The Sea Hawk (1924) [50 Films Older Than Me #22]

A while ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #22. So, that’s 22 movies out of 50 in well over 50% of the year, which just goes to show how far behind I am with all this.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Sea Hawk

Directed by Frank Lloyd.

Release Year:  1924 (46 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Sir Oliver Tressilian is a land owner who is falsely accused of murder, and then betrayed by his cowardly brother, winding up a slave on a Spanish galley ship. Fortune brings him to the favor of a Moorish lord who gives him his own vessel and crew to command. Oliver becomes the “Sea Hawk”, a sea Captain who becomes the terrifying scourge of his adopted country’s enemies. However, when he learns that his brother is going to marry his former love Rosamund, he kidnaps them both, leading to a chain of events which threaten to destroy everything he loves.

Starring Milton Sills as Sir Oliver Tressillian, Enid Bennett as Lady Rosamund, Lloyd Hughes as Oliver’s brother Lionel, Wallace Beery as the comical sea captain who initially shanghais Oliver, and Frank Currier as Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers that Oliver ends up serving.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew nothing about The Sea Hawk aside from the fact that it was silent swashbuckling adventure film with a good reputation.

Reality: The Sea Hawk is an old silent film, and so it’s got all the trappings that one would expect with a movie like that. The performances are a bit stilted, and staging is somewhat theatrical, and the production values are limited. But coming into it without expecting it to be something it isn’t–that indeed, it could never have been–and there is a lot to appreciate.

It’s s a strong plot, akin to what we know from things like Ben-Hur or Gladiator. At some point in history, a hero is betrayed and winds up in slavery, but who finds their way through and rises to prominence in a different way, only to eventually return to see justice done. The story points that lead to Oliver Tressillian’s misfortune are elegantly told–his misfortune is not the result of an enemy’s schemes, but the cowardice and self-preservation of his own brother. It’s actually quite a startling event to kicks things off, but it comes after a fair amount of set-up.

I found that portion of the film the most difficult to enter into. The plot works but the pacing is slow, and it’s during this time that the performances seem the most stylized for the silent medium. Also, we go into the film looking forward to its well-reputed sea scenes, and there is not a ship in sight anywhere for the first half hour. Eventually though we know who all our players are and Oliver finds himself manning the oars on a Spanish galley ship.

Of course, escape is soon in the cards, and we are treated to the movie’s most spectacular sequence. Apparently director Frank Lloyd felt like audiences would not be convinced by miniatures, and so instead built full-sized ships for the movie. As a result we get some pretty convincing action–not like it would measure up to something today, but certainly gripping and immersive as Oliver takes advantage of an attacking Moorish ship to make his escape.

The story then jumps forward (literally labeling itself as the second part) and Oliver has become a successful sea captain sailing under an Algiers flag, preying on hapless foreign vessels, but always showing mercy to any Englishmen (how own countrymen) that he captures. Plenty of intrigue is added to the story to compliment the action, as Oliver literally kidnaps his former fiancée, and then must work to protect her from the unwanted attentions of his leader.

All of this story doesn’t happen in a rush, but is suspenseful and gripping. One comes to feel for Oliver and his plight, and it’s hard to imagine he will ever be able to return to his former life. The performances by the lead cast all work well and I was especially impressed by Lloyd Hughes’ ability to make Oliver’s brother Lionel reprehensible while still being somehow sympathetic.

There are even touches of light-hearted fun, especially with the character of Captain Jasper Leigh who starts off as Oliver’s kidnapper but winds up as his ally on some level, and gets a really funny bit at the end where he is telling Oliver and Rosamund’s child the story of their adventures, but with himself cast as the hero.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? It requires a bit of patience, but The Sea Hawk is well worth the journey, telling fun and emotional high stakes adventure.

See here for the Master List.

5 thoughts on “The Sea Hawk (1924) [50 Films Older Than Me #22]

  1. I enjoyed it but it really needed the presence of a Flynn or Fairbanks to add some star power.
    I highly recommend the Sabatini source novel (it’s a pretty faithful adaptation).

  2. I’m pretty unfamiliar with this whole genre and era of filmmaking, so although of course I’ve heard of Flynn and Fairbanks I have almost no exposure to anything they’ve done on screen.

  3. Fairbanks is absolutely amazingly acrobatic, particularly in Mark of Zorro and The Black Pirate. Flynn’s best movies (Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood and an unrelated Sea Hawk) are also excellent. I’d recommend both Zorro and Robin Hood (Fairbanks’ Robin Hood was definitive for years, but I prefer the Flynn).

  4. Of course! I forgot that I actually just watched The Mark of Zorro, for this very blog series. Yes, Fairbanks was certainly adept there at jumping over fences, through windows, etc.

  5. Much like watching Gene Kelly move, Fairbanks makes me feel … not very graceful.
    Hell, even 60something Kelly dances with more grace than I could ever have managed.

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