Friday, March 23, 2007

Film Review #91: The Sea Hawk
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Errol Flynn, Flora Robson, Henry Daniell

The ocean has fascinated filmmakers from the earliest days of cinema. The first practitioners of the experimental technique that made a series of jerky, rapidly viewed single photos reproduce movement perhaps naturally chose subjects already popular among painters and draftsmen. But they had a special fondness for the sea in motion.

Right now in Washington, DC, the Phillips Collection has an exhibit called Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film that sets paintings from the period side by side with film clips from Eadweard Muybridge (with his famous galloping horse), Thomas Edison, the LumiƩre Brothers and others. This revelatory exhibit confirms how deeply rooted in the visual image for its own sake cinema has always been, and how movies set at sea will have a certain edge no matter what stories we tack on for good measure.

Maybe you don’t have a trip to Washington planned for this spring, but there’s something quietly going on right here called Ocean Films, Wednesday eves at the Warehouse downtown. Ocean Films hasn’t been advertised beyond a few posters in the hallway, but there’s plenty of seats in the main floor community room so anyone can drop in, it’s free and there’s discussion afterward. Martin Hogue, who actually teaches architecture, put the series together. His occasional film seminars provide some of the best movie talk anywhere. Meanwhile, Emerald City Video has just about all the DVDs in the series.

Say you want a classic swashbuckler to round out your examples of how filmmakers use the ocean as both environment and character in its own right – and as counterpoint to Pirates of the Caribbean. Directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers, The Sea Hawk is a great choice. Winding up a string of similar costume dramas, Errol Flynn plays the English privateer Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (a thinly disguised Sir Francis Drake). Claude Rains is the Spanish ambassador Alvarez, and the popular British stage actor Flora Robson is Queen Elizabeth. Three years later Curtiz directed Casablanca, in which Rains played an equally debonair but better coiffed Captain Renault.

Set in 1585, The Sea Hawk covers a crucial juncture in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, just before England’s new naval fleet whipped the Spanish Armada that King Phillip sent to remove the only serious barrier to his plans for world conquest. Preferring diplomacy to war, Elizabeth had resisted building a fleet. Thorpe – operating as Elizabeth’s Mission Impossible-style covert agent – provides proof of Spain’s impending secret attack. Along the way he romances the Spanish ambassador’s niece, leads an ill-fated expedition to Panama to “divert” some gold, serves time as a galley slave himself before a tense and daring escape, and unmasks Phillip’s spy in court, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell). Flynn was an exhilarating, authentically expert fencer, and the sword fight in which Thorpe kills Wolfingham is made doubly magnificent by the camera work and lighting effects needed to hide how poor a match Daniell was.

The Sea Hawk opened in 1940 after England entered World War II. Certainly English and US audiences both heard Elizabeth’s speech about the “obligation of all free men” in that light. But this film is also saturated with young men’s yearning for ocean-going mastery. Thorpe’s crew is never more ungainly than when stranded in Panama. When they stumble out of the jungle, it’s completely convincing that they rush gratefully into the surf. After the 1986 Challenger disaster, President Reagan, quoting poetry, said that astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” When Thorpe and his crew finally recover command of a ship and hoist those sails for England, Curtiz lets us glimpse that sea-faring era as equally world-changing.

The Sea Hawk screens at the Warehouse on 3/28 at 8:30 p.m. The Ocean Films remaining after that are the Beatles’ 1968 Yellow Submarine on 4/4 and Wolfgang Petersen’s1981 three-hour German U-boat saga Das Boot on 4/11. The series began with Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and other previous films were The Endurance (2000), a saga of the 1914-16 Antarctic Shackleton expedition, A Night to Remember (1958), a pre-Titanic film about that disaster, Stacy Peralta’s exhilarating 2004 surfer doc Riding Giants, and last night the 2004 Bill Murray-Owen Wilson vehicle, Life Aquatic with Steve Zizou.

This review appeared on 3/23/07 in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly DVD column reviewing recent films that haven’t opened in Syracuse theaters & older films of enduring worth.