Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

 

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

Considering the popularity of the Brontë sisters, it is not surprising that there have been considerable movie, stage and television adaptations of their novels. I discovered there have been at least fifteen (15) adaptations of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights”.

I might as well be frank . . . I am not a major fan of the novel. I never have been. I do not dislike it, but I have always preferred the famous novels of the author’s two sisters – namely “Jane Eyre” (1847) by Charlotte Brontë and Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. For some reason, “Wuthering Heights” depresses the hell out of me. I have nothing against works of fiction laced with tragedy. But the heavy barrage of emotional and physical abuse, revenge, and over-the-top passion has always seemed a bit too much for me. Due to my less-than-enthusiastic regard for Ms. Brontë’s novel, I have always been reluctant to watch any of the television or movie adaptations, with the exception of one – the 1939 movie produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

Directed by William Wyler, and starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” told the story of the passionate and doomed love story between one Catherine Earnshaw, the daughter of a Yorkshire landowner and an orphaned Gypsy boy named Heathcliff. The story opens with Mr. Earnshaw introducing Heathcliff to his family – Cathy and her brother, Hindley – at Wuthering Heights. While Cathy immediately befriends Heathcliff, Hindley becomes jealous of his father and sister’s high regard of the newcomer. Heathcliff’s pleasant life with the Earnshaw family ends when Mr. Earnshaw dies and a resentful Hindley forces him to become one of the family’s servants.

Despite Heathcliff’s new status within the Earnshaw family, his close relationship with Cathy remains close. Some eight to ten years later, the now adult pair have fallen in love and are meeting secretly on Penniston’s Crag. One night, Cathy and Heathcliff are out when they discover the Earnshaws’ neighbors, the Lintons, giving a party at the Grange. After climbing the garden wall, Cathy is attacked by a dog. The Lintons take Cathy in to care for her and Heathcliff is ordered to leave the Grange. Cathy becomes close with Edgar Linton and entranced by his wealth and glamour, while Edgar falls in love with her. When Edgar decides to propose marriage to Cathy, his action leads to a major fallout between Cathy and Heathcliff, the latter’s departure for United States, his return, jealousy, obsession and in the end, tragedy.

As far as I know, the 1939 film eliminated the second half of Brontë’s novel that centered on the generation featuring Heathcliff and Cathy’s children. This elimination has led many fans of the novel to dismiss this version as a poor adaptation. Well, to each his own. I have never read Brontë’s novel. And this is probably why I have such difficulty in dismissing “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” as unworthy of the novel. The only way I can judge the movie is on its own merits. And quite frankly, I believe it is one of the better costume dramas to be released during Hollywood’s Studio Era.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn assigned his top director, William Wyler, to helm the movie. And Wyler did a superb job. Thanks to his direction, “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” turned out to be an atmospheric and well paced movie filled with superb performances by the cast. Wyler utilized the talents of cinematographer Gregg Toland, along with art designers James Basevi and Alexander Toluboff to re-create the novel’s setting – the brooding Yorkshire moors with exquisite details.

The movie’s most controversial aspect turned out to be Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s screenplay. Many present-day critics believe that the two screenwriters took the bite out of Brontë’s novel by romanticizing Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship. Literary critic John Sutherland accused Wyler, Hecht and MacArthur of portraying Cathy as a more passive character, willing to accept Heathcliff’s abuse. Personally, I cannot help but wonder how he came to this conclusion. My recent viewing of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” recalls a capricious and manipulative Cathy unable to hold back her scorn of Heathcliff in the face of the Lintons’ wealth and glamour; and a Cathy more than determined to prevent Heathcliff and Isabella Linton’s marriage. Not once do I recall a passive Cathy willing to accept abuse from Heathcliff.

