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The adventures of Oliver Tressilian, who goes from English gentry to galley slave to captain of a Moorish fighting ship, all the while trying to regain his lady love. Follows the novel, unlike the 1940 movie of the same name. Written by
Robert Tonsing <email@example.com>
In the 1920s motion pictures were bigger than at any other time. They were big in all directions, and their bigness was all the more impressive because it was based in doing everything for real. The widescreen epics of the 1950s may be more readily called to mind, but in truth they cut corners and tricked the eye wherever possible. The Sea Hawk is a nautical adventure with real ships, real mansions and palaces, real hordes of extras, all purposely built or acquired for one colossus of a production.
Producer-director Frank Lloyd was great at this sort of thing, an expert in blending the large canvas with the small. He opens with a cavernous shot of the protagonist's home, showing off both the height and depth of the lavish set in what is a typical piece of mid-20s extravagance. It's not dwelt on though. While Lloyd eschews close-ups, the majority of his action takes place in delicately composed mid-shots, encouraging the actors to play out their scene with the minimum of fuss. He doesn't move the camera very much but movement within the frame is crucial to Lloyd's style. Rather than fashioning action scenes with lots of rapid cross-cutting, as was the norm back then, he uses gradual shifts in the image, building up tension before a big sea battle by having the attacking ship slowly hove into view. In a shot of dozens of men fighting on deck, the focus is changed as the two opposing captains cut across the foreground. Lloyd even uses things moving on or off the screen for emotional effect, as in Sir Oliver's poignant farewell to his loyal corsairs.
Big in scope, The Sea Hawk is also big in story and may seem a little slow-paced at times. It is a bit frustrating that we are thirty-five minutes into the two-hour runtime before our seafaring hero is actually bounding over the main (that means "at sea", landlubbers). Luckily however, the Rafael Sabatini source novel is pure adventuresome fare, and even on dry land we get plenty of duels and dastardly intrigue. The lengthy runtime also serves to give the story a sense of stature, making Sir Oliver's adventures seem like an odyssey taking place over many years, rather than the simple caper on the briny that a mere 90 minutes would be.
A big production demands big stars. However lead man Milton Sills was not quite in the front rank of stars, and is more or less forgotten today. While not up there with Douglas Fairbanks and Ramon Navarro he can hold his own, with subtle, naturalistic acting and a very piercing gaze. In fact there are smooth understated performances all round, leading lady Enid Bennett refreshingly calm in an era when most actresses were required to go into over-the-top hysterics at the drop of a hatpin. Her scene with Sills as they kiss-and-make-up after his duel with Godolphin is absolutely sublime, and typical of the kind of tasteful melodrama that Frank Lloyd oversaw. The only player who is a bit hammy is Lloyd Hughes, who portrays the hero's double-dealing brother. Hughes looks uncannily like unsung silent comic Charley Chase. I must also mention Wallace Beery who, putting on his best lovable rogue act, is excellent as always. He can draw attention to himself without ever once appearing to show off, standing out from the crowd in the victory march after the corsairs' return from England with that little extra swagger in his step.
The large pictures of the 1950s have been lambasted by some critics, both then and now, as being overblown and soulless behemoths. You have to admire the audacity of these silent epics however, made with the seemingly limitless resources of the roaring twenties, and complete with confidence in their own scale. Rather than seeing what they could knock together on the back lot, they would actually put out to sea and do it all for real. And nothing, not even the most advanced CGI, can top that. But to do that and still tell the human story with tact and dignity is a feat indeed. In fact, compared to the 1950s epics, where the whole point was to show off the big set-pieces (and thus compete with TV), The Sea Hawk is not especially ostentatious. The big ships and buildings are there, but we aren't made to marvel at them; they are simply there because they should be, a very expensive yet faithful backdrop. And the genuine nature of this backdrop brings The Sea Hawk to us as a real-life adventure. If only all epic cinema could be like this.
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