Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Sea Hawk (1924)

I have no interest in sports. But as a former Seattleite, I know I have to cover this movie at some point this year just because of its title. I meant to get to it right after the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory, but then I just sort of… continued to not give a shit about professional sports.

Anyway, The Sea Hawk—an Elizabethan period piece adapted from a book by Rafael Sabatini—chronicles the transformation of Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills)—a courageous but arrogant Cornish seafarer—into Sakr-el-Bahr (صقر البحر, which actually does mean “hawk of the sea”), Barbary pirate and scourge of the Spanish.

The Muslims

In the first act, Oliver’s half-brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes) frames Oliver for murder, has him kidnapped, and steals his fiancée, a noblewoman by the name of Rosamund Godolphin. Oliver soon finds himself exiled and enslaved aboard a brutal Spanish galleon. He eventually escapes, abjures Christianity for Islam, and dedicates his life to piracy.

The Sea Hawk treats Muslims and Moors almost the same as the British Christians. In fact, it portrays Moors more positively than the Spanish. The film depicts both Christians and Muslims as slavers, but because Oliver found himself enslaved by other Christians, he appears to see Islam as the marginally better choice (Islam prohibits enslaving freeborn Muslims). The film and the book both came out during the period James Loewen calls the “nadir of race relations,” which makes its attitude toward slavery all the creepier.

But the film never explains how Oliver came to share a wardrobe with Genghis Khan.

Oliver and Companions

Oliver makes for a decidedly strange and hypocritical antihero. He spends six months as a slave, yet he later purchases and makes use of slaves himself. He eventually even purchases Rosamund and Lionel as slaves!

Oliver just spent six months as a galley slave. Look into those cold, hard eyes and watch him learn absolutely nothing.
Oliver spends the entire film in love with Rosamund, but their relationship looks pretty unhealthy. The film opens with him dueling and stabbing her legal guardian, Sir John Killigrew, because Sir John accused him of piracy and cowardice. Oliver later sails back to Cornwall, kidnaps Rosamund, and speed-marries her without her consent. Oliver maintains a habit of steamrolling over Rosamund’s free will; even his privations and rise to prominence in Algiers doesn’t change this.

“Rosamund, my love, I know you just saw me stab your father figure, but I can explain that right now we should totally have sex.”
The film depicts Oliver and his half-brother Lionel with echoes of Thor and Loki. Although the ironically-named Lionel initially falls into his villainous role through cowardice, he quickly figures out how to use Oliver’s headstrong personality against him. The film makes a running theme out of Lionel embodying the very qualities he imputes to Oliver, such as homicidal tendencies, greed, and fecklessness.

Nothing against Wil Wheaton, but Lloyd Hughes also kind of looks like Wil Wheaton.
On the Moorish side of things, all decisions ultimately fall to Asad-ed-Din (أسد الدين, a name that literally means “lion of the faith”), Basha of Algiers and Lionel’s counterpart in the Moorish world. Like Lionel, Asad treats Oliver/Sakr like family, but he ultimately decides to scheme against his protégé over Rosamund. In Asad’s duality with Lionel, one gets the feeling that Oliver’s exile can’t erase the struggles that he has to face. Oliver’s temperament, not his location, determines the nature his struggles.

Fortunately for the music world, Asad wouldn’t live long enough to sue ZZ Top.
We also see another parallel in two lackeys. Wallace Beery boosts the film slightly as Jasper Leigh, the venal ship’s captain who enacts Lionel’s orders to shanghai Oliver. Beery ultimately realizes that serving Oliver instead would prove good for his health, so he amends his ways to help out his former captive. He becomes the quirkiest and drunkest—although definitely not the bravest—of the supporting characters.

Sometimes, a bandana makes a man look like a pirate.
Other times, a bandana makes a man look like the quirky housekeeper in a sitcom.

Robert Bolder plays Jasper’s Algerian counterpart, sleazy slaver Ayoub, an agent of Asad’s family. When Oliver captures Rosamund and Lionel, in keeping with Islamic custom, the state sells both into slavery. Ayoub attempts to buy Rosamund for his master. In the book, he succeeds. In the film, he loses to Oliver but lives to scheme another day.

You can’t tell from the picture, but he looks like a total jackass in context.
All in all, the film treats its English characters and its Moorish characters as more-or-less equal: equally capable of nobility, magnanimity, and honor as well as guile, gullibility, and enslavement. Also, both sides really hate Spain.

Look at that smug Spanish boat with its stupid sails and its stupid spars and its stupid forecastle.

The Directing

For a silent, the film has novel cinematography. In five years, Frank Lloyd would earn the Academy Award for Best Director for The Divine Lady. Nevertheless, in 1924, his command of the language of film had yet to fully mature. Lloyd weaves scenes together in a way that feels confusing when he can’t accompany them with changes in sound or color. He weaves together two romantic scenes early on in a disorienting manner, with abrupt jump cuts zigzagging back and forth. Battle scenes become confusing as he jumps from wide shots to two-shots to two-shots from a different angle without regard to continuity.

Still, though, Lloyd sells the most climactic parts. The fight scenes work on the silent film tradition of throwing a bunch of extras into the frame and having them all duke it out with each other. These scenes don’t exactly sparkle by today’s standards, but they work well in the service of the film.

Lloyd even pulls a Méliès and uses hand-painted film in one shot.

Looks pretty cool for 1924, huh?
So the film has a thing or two going for it, but the script still moves at a plodding pace. J.G. Hawks simplified the plot as he adapted the novel for the screen, which proved a wise move, but he and Lloyd still didn’t get the pacing right. The film just seldom feels very exciting. It doesn’t kick into gear until halfway into its run-time, and even after that, a false ending holds up the pace even more. Despite the length, the real ending feels rushed, almost perfunctory.

At least Lloyd also uses some wonderful establishing shots. Some of these shots would later wind up in the loose 1940 remake starring Errol Flynn. The pretty exteriors don’t entirely save the dragging narrative, but they mitigate the boredom.

I love the power of film to enable me to experience Cornwall without the cold.
Speaking of boredom, today the Seattle Seahawks play the Carolina Panthers and I have some football to ignore. So to summarize, I give this film a score of, “Eh.”

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