Other critics of the movie have also accused Wyler and the two screenwriters of robbing Heathcliff the opportunity to seek revenge against Cathy and the Linton family by deleting the second half of the novel. These same critics seemed to have forgotten that a good deal of the movie’s second half focused not only on Heathcliff’s return to England, but also his efforts to get revenge on both the Earnshaw and Linton families. He did this by acquiring Wuthering Heights from an increasingly dissolute Hindley Earnshaw and more importantly, seeking Isabella Linton’s hand for marriage. The latter finally reached its mark as far as Cathy was concerned. The emotional damage from Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella led to Cathy’s death and tragedy. The biggest criticism that emerged from “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was Samuel Goldwyn’s decision to set the story in the mid-Victorian era, instead of the novel’s late 18th and early 19th centuries setting. It is believed that Goldwyn made this decision either because he preferred this period in costumes or he was simply trying to save a buck by using old Civil War era costumes. Personally, I could not care less. The novel’s setting was merely accelerated by five to six decades. And since “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” did not utilize any historical facts in its plot, I see no reason to get upset over the matter.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” went into production as a vehicle for actress Merle Oberon, who was a contract player at Goldwyn Studios. When Laurence Olivier, her co-star from 1938’s “THE DIVORCE OF LADY X”, was cast as Heathcliff, he campaigned for lover Vivian Leigh to replace Oberon as Catherine Earnshaw. Olivier’s efforts failed and Oberon kept her job. Many critics believe that Leigh would have done a better job. I refuse to accept or reject that belief. However, I was very impressed by Oberon’s performance. She did an excellent job in capturing Cathy’s capricious and shallow nature. Although Oberon had a few moments of hammy acting, she was not as guilty as two of her co-stars. I find it rather disappointing that she failed to earn an Academy Award nomination. Her scene with Geraldine Fitzgerald (in which Cathy tries to dampen Isabella’s interest in Heathcliff) and the famous soliloquy that ended with Cathy’s “I am Heathcliff” declaration should have earned her a nomination.

Laurence Olivier made his Hollywood debut in the role of the Gypsy orphan-turned-future owner of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff. Olivier harbored a low opinion of Hollywood and screen acting in general. But Wyler’s exhausting style of directing and tutelage enabled Olivier to drop his penchant for stage theatrics and perform for the camera. Mind you, I do not believe Wyler was not completely successful with Olivier. The actor still managed to display hints of hammy acting in his performance. And he did not seem that successful in his portrayal of a Heathcliff in his late teens or early twenties, in compare to Oberon, who seemed successful in portraying Cathy in that same age group. Regardless, Olivier gave a first-rate performance, and managed to earn the first of his ten Academy Award nominations.

Another performer who earned an Academy Award nomination was Geraldine Fitzgerald, for her performance as Isabella Linton. I cannot deny that she deserved the nomination. Fitzgerald gave a memorable performance as the passionate, naive and outgoing Isabella, who found herself trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage to a man that harbored no love for her. However, I believe that like Olivier, she was guilty of a few moments of histronic acting. I could never accuse David Niven of such a thing. The actor gave a solid performance as the quietly loving, yet privileged Edgar Linton. Flora Robson was superb as the story’s narrator and Cathy Earnshaw’s maid, Ellen Dean. And both Niven and Robson proved to be the production’s backbone by being the only cast members that managed to refrain from any histronic acting altogether. I can also say the same about Hugh Williams’ portrayal of the embittered and dissolute Hindley Earnshaw. Donald Crisp, Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway and Miles Mander also gave fine support.

I realize that “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” will never be a favorite of the fans of Brontë’s novel. But as a movie fan, I cannot look down at this production. Thanks to William Wyler’s direction, Gregg Toland’s photography, solid adaptation by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and superb acting from a cast led by Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; it is quite easy to see why it is considered as one of the best examples of Old Hollywood during one of its best years – 1939. I guess I will always be a fan.

Top Ten Favorite Movies and Television Set During the Victorian Age

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I decided to revise my list of favorite movie and television productions set during the Victorian Age (1837-1901). Below is the list:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE VICTORIAN AGE

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1. “North and South” (2004) – Sandy Welch adapted this superb version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about a woman from Southern England living in the industrial North. Daniela Danby-Ashe and Richard Armitage star.

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2. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey adapted and Philip Saville directed this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about American heiresses marrying into the British aristocracy. Carla Gugino, Greg Wise, James Frain and Cheri Lunghi star.

without a clue

3. “Without a Clue” (1988) – Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in hilarious look into a premise in which Dr. Watson is the investigating genius and Holmes is a fraud. Thom Eberhardt directed.

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4. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) – Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland and Patric Knowles starred in this historically inaccurate, but fascinating look into British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

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5. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie returned to direct what I believe is a slightly better sequel to his 2009 hit. In it, Holmes battles James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law star.

