Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Golden Hawk (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened Charles The Golden Hawk, an item in a recent TCM day devoted exclusively to movies about pirates. It was a 1952 Columbia production on the cusp between “A” and “B” status; its producer, Sam Katzman, was generally a “B” guy, but this film ran 83 minutes (a bit long for a “B”), was in Technicolor (not Cinecolor!) and starred Rhonda Fleming and Sterling Hayden, not exactly “A” names in 1952 but not exactly “B” names either. And in case you’re wondering (as I was) just what Rhonda Fleming had to do to get top billing in a pirate movie, it’s because she’s playing a pirate herself: Captain Rouge a.k.a. Lady Jane Galton, who in the Caribbean in the 17th century is a British plantation owner who takes up piracy to earn the money to keep her Jamaica plantation alive in the face of threats by Britain’s then-existential enemy, France. (A long, rather tendentious printed foreword explains that in the 17th century Britain and Spain were allied against France — ironic given that the century earlier it had been Spain that was Britain’s existential enemy. The “Golden Hawk” himself is French privateer Kit Gerardo, played by Sterling Hayden in one of the most outrageous bits of miscasting in movie history; it seems as if producer Katzman and director Sidney Salkow thought that by putting a blond wig on him they could not only make him the next Errol Flynn but make him believable as a French pirate with an Anglo first name (usually a woman’s name, at that!) and a Latino last name, a project Hayden undermined by not attempting any sort of exotic accent at all, as if he’d just dropped in from the U.S. even though the story takes place before the U.S. even existed. (And yet in a sense it’s probably just as well Hayden didn’t attempt a French accent; one shudders to think what it would have sounded like if he had!)

He’s supposed to be a devil with women, using a clever seduction trick; he gives his would-be one-night stands his pistol and invites them to shoot him if he does anything they consider untoward — and it’s as much a shock to the audience as to him when Captain Rouge (an Englishwoman fighting the French who takes on a French alias!) takes him up on it and wounds him in the shoulder. When he’s not playing amorous games with his rival pirate — whom he kidnaps off the ship commanded by Captain Luis del Toro (John Sutton), to which she’d been abducted along with a bevy of other females obviously intended by del Toro as “comfort women” for his crew — or the other major female in the dramatis personae, del Toro’s reluctant fiancée Blanca di Vakliva (Helena Carter, who turned up in various RKO “B”’s in the 1930’s and whom I sometimes jokingly refer to as “Helena non-Bonham Carter”) — Kit Gerardo is leading a guerrilla war against the British presence in the Caribbean to destroy the supply bases of the British so they can’t come to the aid of the Spanish when the French besiege the big Spanish fort of Cartagena. Needless to say, the plot of this one is merely a pretext for the big action scenes, some of which are quite spectacular — including at least two sequences in which Kit sets off large stores of gunpowder, quirkily foreshadowing what’s today probably Hayden’s most famous film role, as the insane U.S. Air Force general Jack D. Ripper who single-handedly starts World War III and annihilates the world in Dr. Strangelove (“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when … “).

The Golden Hawk is pretty much a chip off the old pirate log, though the presence of a female pirate makes it unusual even though Rhonda Fleming, though top-billed, doesn’t get nearly enough screen time and instead we get way too much of the miscast Hayden (there’s a reason his best-known films, The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing and Dr. Strangelove, all feature him as villains) and the occasionally interesting but mostly dull Helena non-Bonham Carter as the damsel more or less in distress whom Kit rejects at the end for the genuinely dashing and butch Rouge. It’s also interesting that in one scene Kit and his comic-relief (and, as usual, not particularly funny) sidekick Bernardo Diáz (Michael Ansara, pretty clearly channeling Anthony Quinn) are caught red-handed spying in the Cartagena palace, only del Toro is reluctant to have them executed because — surprise! — Kit is actually del Toro’s son. Kit has hated del Toro for years because he thought del Toro killed Kit’s mother — only it turns out they had actually been a couple until she fled him and took the baby Kit with her, he confronted her later and she died in an accident. As far as I know Ken Maynard’s 1932 Western Tombstone Canyon is the earliest film in which the writers pulled the big reveal that the hero is the villain’s son; today, of course, it’s best known from the Star Wars movies, where it was hailed as a brilliant innovation when it was in fact just George Lucas being a cultural omnivore. And Star Wars isn’t the only later movie prefigured in The Golden Hawk; the climax was redone almost exactly a decade later in The Guns of Navarone — a maritime force attacks a city well protected by heavy artillery, and the suspense is will the commandos inside the city be able to blow up the big guns (or, here, their powder supply) before the guns lay waste to the fleet? Of course, if you’ve seen more than about five movies in your life you know the answer …