The Sea Hawk - The Reel Infatuation Blogathon

I also crush hard on Sessue Haykawa
This post is part of The Reel Infatuation Blogathon hosted by Font and Frock and Silver Screenings.  You can visit Day 1 and Day 2 will be up later today as well as Day 3 tomorrow. Please do give a visit it will be good reading with lots of variety.

Valentino in The Sheik

If you know anything about me, you’d think my post for this blogathon would be a character played by Rudolph Valentino.  Normally, you’d be right as there are several characters he played which would more than fit the bill.  That said, I’ve chosen a character from one of the many books penned by Rafael Sabatini.  Sabatini remains one of my favorite authors.  I am a total sucker for his novels, lots of swash, lots of romance!  Valentino, himself, had the option to play Captain Peter Blood for his return to the screen in 1924.  Would that not have been luxe casting?  I could totally see him in the role.  Instead, he chose Booth Tarkington’s Monsieur Beaucaire, which did have plenty of swordplay, wigs and humor.  This film played well in the big cities in the US, not so well in the rural areas and was an utter smash hit in the UK.
Dust Jacket for the photoplay edition

So, who of the many characters do I choose from the huge library of Sabatini heroes?  I choose Sir. Oliver Tressillan from the author’s 1915 novel The Sea Hawk.  This was directed by Frank Lloyd and released on June 2, 1924 in a lavish and quite faithful adaptation of the novel and starring my not-so-secret onscreen crush Milton Sills.  Sills has tremendous appeal both on and off screen, he was brainy and he had the necessary brawn, as well.  Sills also has a connection to Rudolph Valentino, himself co-starring in the 1919 Clara Kimball Young film The Eyes of Youth.  Like Valentino. Sills was adept at playing a villain as well as a romantic hero. It is also worth noting, the 1940 film The Sea Hawk starring Errol Flynn has absolutely no relation to the Sabatini original. 
The Sea Hawk's Sir Oliver Tressilian is a great role for Sills. Sir Oliver is a guy who you will see just cannot seem to catch a break.  Some trials are though his own fault of having a quick trigger temper, the rest set off by the follies and cowardly machinations of his younger brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes).
Title Lobby Card for the film
We first meet Sir Oliver Tressillian,  a successfully retired privateer now wooing and engaged to Lady Rosamund Godolphin (Enid Bennett).  Sir Oliver, as mentioned above has a bit of a hair trigger temper.  One of his foes is Lady Rosamund’s guardian Sir John Killigrew (played by perennial baddie Marc McDermott) who opposes the marriage along with her equally hotheaded brother Peter Godolphin (Wallace McDonald).  Sir Oliver and Sir John come to blows and, in a duel, Sir John is wounded and Rosamund is horrified and demands Sir Oliver lay down his sword and control his temper.

Peter is probably a bigger hothead than Sir Oliver and he is constantly picking fights between the two Tressillian brothers.  Peter finds Lionel alone in the forest and after an attack and a fair fight, while wounded himself, Lionel kills him.  He runs to brother Oliver to help get him out of the mess.  One problem, Lionel has left a trail of blood right smack to the front door of the Penarrow castle.

Sir Oliver finds out the truth.
Screen cap courtesy Movies Silently

In one of many rotten breaks, Sir Oliver is, naturally blamed for the murder, including his bride-to-be Rosamund.  Lionel, coward that he is, sees nobody suspects him and he can gain from this.  Particularly if Oliver were to disappear, all the lands, money would fall to him.  Lionel heads to the local shady pub where pirates and all sorts of unsavory characters hang out and meets up and makes a deal with Captain Jasper Leigh (in a great scene stealing turn by Wallace Beery) to have his brother kidnapped and shanghaied.  Nothing like the familial bond, is there? 

Of course, once they are at sea, the shady Captain Leigh has plans of his own, he offers to take Oliver back to England to exact his revenge at a price.  In the next bit of bad luck for poor Oliver, their own ship is captured by the Spaniards and the former Sir Oliver privateer infamously known to the Spaniards and the rest of the crew are chained to oars in the galley.  A a slow death and a fate almost worse than death.

Oliver, as it happens is chained to a moor whose uncle is none other than the famed corsair Asad-ed-Din (Frank Currier, best remembered as Arrius in the silent version of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ).  This comes in very useful quite soon as the Spanish galleon is soon captured by none other than Barbary Asad-ed-Din.  Oliver converts to Islam and taking the name Sakr-el-Bahr (Hawk of the Sea) and soon is one of the most feared and richly successful of all the Corsairs.