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6. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Although not considered the best adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel by many, it is certainly my favorite. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the movie starred Heath Ledger.

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7. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crichton wrote and directed this adaptation of his 1975 novel about a group of thieves plotting to steal the Crimean War gold from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

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8. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law portrayed Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this entertaining and exciting take on the famous literary sleuth. Guy Ritchie directed.

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9. “The Way We Live Now” (2001) – Andrew Davies adapted and David Yates directed this biting adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel greed in Victorian England. David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew MacFadyen starred.

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10. “Jane Eyre” (2006) – Sandy Welch adapted this first-rate version of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens starred.

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Honorable Mention – “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – I rarely include an “honorable mention” on my FAVORITE lists. But I love William Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel so much that I had to find a way to include it. Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and David Niven starred.

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

How is it that a movie about one of the most famous blunders in British military history could remain so entertaining after 74 years? Can someone explain this? Warner Brothers’ take on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the Light Brigade of the British cavalry charged straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights during the Crimean War, is not what one would call historically accurate. Most of the movie took place in British occupied Northern India in the 1850s. Aside from the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie really has nothing to do with the Crimean War. And yet . . . who cares? ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” is so damn entertaining that I found myself not even thinking about historical accuracy.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, and written by screenwriters Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh; the movie is an entertaining mixture about vengeance against the leader of a treacherous local tributary rajah in Northern India named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon); and a love triangle between Geoffrey and Perry Vickers – two brothers who are British Army officers (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles) who happened to be in love with the same woman – the daughter of a British general (Olivia DeHavilland) named Elsa Campbell. I might as well start with the love story.

On the surface, the love triangle in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” seemed pretty simple – one woman torn between two men. Instead of having two best friends in love with the same woman, we have two brothers. But even that is nothing unusual. What turned out to be so unusual about this particular love story – especially in an Errol Flynn movie – is that the leading lady is NOT in love with the leading man. Within fifteen minutes into the story, the movie revealed that the leading man – namely Flynn – lost the affections of the leading woman (and fiancée) – De Havilland – to the secondary male lead – namely Knowles.

At first, it boggled in the mind. What woman in her right mind would prefer Patric Knowles over Errol Flynn? The latter had a more flamboyant character and was obviously the movie’s main hero. However . . . Knowles was not exactly chopped liver. Knowles was just as handsome as Flynn in his own way and a competent actor to boot. And his character – although less flamboyant than Flynn’s – had a quiet charm of its own. I also got the feeling that Flynn’s character seemed more in love with his job as an Army officer during the British Raj than he was with dear Elsa. Geoffrey Vickers seemed to have it all . . . until his brother Perry and Elsa’s little romance pulled the rug from under his self-assured life. And yet, he seemed damn reluctant to admit that Elsa loved Perry more than him. Reluctant may have been a mild word. Geoffrey seemed downright delusional in his belief that Elsa loved him only . . . and that Perry was merely harboring an infatuation for his fiancée. What made matters worse was that everyone – including Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) and diplomat Sir Charles Macefield (Henry Stephenson) – supported Geoffrey’s illusions. Only Lady Octavia Warrenton (Spring Byington), wife of British General Sir Benjamin Warrenton (Nigel Bruce) seemed aware of Elsa and Perry’s feelings for one another.

Before I discuss the movie in general, I want to focus upon the cast. Flynn, DeHavilland and Knowles were ably supported by a talented cast drawn from the British colony in 1930s Hollywood (with the exception of two). American-born Spring Byington and British actor Nigel Bruce were charmingly funny as the verbose busybody Lady Octavia Warrenton and her husband, the long-suffering Sir Benjamin. They made a surprisingly effective screen pair. Donald Crisp was his usual more than competent self as Elsa’s loving, but humorless father, Colonel Campbell – a by-the-book officer unwilling to accept that his daughter had switched her affections to the younger Vickers brother. Henry Stephenson gave an intelligent performance as the competent diplomat, Sir Charles Macefield, who is charged with not only keeping the peace, but maintaining British control in a certain province of Northern India. It was easy to see why Flynn’s character seemed to hold him in high regard. David Niven was charming, but not very memorable as Geoffrey Vicker’s best friend, James Randall. Only in one scene – in which Randall volunteers to leave the besieged Chukoti Fort in order to warn Sir Benjamin at Lohara of Surat Khan’s attack – did Niven give a hint of the talent that would eventually be revealed over the years. And of course, one cannot forget American actor C. Henry Gordon’s portrayal of the smooth-talking villain, Surat Khan. Gordon could have easily portrayed Khan as another ”Oriental villain” that had become typical by the 1930s. On one level, Gordon’s Khan was exactly that. On another . . . Gordon allowed moviegoers to see Khan’s frustration and anger at the British handling of his kingdom.

