28 September 2014 | BrianDanaCamp
Medium-budget pirate film with above-average script
When I saw that Sam Katzman was the producer of THE GOLDEN HAWK, I really wasn't expecting much, given his reputation for turning out dozens of low-budget potboilers during his long career. In 1952 alone, the year of this film's release, he produced nine features (five of them in color) and three 15-chapter serials. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by THE GOLDEN HAWK. It had a much more intricate story than usual for Katzman's pirate "epics," boasted much better production values, and offered a more high-powered pair of leads—Sterling Hayden and Rhonda Fleming--than we usually got from him. I'm guessing that Katzman lavished more care on this because the source material—a best-seller by prominent historical novelist Frank Yerby—was more prestigious than anything he usually had to work with. Only one previous Yerby novel had resulted in a screen adaptation—THE FOXES OF HARROW, a lavish 1948 historical drama from 20th Century Fox which starred Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara—and only one subsequent work was adapted—THE SARACEN BLADE (1954), also produced by Katzman.
I was especially taken with Rhonda Fleming's character, who has more than one name in the course of the film, given the multiple identities she takes on. We see her most often as "Rouge," a notorious English pirate queen who is frequently at odds with the hero of the piece, French privateer Kit Gerardo (Hayden), despite the fact that they're in love with each other. She even shoots him at one point when he enters her bedroom and looms over her in her sleep. (It isn't what she thinks it is, but how was she supposed to know that?) Fleming has a dramatic scene where she lambastes Gerardo and his pirate crew for pillaging the land she'd successfully developed into a Caribbean plantation under a new identity during a long absence from the narrative. A bigger-budget Hollywood historical drama might have focused more on her character and the turn of events that created the plantation.
Helena Carter (INVADERS FROM MARS) is quite good as Bianca de Valdiva, a Spanish lady who falls for Gerardo but winds up marrying his chief nemesis, Captain Luis del Toro (John Sutton), a Spanish officer charged with ridding the region of French pirates and privateers. Carter has a regal quality about her as she deals with each of the characters in turn and sizes them up properly before deciding what course of action is best for her. She and Fleming have a heart-to-heart talk late in the film that's actually quite moving. It's the kind of thing we don't see often from women characters in these types of genre films. John Sutton as the Spanish captain is not the cardboard villain he was in so many of these films (e.g. CAPTAIN PIRATE, SANGAREE), but a fair-minded man with secret knowledge about Gerardo that invokes a compassionate response.
Hayden's pirate team consists of Paul Cavanaugh, Michael Ansara, and Raymond Hatton, and all three actors are in the film from beginning to end and seem to be having the time of their lives. Cavanaugh was 63 when he made this and Hatton was 64 (and usually playing old coots in westerns by this point), yet the characters are quite vigorous and the two performers engage in a lot of physical action. Speaking of which, Fleming and Hayden perform a lot of action as well. Hayden seems to do all of his own swordfighting in a duel early on with Cavanaugh (who's doubled in much of the scene), while Fleming does a swimming scene that looks pretty rigorous.
There is a climactic battle between the French fleet at sea and the Spanish fortress at Cartagena which is pretty spectacular for a sequence chiefly involving miniatures and studio sets.
I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of the film, only for its entertainment value as a mid-range studio genre film with colorful sets and costumes, plenty of action, a fast pace, intriguing characters and lively, energetic performers. If there is one false note, it's the sequence set on a South Seas Island with Polynesian dancers and natives, including one veteran Hawaiian actor on hand, Al Kikume (Chief Mehevi in John Ford's THE HURRICANE, 1937). I thought this movie was set in the Caribbean, halfway around the world from Polynesia. Unless Hayden and his crew took a trip there on some business and just didn't tell the movie audience where they were going.