1924 was an odd year with not too many memorable films and the box office was also a tad quieter. The two biggest films of the year were Douglas Fairbanks expensive epic The Thief of Baghdad and then our largest grosser Frank Lloyds adaption of Rafael Sabatini’s novel The Sea Hawk.
Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Stills) one of Queen Elizabeth’s favoured pirates has retired but due to his younger brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes) foolishly defeated the brother of Olivers fiancé Lady Rosamund Godolphin (Enid Bennett) in a duel and subsequently puts the blame on Sir Oliver by having him kidnapped by pirates. While on the ship he is captured by Moorish corsairs and converts to Islam to fight those who wronged him.
Unlike the Errol Flynn 1940 film, here writer J.G. Hawks has adapted Rafael Sabatini’s novel as faithfully as possible. Allowing our lead character to have doubts and to be overly volatile before the accusations against him. It would be rather odd to have him be this innocent character who suddenly murdered someone instead of a person who had the aggression within him that he could do it.
While on the whole, The Sea Hawk is a great film, especially for the time the fact that it takes over a third of the running time to get going is a failing. Obviously, the more interesting aspect of the film is what happens after the opening scenes, so to waste an extra 20 minutes of this 2-hour film on smaller details that are not of many consequences hurts the pacing of the film. This difficulty of pacing does plague the film.
Another example of this is the prolonged scenes where Sir Oliver is with his fellow slaves as they row. We see the horrible circumstances that they are in, but again, other than to see the scale of the sets and extras, it seems unnecessary to have the scene go on for 5 minutes. Luckily for the film, this doesn’t distract from the rest of the film purely because of how invested you become with the story and performances.
Happily, when the film does stretch its action legs it fulfils its expectant needs with the duels that more than makeup for the dragging first act. The film thrills and grips with these action sequences throughout and becomes a truly great and sadly forgotten. Of course, we get that extra touch of melodrama as what film in the 20s didn’t have a romantic subplot and in truth, this is the one aspect of the film that isn’t really essential to the story and The Sea Hawk would actually benefit from just focusing on Tressalian’s journey in this new life. This is not to say that this subplot is not good, because it is well-acted and perhaps allows us to see an extra dimension to our lead character.
What has to be appreciated with The Sea Hawk I the sheer size of the production. We have full-size ships with full casts working on them. We have large sets throughout that really brings you into the picture. Extra’s aplenty! This brings me back to Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood due to its sheer scale. Though for all of the budget spent on it we are presented with a very static film. There is next to no camera movement and it is slightly disappointing to see that. To have so much detail on screen and just have the camera track this gorgeous ship as it sails in the water, to not roam around the ship as we see the slaves rowing, the film deserves better than that, especially when we know that Frank Lloyd would go on to direct the remarkable 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty.
Due to this series assisting with my education in early cinema this was my first introduction to Milton Sills and he is able to command the screen throughout and aptly conveys the role of a good person with a “right” upbringing being disenchanted to the point where he actively converts to Islam to become Sakr-el-Bahr. His sense of betrayal at everyone back home is evident and he is able to play a character who could fly off the handle at any moment, especially after the events that have happened to him.
With The Sea Hawk, we have a very faithful adaption that is well worth all of its production costs. It is very understandable as to why it was such a success and it is still baffling that this version is not spoken about more than Flynn’s.