Olivia DeHavilland once again proved that even in a costumed swashbuckler, she could portray an interesting female character without sinking into the role of the commonplace damsel-in-distress. With the exception of the sequence featuring the Siege of Chokoti, her Elsa Campbell spent most of the movie being torn between the man she loved – Perry Vickers, the man she has remained fond of – Geoffrey Vickers, and her father’s determination that she marry Geoffrey. Elsa spent most of the movie as an emotionally conflicted woman and DeHavilland did an excellent job of portraying Elsa’s inner conflicts with a skill that only a few actresses can pull off. And DeHavilland was merely 20 years old at the time she shot this film.

I really enjoyed Patric Knowles’ performance in this movie. Truly. One, he managed to hold himself quite well against the powerhouse of both Flynn and DeHavilland. I should not have been surprised. His performance as a sleazy Southern planter in 1957’s ”BAND OF ANGELS” was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre film. And two, his Perry Vickers was a character I found easy to root for in his pursuit of Elsa’s hand. I especially enjoyed two particular scenes – his desperate, yet charming attempt to be assigned to Chokoti (and near Elsa), despite Sir Charles’ disapproval; and his anger and frustration over Geoffrey’s unwillingness to face the fact that Elsa’s affections had switched to him.

There are four movie performances by Errol Flynn that have impressed me very much. Three of those performances were Geoffrey Thorpe in ”THE SEA HAWK” (1940), James J. Corbett in ”GENTLEMAN JIM” (1942) and Soames Forsyte in”THAT FORSYTE WOMAN” (1949). The fourth happens to be his performance as Captain/Major Geoffrey Vickers in”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”. Not many film critics or fans have ever paid attention to his performance in this film, which is a pity. I suspect they were so flabbergasted by the idea of him losing Olivia DeHavilland to Patric Knowles that they had failed to pay any real attention to his performance as the complex and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers. Superficially, Flynn’s Vickers is a charming, witty and very competent military officer. He seemed so perfect at the beginning of the film that it left me wondering if there were in cracks in his characters. Sure enough, there were. Thanks to a well written character and Flynn’s skillful performance, the movie’s Geoffrey Vickers became a complex, yet arrogant man who discovers that he is not very good at letting go at things that seem important to him, whether it was Elsa’s love or a desire for revenge against the villain. In the end, Geoffrey’s flaws became the instrument of his destruction. The amazing thing about Flynn’s performance as Geoffrey Vickers was that it was his second leading role. And the fact that he managed to portray such a complex character, considering his limited screen experience at the time, still amazes me.

As I had stated before, the movie’s historical account of the Crimean War and the infamous charge hardly bore any resemblance to what actually happened. The movie seemed to be about the British’s interactions with a Northern Indian minor rajah named Surat Khan. The British, led by diplomat Sir Charles Macefield, struggle to maintain a “friendly” relationship with Khan, while his men harass British troops in the area and he develops a friendship with a visiting Russian Army officer Count Igor Volonoff (Robert Barrat). The phony friendship and minor hostilities culminated in an attack by Khan against one of the British forts in his province – Chukoti, which is under the command of Colonel Campbell. The battle for Chukoti eventually turned into a massacre that only Geoffrey and Elsa survived. But more interesting, it seemed like a reenactment of an actual siege and massacre that happened at a place called Cawnpore, during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58 . . . three to four years after the setting of this movie. For a movie that is supposed to be about the Light Brigade Charge and the Crimean War, it was turning out to be more of a fictional account of British history in India during the 1850s.

