Dona Maria admonishes Thorpe for his crew’s behavior; also for their plunder of her jewels. In response, Thorpe magnanimously returns every last bauble to his tearful captor. Dona Maria now begins to suspect her first impressions of Thorpe, as an unruly English pirate, are premature. In time, this change of heart will predictably lead to romance.
In England, Don Alvarez makes his displeasure known to Elizabeth. Publicly, she reproves the sea hawks for their piratical attacks, declaring they jeopardize the tenuous treaties England has established with Spain. However, privately the Queen entertains Thorpe at her pleasure and is ever so amused by his gift – a playful monkey. Thorpe is mistrusting of Don Alvarez. Moreover, he proposes a plan to seize large caravans of Spanish gold to fatten England’s dwindling royal treasury. Forewarning Thorpe she cannot accept, or even acknowledge, his scheme without setting off a powder keg between the two nations already locked in a tenuous détente, in private, Elizabeth promises to look the other way while Thorpe sets his plans into motion. Thorpe will sail immediately on a proposed ‘expedition’ up the Nile. To quell Don Alvarez’s suspicions about its purpose – but also to keep Spain close to her side and under her watchful eye - Elizabeth makes Dona Maria a maid of honor.  Regrettably, none of this subterfuge fools Lord Wolfingham, who feigns loyalty to the crown, all the while conspiring with Spain to assure Elizabeth’s downfall. Wolfingham’s spies are unable to pry loose the true purpose of Thorpe’s voyage. But after contacting the chart maker, Don Alvarez and Wolfingham concur Thorpe is actually preparing to sail to the Isthmus of Panama. In response, Alvarez orders his Captain to stake out an ambush for the Albatross. Unprepared for the attack, Thorpe and his men are sent fleeing into the swamps. A short while later, Thorpe and a few of his surviving crew make their way back to the Albatross, only to discover she has been taken by the Spanish, lying in wait for their return. Without asylum, Thorpe and his men are sentenced by the Inquisition to the Spanish galleys. Word of Thorpe’s capture sends shockwaves throughout England, perhaps nowhere more heartfelt than by Dona Maria who faints dead away. Sensing a plot afoot, Elizabeth banishes Don Alvarez from her court.
Stripped of his rank and shackled to an oar, Thorpe meets fellow Englishman, Abbott (Henry Stephenson) who was taken prisoner for trying to uncover the armada's true intent and purpose. In a daring escape, Thorpe organizes the rest of the prisoners to commandeer their ship. He then boards another at port where Spain’s insidious and incriminating plans to invade England are unearthed. With all haste, Thorpe and his men set sail immediately for England. Thorpe cannot believe his good fortune when Don Alvarez – thinking them a Spanish vessel – boards to make his own quiet getaway, but instead is promptly taken prisoner. Dona Maria, who, against her father’s wishes, has decided to remain in England, is momentarily overjoyed when Thorpe invades her carriage. She willing helps to smuggle Thorpe past the Spanish guards and into the castle.  Regrettably, another of Lord Wolfingham's spies is not so easily fooled, alerting the palace guard to capture Thorpe at all costs. Thorpe narrowly escapes detection and enters the Queen’s private residence, determined to forewarn Elizabeth of the traitors in her midst. Wolfingham has other plans, confronting Thorpe in a dramatic clash of steel, moving from room to room in shadowy flickers by candlelight; all the while drawing closer to the Queen’s bedchamber. After much destruction and a few close calls, Thorpe kills Wolfingham in self-defense. With Dona Maria’s assistance, he offers Elizabeth proof of King Philip’s ulterior motives. In recognition of his valor and undying loyalty to the crown, Elizabeth knights Thorpe aboard the Albatross with Dona Maria and his fellow crew assembled. With England’s commitment its naval forces restored a mighty and noble fleet prepares to withstand the pending deluge from Spain.
The Sea Hawk is a rollicking swashbuckler with few equals. Sol Polito’s cinematography, in B&W with a handful of sepia-tinted sequences – yields to some exceptional play-acting by all concerned; particularly Flynn’s flavorful and duty-bound cavalier. The Sea Hawk is a tastefully wrought super-production from Warner, etched by master craftsmen working both in front of and behind the camera.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s exuberant score catches the tail fires and flourish of a powerful drama and exuberant actioner without ever dwarfing the performances within.  And then, of course, there is Errol Flynn; a titan made unassuming by his trademarked devil-may-care attitude. Critics of the day invariably resented Flynn his charisma, discounting it as Flynn merely ‘being himself’ rather than assimilating into character. Yet, it is precisely for this invisibility between fiction and the man that Flynn ought to have been heralded as one of the screen’s true giants. Flynn’s Thorpe is both genuine and alive. He just seems at home in clothing that would make most any other actor quietly itch with gender-bending uncomfortableness. Moreover, Flynn is given some unusually glib lines of dialogue to recite. As when he lazily informs a defeated Capt. Lopez (Gilbert Roland) of the obvious, “You’re ship is sinking” only to be told with steely-eyed confidence by Lopez they will drown together. Unmoved by the brevity of either their situation or Lopez’s seemingly lethal satisfaction, Flynn casually tips his head, before commenting, “Brave, but impractical. Now we English are a practical people. I've no intention of drowning with you.”  

