Thanks to my recent participation in the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently fame, I have been bitten by the silent film bug. Before this my experience with silent films was more towards Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but thanks to suggestions from Fritzi herself (yes, she is real!) I have been taking a look at some more serious offerings. And so when I saw a post about THE SEA HAWK, I knew that this was a movie that I needed to check out.
Chances are that if you have seen THE SEA HAWK you most likely saw the 1940 version with Errol Flynn. This offering from director Frank Lloyd, who would go one to direct MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, too often is relegated to an afterthought or a bit of historical background. That is a shame because this film not only adheres more closely to the original story of THE SEA HAWK, but also is just as exciting and full of buckles to be swashed as the later version. Not only that but there are some spectacular full-sized ships used in thrilling ship to ship battles, the footage of which was re-used at Warner Brothers for years to come.
In the quiet Cornwall countryside, Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills) is enjoying his retirement thanks to a commendation from Queen Elizabeth I. As one of her majesty’s privateers, Oliver was part of the fight that finally defeated the Spanish Armada and is now planning on marrying his sweetheart. His intended is Rosamond Godolphin (Enid Bennett), the sister of Peter Godolphin (Wallace Mac Donald) and under the guardianship of Sir John Killigrew (Mark MacDermott). Unfortunately for Olivier, John Killigrew is none too pleased with the notion of the fair Rosamond marrying, as he words it, a pirate! He has sent Peter over to tell Oliver just that but Oliver, taking offense at being called a pirate, storms off to speak with John himself. However, Oliver’s idea of talking is to challenge John to a duel and promptly slice him to ribbons. He considers this letting John off with a warning and is about to leave when Rosamond appears. When Oliver tries to explain that he was defending his besmirched honor, as if thrashing a man with a sword disproves the point of him being a ruthless pirate, Rosamond pleads with him to come to her the next time he wishes to use his sword in anger. Not wanting to hurt Rosamond, Oliver agrees and the couple embrace.
Oliver and Rosamond are happy for a time, until their respective brothers begin to make trouble. It seems like Oliver’s half-brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes) and Rosamond’s brother Peter are both enamored of the same woman. She is a matron whose, as the intertitles describe, “conscience is elastic and husband is – old” so naturally she has no problem stringing both men along. This is fine for a little while but then a half drunk Peter discovers Lionel embracing his lady-love and storms off in a huff. Lionel is also angry at having been played for a fool and breaks things off with the matron, who is left alone and wondering what happened to all her pretty young men? Peter rides into town and begins horse whipping Oliver, demanding that he send Lionel to him. Oliver is quite understandably less than pleased with this and rides off after Peter, intent on giving him a thrashing of his own. But partway out-of-town Oliver remembers Rosamond’s words and turns his horse’s head back to the way he came. Some time later Peter finds Lionel and provokes him into a fight, which in turn leads to Lionel killing Peter in self-defense. Horrified at what he has done and bleeding from his wounds, Peter gathers his things and hurries back to Oliver’s house where his brother is wondering what has become of him. Lionel confesses what has happened but worries because no one saw the fight that he will be convicted of murder. Oliver promises to help his brother and to protect him.
Morning dawns and with it comes the discovery of Peter’s body. Worse yet, the ugly rumor is circulating that Oliver is the one that killed him and that rumor has reached Rosamond. It seems that a trail of blood lead from the corpse back to Oliver’s front door and Rosamond is convinced that the man she loves has killed her brother. Oliver is hurt that Rosamond could believe such a thing of him, especially since she asked him to promise to come to her before acting in haste. However, he has a plan to prove his innocence and asks the local justice to come and inspect his body for fresh wounds. When none are found the justice makes out an affidavit which will prove Oliver’s innocence in the crime. But as Oliver seems calmer and calmer in the face of these accusations, Lionel seems more and more panicked. He is afraid that by proving his innocence Oliver will end up casting blame on him. But if Oliver were to disappear…
Lionel makes his way to a local pub and meets with Captain Jasper Leigh (Wallace Beery) of the Sparrow, and offers him a great deal of money (and a jeweled ring) to shanghai his dear brother. Jasper does just that and when they are far enough out to sea he sends for Oliver. Taking off his chains Jasper presents Oliver with a proposition. Pay him a lot of money and he will deposit him safely back on English shores. Oliver demands to know who betrayed him and is horrified to learn that it is his own brother who has done the deed. Promising to pay Jasper double, Oliver is ready to storm out onto the deck when a call comes out that a Spanish ship is bearing down on them. Outmatched and outgunned, the tiny Sparrow and her crew have no choice but to surrender. Now a prisoner of Spain, Oliver finds himself chained to an oar and lashed daily. Six months pass and Oliver has become hardened of both mind and body, disillusioned by the un-Christian attitudes of the Spanish.