But the movie eventually touched upon the Crimean War. After the Chukoti Massacre, Surat Khan ended up in hot water with the British government in India. Due to his friendship with Volonoff, he found refugee with the Russians. And he ended up as a guest of the Russian Army during the Crimean War. Following her father’s death, Elsa finally convinced Geoffrey that she is in love with Perry. And the regiment of both brothers – the 27th Lancers – is also sent to Crimea. According to Sir Charles, their posting to the Crimea would give them an opportunity for revenge against Khan. But when the 27th Lancers finally received an opportunity to get their revenge against Khan, Sir Charles denied it. And so . . . Geoffrey took matters in his own hands and ordered the Light Brigade – which included his regiment – and the Heavy Brigade to attack the artillery on the heights above the Balaklava Valley. This is so far from what actually happened . . . but who cares? I enjoyed watching Flynn express Geoffrey’s struggles to contain his thirst for revenge and eventual failure.

And then the charge happened. My God! Every time I think about that sequence, I cannot believe my eyes. Part of me is horrified not only by the blunder caused by Geoffrey’s desire for revenge . . . but by the fact that 200 horses and a stuntman were killed during the shooting of that scene. Flynn had been so outraged by the deaths of the horses that he openly supported the ASPCA’s ban on using trip wire for horses for any reason. At the same time, I cannot help but marvel at the brutal spectacle of that scene. No wonder Jack Sullivan won the Academy Award for Best Assistant Director for his work on this particular scene.

On the whole, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” is a very entertaining and well-paced spectacle. Frankly, I think that it was one of the best movies to be released during the 1930s and certainly one of Errol Flynn’s finest films. For those who honestly believed that the Australian actor could not act . . . well, they are entitled to their opinions. But I would certainly disagree with them. On the surface, Flynn seemed like his usual charming and flamboyant self. However, I was very impressed at his portrayal of the self-assured and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers, who found his private life slowly falling apart. Olivia DeHavilland, Patric Knowles, Donald Crisp, C. Henry Gordon and Spring Byington gave him excellent support. Thanks to Jacoby and Leigh’s script, along with Michael Curtiz’s tight direction, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” turned out to be a first-class movie with an interesting love story with a twist, political intrigue, well-paced action and a final sequence featuring the charge that remains mind blowing, even after 74 years.

“THE SEA HAWK” (1940) Review

“THE SEA HAWK” (1940) Review

If anyone has ever read Rafael Sabatini’s 1915 novel, ”The Sea Hawk”, he or she has clearly seen that the so-called 1940 film adaptation with the same title . . . is not the same story. I have never read Sabatini’s novel. But I have a friend who has. And according to him, the 1924 silent film adaptation bore a closer resemblance to the novel. 

In the end, it is not surprising that this 1940 adventure bore little or no resemblance to Sabatini’s novel – aside from the main protagonist enduring a stint as slave aboard a Spanish galley. Although Warner Brothers studio had owned the film rights to the novel and released the 1924 version, one of their staff screenwriters – Seton I. Miller – had written a treatment that happened to be an Elizabethan adventure called ”Beggars of the Sea” in 1938. Warners decided to use Miller’s treatment and the title of Sabatini’s novel for an Errol Flynn vehicle.

”THE SEA HAWK” told the story about an Elizabethan privateer (official pirate for the English Crown) named Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) who belongs with a group of other privateers known as the Sea Hawks. Thorpe’s capture and plunder of a galley carrying Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains), the Spanish ambassador to the English Court and his niece, Doña Maria de Cordoba (Brenda Marshall); attracts the attention of Spain and a traitorous minister in Elizabeth I’s court – Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell). The privateer proposes to Elizabeth (Flora Robson) an expedition to plunder Spanish gold in Panama. Lord Wolfingham and Don Alavarez learn of his plans via one of their English spies and set a trap for Thorpe in Panama. At the same time, Don Alvarez uses the privateer’s capture as an excuse to pressure the Queen to disband and arrest the other Sea Hawk captains.

I had noticed something rather curious about the movie’s cast. A good number of them happened to be American-born – including leading lady Brenda Marshall (born in the Philippines to American parents), Alan Hale, Edgar Buchannan (of”PETTICOAT JUNCTION” fame) and a good number of others. This was not the first Flynn movie with an English or British setting. After all, Hale had appeared in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” (1938), along with fellow American Eugene Pallette. And actor Ross Alexander had appeared in ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935). But this is the first time I can recall this number of Americans in a Flynn movie set outside the United States. I wonder if this had anything to with the possibility that many younger British actors – leading and supporting – had left Hollywood to join the British forces after the war began.

