The 1924 silent film The Sea Hawk is not to be confused with the much better known 1940 Errol Flynn movie of the same name with which it has nothing in common apart from the pirates and the Elizabeth setting. The 1924 movie is however a terrific piece of swashbuckling fun combined with romance.
It’s based on the 1915 novel The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950), one of the greatest of all adventure tales by one of the grand masters of the genre. Despite his name and his Italian birth Sabatini spent most of his life in England and wrote all of his many books in English. They were all perfect material for movies and many were in fact filmed, the best known being Scaramouche and Captain Blood.
This is one of the most faithful film adaptations you’ll ever see. Sabatini’s story is so good that there was really no reason to change anything.
Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills) is a very successful Cornish privateer. Not a pirate, but in Elizabethan times the dividing line between licensed privateers and pirates was notoriously thin. He is a brave noble sort of chap but with a reputation for being hot-headed and rather inclined to dueling if he feels his honour has been impugned. He is in love with Lady Rosamund Godolphin (Enid Bennett) but the match is bitterly opposed by her guardian Sir John Killigrew and by her violent and impulsive brother Peter. There is a further complication - Sir Oliver’s brother Lionel and Peter Godolphin are rivals for the affections of a lady of rather flexible morals. A duel between Sir Oliver and Sir John leaves the latter with a minor wound but doesn’t help matters, and then a drunken and enraged Peter Godolphin is killed by Lionel Tressilian.
It was a fair fight but there were no witnesses so the law is likely to regard it as a case of murder. Sir Oliver protects Lionel but then, inevitably given the poisonous relations between the two men, Sir Oliver finds himself under suspicion. He has the means to clear himself but Lionel, a man of little courage, fears that if his brother is cleared he will be accused of the murder. So he pays a rascally and notoriously treacherous sea captain, Jasper Leigh (Wallace Beery) to kidnap Sir Oliver and sell him into Moorish slavery. Sir Oliver’s sudden disappearance will naturally suggest that he was guilty and has fled.
Jasper Leigh’s ship is captured by the Spanish and Sir Oliver is sentenced to the living hell of life as a galley slave. He befriends a young noble Moor and when the Spanish ship is in turn captured by Moorish pirates Sir Oliver is more than willing to convert to Islam. It proves to be a wise move. Within a year he has become the famous Sakr-el-Bahr, the Sea Hawk, the most feared and successful of all Moorish corsairs.
Of course his story does not end there. He still loves Rosamund and still yearns to return to England. And he will encounter Captain Jasper Leigh again, and the treacherous sea dog will become an unlikely ally. He will need allies, having made dangerous enemies at the court of the Basha of Algiers. There will be further adventures, further sea fights and some unexpected plot twists.
Milton Sills makes a fine swashbuckler but it’s Wallace Beery who steals the picture as the loveable rogue Captain Jasper Leigh. The acting on the whole is fairly naturalistic by silent movie standards. There’s so much action that there’s really no need for the actors to go overboard, apart from Wallace Beery but he’s so much fun nobody is likely to complain.
The action scenes are spectacular and the Spanish and Moorish galleys are real galleys. It’s one of the most authentic Hollywood seafaring adventure movies you’re ever likely to see. The costumes and the sets are lavish. This was clearly a big-budget movie and it’s a visual treat.
The Sea Hawk has duels, murder, sea battles, treachery, romance, beautiful maidens sold in slave auctions, palace plots, double-crosses, noble heroes and just about every ingredient you could possibly wish for in an adventure movie. It’s all tremendous fun and non-stop excitement. It’s quite a long movie, just over two hours, but it packs so much plot and so much action in those two hours that there is no chance whatever of an audience becoming bored.
The Warner Archive DVD-R is a very good print with only very minimal print damage and it preserves the original tinting, one of the features of silent movies that I really love. Highly recommended.