Fearsome Sakr-el-Bahr in fearsome headdress

In his heart, Sakr-el-Bahr still loves Rosamund and seeks revenge on his traitorous brother Lionel.  During one of pirate raids plundering a Spanish ship, he runs across his old nemesis/friend Jasper Leigh.  Can he trust Jasper to do right by him to help him clear his name?  He sends Jasper to England with instructions to retrieve documents that prove his innocence of the murder of Peter Godolphin.  Jasper is to present this evidence to Rosamund, which he does and she burns the message unread.  Hell, hath no fury, right?  Jasper returns to Sakr/Oliver with the bad news, news made worse when he learns Rosamund is to marry his scurvy brother Lionel. 

Rich cast shown in the deluxe program
So, what’s a good Barbary pirate to do?  He travels to England and by dark of night, he kidnaps his brother and his ex Rosamund and ferries them to Algiers.  That’s sure to crack her tender heart.  Of course, the plot thickens as Rosamund is up for grabs in a slave auction and wouldn’t she make a nice treat for the Bashar.  Oliver bids and wins her to save her from a fate worse than death, though he claims to hate her, he marries her.  She, of course, despises him. He also buys his own brother and Lionel reveals the truth of the whole matter to Rosamund’s horror.

He smuggles her on to his ship in an attempt to get her back safely to England.  In the course of the voyage they come upon an English ship known to be under the stewardship of Sir John Killigrew.  Killigrew, vowed to seek and kill Sakr/Oliver and rescue Lionel and Rosamund.  Lionel now wanting to atone for his great transgressions against his brother is tossed overboard as a false punishment.  In reality he bears a message for Sir John.  The sea battle begins and the English ship overtakes the Corsair.  Lionel who joins the fight is injured and dies in the arms of his brother. 

Lobby Card with great likeness of Enid Bennett
A few more plot twists and there is, at last, a happy ending.  Years pass and everyone is home in Penarrow, Rosamund and Oliver are married and have a son.  Also settled into the family unit is Jasper Leigh, who will likely be a bad influence on the boy.

The character of Sir Oliver is one of a complex man.  As played by Milton Sills, there are moments less than subtle acting.  I ask you, if your little brother sold you out, stole your lands and girlfriend, wouldn’t you be a little more than pissed off?  The character is a great one that allows Sills to go through every kind of emotion, sweet gentle and tender in the early scenes with Rosamund, furious action with Sir John in the duel, anger and vengeance when he learns of the betrayal of his craven brother, resolve when locked to an oar in the hell that of a galley slave, embracing of a faith and the life of a vengeful pirate, a man who cannot admit his heart still pines for his lost love and lost country, the fire of a man who goes to battle and is willing to sacrifice himself for love and honor.  Sills ran the gamut as Sir Oliver and Sakr-el-Bahr and is wonderful in this film. In this he is human and a very complicated man, not a part that could be carried off half as well by others.

Poster illustrates the swashbuckling.
There is lots of action, lavish sets, real big ships and is quite a ride.  Happily, The Sea Hawk is restored and on DVD from Warner Archive, scored by Robert Israel, it is well worth purchasing for your home library.  I'm still a little annoyed that Wallace Beery graces the dvd rather than Sills.  This film made me a fan of Milton Sills, brainy and brawny.  I do wish more of his films were out there.  Valley of the Giants (1927) costarring his wife Doris Kenyon (another Valentino connection she played Lady Mary in Monsieur Beaucaire) is wonderful. Miss Lulu Bett with Lois Wilson is a wonderful film. Burning Daylight and Adams Rib are available from Grapevine Video.  The Eyes of Youth is available in a new restoration on Flicker Alley. 


Caftan Woman said…
I have yet to see this film and your article has me practically panting after it!
This sounds like a terrific role for an actor to sink his teeth into. Although I'm not familiar with Milton Sills's work, I have read enough to imagine he would be pitch-perfect in this role. Like you said, he has a wide range of emotions to contend with, and it sounds like he doesn't play them in an over-the-top way.

The film also sounds like a truly exciting adventure. I checked to see if it's on YouTube, but I'll look for a better quality version at the library. I know I'll love it.

Thanks for joining the blogathon and bringing a new (to me) silent film to enjoy.
FlickChick said…
Well, this is one I would love to see. I am somewhat familiar with Milton Sills - he certainly was a big deal in his day. I'm keeping an eagle eye (through my spy glass, of course) for this.