Amongst the supporting players in the cast was a veteran from one of Flynn’s past – namely Ona O’Connor. As she had done in”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, she portrayed another plain-faced maid of a noblewoman, who manages to find romance with one of Flynn’s men. In ”THE SEA HAWK”, the lucky fellow in question turned out to be Hale. And if one is sharp, one would recognize Gilbert Roland as the Spanish sea captain, whose ship is captured by Thorpe in the film’s first action sequence. Being just as handsome and dashing as Flynn, it seemed only natural that Roland’s character would get his revenge in the movie’s second half. I must say that the collection of supporting actors and extras that had made up Geoffrey Thorpe’s crew did a first-rate job, despite the number of American accents. Unlike those who portrayed Robin Hood’s Merrie Men in the 1938 film, the actors that portrayed Thorpe’s crew had the opportunity to display their talents for on-screen suffering during two major sequences in the film.

Another one of Warner Brothers’ top character actors and veteran of past Flynn movies was Alan Hale, who portrayed Thorpe’s first officer Carl Pitts. I have been trying to think of something original to say about Hale, but why bother? Let’s face it. Everyone knows that he was a talented actor until his death in 1950. ”THE SEA HAWK” not only provided enough proof of his talent, but also his obvious screen chemistry with Flynn. I had especially enjoyed one of their scenes that involved a humorous discussion on Panamanian mosquitoes. And it still amazes me how an American actor can project an Old World aura while sporting a questionable accent. ”THE SEA HAWK” also marked legendary British character actress Flora Robson second portrayal of the Tudor queen, Elizabeth I. She had first portrayed this role in the 1937 movie, ”FIRE OVER ENGLAND” with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. In this movie, her Elizabeth possessed a witty and extroverted nature that easily became commanding and a little frightening when crossed. I have only seen ”FIRE OVER ENGLAND” once and it happened over a decade ago. But I must admit that I enjoyed Robson’s interpretation of Elizabeth in this movie, very much. And her scenes with Flynn crackled with the obvious chemistry of two people who seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

One could always count upon an Errol Flynn swashbuckler to include first-rate villains. ”THE SEA HAWK” certainly had two – namely Henry Daniell as the traitorous Lord Wolfingham and Claude Rains as the Spanish ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba. Rains had already appeared as the backstabbing Prince John in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. Although his Don Alvarez is clearly Geoffrey Thorpe’s enemy, one could never accuse the character of being perfidious, like Prince John. Don Alvarez is first and foremost a patriot. Despite his plotting against Thorpe, the other Sea Hawks and the Queen, his actions clearly stemmed from his patriotic fervor and loyalty to Spain and outrage toward Thorpe’s piratical actions against his country. He also seemed to have a close and warm relationship with his Anglo-Spanish niece, Doña Maria. Their kinship turned out to be strong enough to withstand her feelings of love toward Thorpe and her decision to remain in England, instead of returning to Spain with him. Henry Daniell’s Lord Wolfingham turned out to be a different kettle of fish . . . a true villain. He was an Englishman who clearly seemed bent upon working against the English Crown. One could assume that he was a practicing Catholic with hostile feelings toward Elizabeth’s Protestantism – like the Duke of Norfolk character in the 1998 film”ELIZABETH”. But Miller and Koch had never offered any hints of his religious affiliation. It did reveal his desire for more political power if Spain had ever conquered England. Which made his betrayal all the more distasteful. And I must say that actor Henry Daniell had superbly portrayed Wolfingham with a lively relish I have rarely seen in his other roles.