Oliver’s oar-mate is Yusuf (Albert Prisco), an Algerian of some prominence and nephew of Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers (Frank Currier) a famed corsair. It just so happens that Yusuf’s uncle is right around the bend and the Spanish ship is soon under attack. The Algerians defeat the Spanish, but Yusuf is killed in the action. Disgusted by the cruel treatment of the Spanish, Oliver joins Asad-ed-Din’s forces and soon becomes one of the most feared pirates, called The Sea Hawk. After many years of sailing and defeating Spanish ships, The Sea Hawk and his crew happen upon The Sparrow and take her and her crew prisoner. Down in the hold they discover Jasper, a prisoner of Spain all this time. Oliver takes this chance to get a message back to England using Jasper as courier.
After first retrieving the affidavit from its hiding place in Oliver’s estate, Jasper goes to see Rosamond. He attempts to present the documents to her but Rosamond, ever forgiving and level-headed, throws them into the fire unread. Jasper accuses Lionel of being the one who killed Peter but is thrown out on his ear for his trouble. Jasper returns Oliver and delivers the bad news with one addition. Rosamond and Lionel will be married within the month. Jasper decides that with crew, his ship, and his new set of skills, it is time to return to England and settle old scores. First stop will be the wedding of Lionel and Rosamond because who doesn’t love a wedding crasher?
I really enjoyed this film and found myself caught up in the action. The sea battles are worthy of anything made today, and are actually all the more impressive for the lack of CGI and the use of real full-sized ships. The story itself is exciting and thrilling with only a few moments that tend to lag a bit. For me, the love story was a little bit like an afterthought in some places and there was a moment or two where I wondered how much Rosamond could care for Oliver if she was so willing to believe the worst of him? What ever happened to stand by your man? Still, Enid Bennett is quite lovely and give a good performance as the lady love though perhaps she could have used a few more scenes to flesh out her character? She and Milton Stills have a good chemistry which makes her inner turmoil of whether or not to completely hate Oliver more believable.
There is also a nice examination of culture and character, the pious Spanish and English often coming off as judgmental and cruel, while the Algerians are shown with little stereotyping and as throughly devout. It is a good backdrop in which to question the truth of men’s characters and ambitions. Being made in 1924 you can almost feel the excitement of the filmmakers in the chance to portray such exotic and foreign places, as well as historical times. The costumes and scenery are lush and beautifully done, looking far more authentic than many films made today.
This is my first time seeing Milton Sills and I am now a full-fledged fan, happily inducted into the club thanks to Fritzi. He plays the part of Oliver as a man of conflicts but also with heart and passion. He flip-flops between loyalties and cultures without coming off as wishy-washy or indecisive. The character of Sir Oliver Tressilian is one of a man of differences that are each fighting to find their place in his character. Is he a pirate or a gentleman? A warrior or a lord? A lover or a man bent on revenge? With everything that happens to him you can’t help but sympathize with his constantly shifting perspectives and loyalties, after all how can he be expected to settle on one thing or another when everything he holds dear and trusts in is taken away when he needs it most? Milton Sills is not a name that is terribly well-known today which is a shame because he is such a terrific actor. His pure energy comes out of the screen and carries us along, veering expertly between a hero and a villain. Yes, there are some moments of overly emotional acting but those are few and far between, and for the most part Sills puts on a performance that made me want to see more of his films. Unfortunately, Sills died at the early age of forty-eight of a heart attack, and very few of his films have survived and made the transition to home video. The Warner Archive has done a great job in restoring THE SEA HAWK and added a terrific score to go along with it, making it a perfect introduction to an actor who deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.