Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Sea Hawk

Finally, unless the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies count, I’ve now seen my first pirate movie. And “The Sea Hawk” (1940) with Errol Flynn was a perfect introduction to the genre. I certainly have the taste in my mouth now to experience many others, the way “Stagecoach” encouraged me to check out countless other westerns.

I now know firsthand why terms like “exciting” and “dashing” are so often used when discussing the genre. Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” Flynn’s “Robin Hood”), “The Sea Hawk” is an immaculately crafted Hollywood entertainment with the adventurous spirit of Indiana Jones. And the rousing set-pieces are many:

The adventure sets off to a fast start with a sea battle between a Spanish ship carrying wealth and jewels and the beautiful Doña Maria (played by Brenda Marshall) and the pirate ship captained by Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn). Cannons fire and masts splinter, falling crashing to the decks and pirates, led by Thorpe, swing from ship to ship. It is wonderfully choreographed action. The kid in you is sure to love it.

Thorpe and his Sea Hawks are sent – unofficially and under-the-table – by Queen Elizabeth to the new world (Panama) to steal away Spanish gold and riches. She is a conniving queen and refuses to officially sanction such a mission, but, in private, Thorpe is clearly her pirate. Of course, the Spanish are her equal in deception and a plan to trap Thorpe and his men is hatched.

Learning of this plan to capture Thorpe and knowing it could well mean life imprisonment if not death for him, Maria races by coach to the harbor, arriving too late by mere minutes to warn him. This sequence is gorgeously and breathtakingly filmed and the lingering close-ups of Maria and Thorpe as his ship sails away register perfectly their now fully aware and fully shared love.

The sequence in the new world also beautifully underlines the vast distance separating the two lovers by being filmed in sepia toned color. It’s not as dramatic of a distinction drawn between ordinary and special worlds as was the case a year previously in “The Wizard of Oz,” but the effect is still spellbinding.

After being captured by the Spaniards and being sentenced to row their ships about the sea in chains for the rest of their lives, Thorpe engineers an escape. The sequence beginning with Thorpe’s order to all the men to stop rowing and ending with the Sea Hawks taking control of the ship is a masterpiece, like a step-by-step lesson in how to wage a mutiny. It’s great moviemaking.

I’m at a loss as to why the pirate movie genre died out, even more permanently than the western which still manages re-emergences of popularity every ten years or so. “The Sea Hawk” is remarkably modern and politically relevant. It reminds me of the “Godfather” movies from the 1970s. Queen Elizabeth (played by Flora Robson who nearly steals the movie) is a scheming and maneuvering embodiment of the rich and powerful.

She is someone who can get away with murder. She has the power that Michael Corleone recognizes in American politicians, the all-corrupt power that Corleone will ultimately command as well. You can almost hear Queen Elizabeth uttering the words, “Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer” as she lies to the Spaniards and then seductively orders Thorpe to rob them blind.

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