One of the commentators for the movie’s DVD featurette had described actress Brenda Marshall as ”good at playing outraged”. That was it . He said nothing about her skills as an actress or screen presence. As for other critics, they tend to point out that in ”THE SEA HAWK”, the leading lady was not Olivia De Havilland. As if that is supposed to explain everything. I have been a fan of the movie for years and to be frank, I have never been bothered by Brenda Marshall as Flynn’s leading lady in this film, instead of De Havilland. The American-born actress seemed more suited for this role as the Anglo-Spanish Doña Maria, who found herself falling in love with her uncle’s enemy – Geoffrey Thorpe. She may not have generated the same level of chemistry with Flynn as De Havilland did. But she and Flynn certainly managed to create a strong screen chemistry. And what I especially liked about Marshall’s performance was her ability to flesh out Maria’s strength of character beneath the delicate façade. Especially when the character helped smuggled a wanted Thorpe into the royal palace for an audience with the Queen. Yet, Marshall’s finest moment in ”THE SEA HAWK” occurred during Doña Maria’s encounter with the British galley slaves pouring from beneath the ship, following Thorpe’s victory in the film’s first quarter. The mixture of shock and embarrassment on Marshall’s face seemed to confirm her skills as a talented actress.

Based upon some of the online reviews I have read for ”THE SEA HAWKS”, most critics seemed impressed by Errol Flynn’s portrayal of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe. They seemed to be impressed by his on-screen daring-do and sense of command. The critics labeled Flynn’s Thorpe as a mature Captain Blood or Robin of Locksley. Like the critics, I was impressed by Flynn’s performance. However, I certainly do not agree with their assessment of role merely as a mature Captain Blood”. Geoffrey Thorpe struck me as a different kettle of fish. Yes, believe that Thorpe was a more mature character than his previous ones. But I saw him as a mature professional that possessed an intense, no-nonsense personality. Yet, Thorpe also managed to retain a sharp sense of humor that seemed to come from nowhere and bite his victim in the ass. When it came to romance, he became a shy, tongue-twisted lover-to-be – something that has never been apparent in his previous roles. And Flynn captured all of these different nuances of the Geoffrey Thorpe character with a competent skill that should have garnered him more professional respect from Warners Brothers and the Hollywood community at large. I view Geoffrey Thorpe as one of Flynn’s best roles during his twenty-something long career.

I have one last thing to say about both Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall’s roles in ”THE SEA HAWK”. The last time I had viewed this movie, something about their characters that I found curious. The characters of both Geoffrey Thorpe and Doña Maria Alvarez reminded me of two literary characters from a novel I have not read in over a year. Has anyone ever read ”The Shadow of the Moon” by M.M. Kaye? It is a novel about the 1857-58 Sepoy Rebellion in India that was first published in 1959 – nineteen years after ”THE SEA HAWK”. The two main characters – Contessa Winter de Ballesteros and Captain Alex Randall – bore a strong resemblance to Thorpe and Doña Maria. Both Thorpe and Alex Randall are two military men that possessed an intense, professional demeanor countered by a sharp sense of humor. And both Doña Maria and Winter de Ballesteros are two young Anglo-Spanish women who hide their emotional personalities behind a reserved manner. Curious indeed.

I have never read Rafael Sabatini’s novel. But I have read the synopsis. And I must say that it read like a first-rate adventure. I can honestly say the same about this 1940 film version as well. Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch (who co-wrote”CASABLANCA”) had created a top-notch script that eventually became one of Errol Flynn’s best movies. It provided plenty of humor, action, intrigue, pathos and romance. And like some of Flynn’s better movies, it possessed something unique that made it memorable. ”THE SEA HAWK” had been released about year after World War II began in September 1939. Many film critics and fans have pointed out that the movie’s plot seemed to serve as some kind of allegory of the war in 1940. In the movie, England stood alone against the growing threat of Imperial Spain. Around the time of the movie’s release in July 1940, Great Britain found itself standing alone against the growing threat of Nazi Germany. Sixteenth century Spain. Nazi Germany in 1939-1940. I get the feeling that Miller and especially Koch knew what they were doing when writing the movie’s script. Especially since Spain (under Franco’s Fascist rule) happened to be one of Germany’s allies in 1940. The strongest indication of ”THE SEA HAWK” being an allegory of World War II’s early years came in the form of the Queen’s speech in the final scene that hinted for all free men to defend liberty, and that the world did not belong to any one man. She might as well have been speaking to the British subjects of 1940, instead of 1588.