Only Sabatini’s title – The Sea Hawk survived this transition from novel to screen. The story told herein is actually ‘Beggars of the Sea’ – loosely based on Sir Francis Drake’s exploits and conceived by Richard Neville and Delmer Daves, with a near complete rewrite done by Seton Miller. The piecework of the script speaks to the then collaborative machinations of Warner’s well-oiled studio machinery, all pistons firing in unison to create an enduring work of art. The extravagance of The Sea Hawk in virtually all departments set it apart from just another of Warner’s slate of 52 programmers for the year.  When unfairly compared against The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk is likely the second greatest collaboration between Errol Flynn and director, Michael Curtiz.  It is by far a showcase for Flynn’s inimitable dash; his subtle balancing act, deftly balancing the byplay with swordplay. Wildly brash, yet tenderly poignant, it is easy to see why women swooned over Errol Flynn, both on screen and off. He is and remains the epitome of the dashing rogue with a heart of gold.
It is extremely disheartening to report so little Flynn has surfaced on Blu-ray; The Adventures of Robin Hood being the only Flynn masterpiece presently available in high-def.  Undeniably, there is a much work needed to be done on this deep catalog title to ready it for 1080p. We must recall that The Sea Hawk’s original negative was badly butchered over the years, with most archival first generation elements lost. Piecing together Curtiz’s masterpiece is therefore more a labor than a labor of love, but one I am certain would benefit from the Warner Archive’s investment of time and money. Warner Home Video’s DVD is competently mastered. But it is decidedly hampered by the aforementioned shortcomings, and thus, emerges, occasionally flawed. The gray scale has been handsomely reproduced with deep solid blacks and overall clean whites. Occasionally, contrast appears ever so slightly boosted. The sepia sequences are severely compromised by a heavier than anticipated patina of film grain, looking more clumpy than thick.
Age-related artifacts are present but do not distract on the whole. Owing to years of neglect, a key sequence in which Dona Maria races to the docks too late to bid her lover farewell, has been sourced from very poorly archived second (or perhaps even third) generation elements that bear an uncanny resemblance to inferior 16mm film stock with gate weave and wobble built in. Herein, image quality is extremely poor with deep flicker built in and very dark contrast levels. Fine details is entirely compromised – a pity. The mono audio has been cleaned up and sounds remarkably good. Background hiss is detected during quiescent moments, but again, for a film of this vintage it is mostly to be expected. Extras include Warner Night At The Movies - hosted by Leonard Maltin, a brief featurette on the movie and Flynn – neither dealt with comprehensively – and Warner’s usual smattering of short subjects. The Sea Hawk on DVD comes highly recommended. But we would strenuously encourage the Warner Archive to get busy on giving us more Errol Flynn on Blu-ray. Pretty please and soon. I’m aging rapidly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


David M. said...

There's "Dodge City" on Blu-Ray too, which was a big improvement over the DVD with its colour registration problems. The four DVD box sets of Errol Flynn movies that Warner Home Video issued over a decade ago are a real delight ("Robin Hood" wasn't even in any of them, having been released as a two-disc set in a "Warner Legends" box). I'm very happy with them, but would Blu-Rays be welcome? I'd be in like...a shot. And Nick, if maintaining your high reviewing standards is making you age rapidly, it sure doesn't show in your work.

Nick Zegarac said...

I had forgotten about Dodge City and 'yes' - like virtually all of Warner's more recent Blu-ray releases, it bears up to their higher standards of quality that have steadily put all other studios' commitments to shame. I would really like them to give The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex such consideration, a movie I consider the better of the 1939 offerings and costarring Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth. The DVD is horrendously mis-registered, just like the ole Dodge City DVD. Warner has shown a great devotion to correcting past sins from standard def in hi-def. I sincerely hope that trend continues.