Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Sea Hawk versus the Sea Hawk

Last year I began reading the novels of Rafael Sabatini - a near-forgotten author now, but he enjoyed quite a bit of fame about 100 years ago; if he's remembered at all, it's probably because his novel Captain Blood became an extremely entertaining 1935 film starring Errol Flynn.

Knowing that Sabatini had also written a novel called the Sea Hawk, I assumed the 1940 film of the same name (and like Captain Blood was directed by Michael Curtiz, featured an original score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and starred Errol Flynn; the same trio also created the Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938) was an adaptation of the novel. Considering Flynn's great success with Captain Blood, it would have made sense for his patrons at Warner Bros. to find him another vehicle from the same author.

Curtiz & Flynn's Sea Hawk notably contains a very obvious depiction of Spanish forces standing in for Hitler's Germany; that element had obviously been invented by the studio, but how much of the film truly did come Sabatini's 1915 novel? As it turns out: the name. That's it. Warner Bros. used the name because Sabatini & Flynn had been linked before by Captain Blood, but the story was an original piece called "Beggars of the Sea." They could have titled the film after Sabatini's Fortune's Fool and it would have been almost as accurate.

Therefore, if the novel the Sea Hawk is not the story of an English privateer defending his native land from a Spanish conspiracy, what precisely is it?

The Sea Hawk tells of one Sir Oliver Tressilian, betrothed to Rosamund Godolphin but unable to get along with her brother Peter. When Oliver's brother Lionel kills Peter in a duel, suspicion of the deed falls upon Oliver, but Oliver is unwilling to incriminate Lionel; however, Lionel doesn't trust Oliver to remain silent and sells him into slavery; Oliver is presumed dead, enabling Lionel to seize control of the estate and romance Rosamund. Some time later, Oliver returns from slavery as Sakr-el-Bahr ("Hawk of the Sea"), having risen from slave to sailor to captain and converting to Islam. Sakr-el-Bahr sets out for revenge on Lionel & Rosamund.

The Tressilians & Godolphins are certainly a tangled-up family, fit for any soap opera: Peter is a gullible fool, Lionel is a crafty liar, Rosamund consistently thinks the worst of Oliver. At the point where Sakr-el-Bahr kidnaps Lionel and Rosamund, bringing them to Algiers so he can finally prove how Peter truly died, Rosamund continues to despise Oliver despite his story of woe and betrayal. If the family appeared on a daytime talk show, you could sum them up thusly:

  • Peter: Killed by Lionel.
  • Oliver: Solid into slavery by Lionel.
  • Lionel: Framed Oliver for his deeds.
  • Rosamund: Feels she is the victim here.

Rosamund is a terribly infuriating love interest who keeps finding excuses to hate Oliver (even when she's convinced of Lionel's misdeeds she doesn't appear that annoyed with him) but she does eventually come around and helps Sakr-el-Bahr evade the hangman's rope. Interestingly, although Oliver is ultimately cleared of his supposed crimes and his return to England enabled, he doesn't convert back to Christianity by story's end - in fact, he refuses to convert back when it's suggested. By the end of the book he's persona non grata in Algiers, but one imagines he wouldn't be too welcome in 16th century England either.

The Sea Hawk is much like Captain Blood (both were adapted into films in the year of 1924) as its hero is a falsely-condemned man who becomes a slave, then a captain who must engage in a constant war of wits against his own supposed allies and eventually overcome empires to win his one true love. If you've already read Captain Blood and you hunger for more, you could do worse than try the Sea Hawk. The novel is currently in the public domain.

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