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The Golden Hawk (1952) is a medium-budgeted B-movie from Columbia Pictures, a "costumer," as they were often called in both the popular and trade press of the time. Produced by Columbia's resident quickie king Sam Katzman, it is a pirate picture shot in vibrant Technicolor and featuring a novel variation on the usual theme: it presents a female pirate as wily and capable as the male lead. Rhonda Fleming throws herself into the role of the unlikely scarlet-haired privateer; unfortunately, Sterling Hayden appears more ill-at-ease as her on-again, off-again cohort.
The Golden Hawk wastes absolutely no time in establishing its pirate movie credentials; within just the first ten minutes of running time the viewer is treated to scenes that were even then thought of as clichs of the genre: a barroom full of privateers drinking rum and singing a "Yo Ho" song, the male lead bedding down a local dignitary's daughter, and a swordfight! The story is set against the 17th Century war between France and the alliance of England and Spain, and deals with the pirates of the Caribbean that took advantage of seas crowded with merchant ships and vessels transporting the spoils of war. In the pirate-run island port of Basse Terre, French "privateer" Capt. Kit 'The Hawk' Gerardo (Sterling Hayden) and his crew are aground, their ship having just been sunk. Kit stirs up his men to commandeer an English vessel, the Sea Flower, to attack the gold-laden Spanish ship Garza, captained by his arch enemy, Luis del Toro (John Sutton). In spite of being outgunned, Kit attacks the Spanish ship and during the melee a female captive dives from the Garza and swims to the Sea Flower. She claims to be a Dutch prisoner, but soon reveals herself to be Captain Rouge (Rhonda Fleming), a notorious pirate. Rouge wounds Kit and flees, knowing that they will meet again. In a later attack, Kit picks up Bianca de Valdiva (Helena Carter), who is on her way to wed del Toro. Kit tells her, "my regrets, Senorita one day I shall have to make you a widow," for del Toro has killed Kit's mother.
In 2009 Rhonda Fleming told TCM that The Golden Hawk was "...a wonderful film about 'pirates' and I played a very feisty one!" Fleming felt that her co-star Hayden was "...a very tall, good-looking man and although he was not as agile as an 'Errol Flynn' he was a very good actor and very nice to work with." It is initially startling to see Hayden, the sturdy, no-nonsense lead of such urban Noir classics as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Killing (1956), here topped by a curly blonde hairdo and decked out in period garb. Fleming's memory is correct Hayden engages in only a couple of fleeting swordfights and does not appear very light on his feet. He has an imposing presence, though, and can get away with some very clunky dialogue, as when Kit tells the hungry Rouge, "Since you prefer not to feed my vanity, I shall be delighted to feed your stomach."
Swashbucklers are often enlivened by the villainous roles, and The Golden Hawk features John Sutton, a long-time veteran of such parts. Born in British India, Sutton's style of costumed villainy had already been on view in such films as Captain from Castile (1947), Adventures of Casanova (1948), Bagdad (1949), Thief of Damascus (1952), Captain Pirate (1952), and Lady in the Iron Mask (1952). Author Jeffrey Richards, in his book Swordsmen of the Screen, from Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York, writes that Sutton's "...best performance was as Don Luis del Toro in The Golden Hawk... He played an ageing Spanish grandee and made touching by his restraint scenes with a much younger wife he suspects of infidelity." The striking actress playing Bianca del Valdiva, Helena Carter, had a much shorter career than Sutton. After appearing in 13 films during a span of six years, she retired following production of the science fiction favorite Invaders from Mars (1953), in which she memorably played the leading scientist, Dr. Pat Blake.
Sam Katzman, the prolific producer in charge of Columbia Pictures' serial and B-movie units, had his name on no less that a dozen projects released in 1952. That year there were three Katzman-produced serials, two entries in the Jungle Jim series starring Johnny Weissmuller, a couple of westerns, and several pictures with titles that indicate a globe-trotting film crew: A Yank in Indo-China, Thief of Damascus, and Last Train from Bombay. Costume pictures were very popular with audiences in the early 1950s, and Columbia in particular became very adept at turning out colorful, semi-exotic-looking programmers on a very low budget. The trick was to employ mostly contract players instead of stars, construct foreign locations on studio soundstages rather than travel, and fill out epic scenes with stock footage or special effects photography. The budget for The Golden Hawk was probably the biggest that Katzman had to work with that year; the film gets by with a minimum of stock footage and the miniature sea battles are well done and appear to be specially designed for this film (the special effects are credited to Jack Erickson). In addition, there is a mid-film island dance sequence that is wildly authentic, which is unusual for a studio film from this period; the dance (set on Cul de Sac) is erotic and genuinely Caribbean-flavored.
Very little critical attention was paid to The Golden Hawk and what appeared was not very enthusiastic. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther felt that "pushovers for the swashbucklers may experience a feeble shove from The Golden Hawk," and that "...the sort of blood and thunder that is standard in sword-and-romance films is spewed in this Technicolored gee-gaw turned out by Columbia." Crowther said that the film's cast "...all do their best to make something of this slap at a Frank Yerby yarn, but the product is rambling and confusing, just people milling around in bright costumes."
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Sidney Salkow
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent; Frank Yerby (novel)
Cinematography: William V. Skall
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editing: Edwin Bryant
Special Effects: Jack Erickson
Cast: Sterling Hayden (Kit 'The Hawk' Gerardo), Rhonda Fleming (Captain Rouge), Helena Carter (Bianca de Valdiva), John Sutton (Captain Luis del Toro), Paul Cavanagh (Jeremy Smithers), Michael Ansara (Bernardo Diaz), Raymond Hatton (Barnaby Stoll), Alex Montoya (Homado)
by John M. Miller