Right now, I want to speak about some of the movie’s major sequences. At least those sequences that left a big impression upon me. The first major sequence involved Thrope’s sea battle against the Spanish galley conveying Don Alvarez and Doña Maria to English. In all honesty, I found myself feeling less impressed with this sequence. Although filled with thunderous canon fire, men swinging from one ship to the other and plenty of swordplay, the entire battle seemed to possess a lack of urgency. And the large number of men participating in the battle struck me as over-the-top in a way that made me wonder how so many people – a good number of them that became Thorpe’s prisoners – managed to reach England without the English ship sinking from the sheer weight. I wondered if producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz had originally mistaken this sequence with the final cavalry charge from ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”.

Thankfully, there were other sequences in ”THE SEA HAWK” that I found impressive. Thorpe’s private meeting with Queen Elizabeth had allowed Flynn and Robson to sparkle on screen. I understand that they were very fond of each other. In fact, Flynn had so much respect for Robson that he eschewed his usual lax discipline and appeared on the set on time and always knew his lines. This behavior baffled director Michael Curtiz, who had grown used to Flynn’s less than admirable on-the-set behavior.

The one sequence that left a strong impression in my mind featured the adventures of Thorpe and his crew in Panama. Thanks to cinematographer Sol Polito, the entire Panama sequence had been filmed with a sheen of yellow sepia to evoke a tropical world filled with humidity and corruption. This became especially effective in the scenes that featured Thorpe and his men’s attempts to escape the Spanish troops hunting them down in the jungle. Personally, I found the entire sequence rather chilling . . . at least a first. It became downright depressing when one of Thorpe’s men – an elderly sailor – dies in the longboat taking them back to the ship.

And if you thought that the Panama sequence seemed a little horrifying, try watching the following one that featured Thorpe and his surviving crew as slaves aboard a Spanish galley. Stripped to the waist and sporting torn breeches and scraggly beards, Thorpe and his men readily physically reflected the hellish situation in which they found themselves. While the galley is docked in Cadiz, Thorpe learns from a new prisoner (an English spy) that there are papers aboard ship indicating Wolfingham as a traitor and Spain’s plans to send an armada against England. The escape attempt that followed harbored an air of a grim deadliness, resulting in the deaths of some Spanish crewman.

Thorpe and his men finally make their escape from the Cadiz docks to the tune of a rousing Korngold score. The movie eventually shifts back to England, where Thorpe reunites with Doña Maria. She helps him overcome obstacles in his efforts to acquire an audience with the Queen. One of these obstacles turned out to be a duel between Thorpe and Wolfingham. Frankly, I consider this duel to be one of Flynn’s best on screen. Unfortunately Henry Daniell, Flynn’s opponent, lacked the experience and skills for on screen fencing and the Australian actor ended up fighting against a stunt double. Despite this little setback, Curtiz managed to create a more than credible fencing duel by mixing actual fighting between Flynn and the stuntman with occasional close-ups of both Flynn and Daniell, and shadows of the two swordsmen reflected on the palace walls. In terms of action, I consider this to be one of Curtiz’s finest moments. I must also say the same for Flynn. I had noticed a series of cuts on the actor’s upper body and face, following Thorpe’s fights with Wolfingham and the palace guards. I cannot ever recall Flynn looking so exhausted and bedraggled following an on-screen duel in any movie – before or after this one.

The last major sequence in ”THE SEA HAWK” featured Geoffrey Thorpe being knighted Queen Elizabeth for his service. A patriotic speech by the Queen followed, in which she urged the English citizens to persevere against the upcoming threat of the Spanish Armada. This speech was a clear indication that the movie was more than just another Flynn costumed adventure. It was also an allegory of Great Britain’s wartime position in 1940. Unfortunately, the speech bored the pants off me. Miller and Koch’s attempt to express their sympathy toward Britain’s struggles against Nazi Germany struck me at best, heavy handed.

For years, ”THE SEA HAWK” used to be my favorite Errol Flynn movie. After a recent viewing of the 1936 movie, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, the movie has slipped to number two on my list. But thanks to solid performances by Flynn and a first-rate supporting cast, superb photography by Sol Polito, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’ stirring score, an excellent yet occasionally heavy-handed script by Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch, and exciting direction by Michael Curtiz; ”THE SEA HAWK” is still a superb costumed adventure that has not lost its touch in the past seventy (70) years. I feel that it is a must see for everyone.