By the mid-1920s, the American feature had more or less gotten through all of its learning curve to become the thing it is today. there were still some kinks to work out - camera movement wouldn't be perfected until '26 or '27 in the States, and then after the coming of sound, it had to be re-learned starting about '31 - but the Golden Age of the Hollywood Silent Film, as I perceive it, stretches from 1923 until 1928. The first version of classical continuity editing (the ability to cut on lines of dialogue added some wrinkles in the next decade, but the grammar was all basically the same; and, with the reduction of average shot lengths but the geometrical relationships between shots remaining functionally identical, it is the grammar still used by the vast majority of narrative films made not just in Hollywood, but anywhere in the world) was firmly entrenched in American production, meaning that during this period, the basic building blocks of all movies were the same, and unlike movies from as recent as 1919 or 1920, they can all be quickly "read" by anybody even now. This is, indeed, the reason why continuity editing has specific, well-defined rules: any viewer can drop in front of any movie, and immediately understand what is being communicated visually, so they can proceed to ignoring it and engaging with the story. It being the first and foremost principle of Hollywood film production that story and character are privileged above images and the momentum between them.

Since we have now arrived at a point where the Hollywood film was and is a clear-cut, distinct product, I would like to introduce you to somebody: Frank Lloyd. It is unlikely that you know his name, unless you are a fixed devotee of non-canonical movies from the late silent and early sound era (his silents are, generally, better than his talkies - 1933's Cavalcade is particularly dire); but he was quite a fixture. The director of two Best Picture Oscar winners before 1935, and recipient of the Best Director Oscar in the second and sixth years of its existence, he was, I think it's fair to say, exactly what the Hollywood film industry liked to think of as its finest sort of film director at the time: he was, that is to say, an extraordinary hack. And I mean "hack" in its literal definition. Not, as angry message board denizens use it, to suggest that he's willfully talentless and incapable of making artistic decisions; the exact opposite, in fact. A hack, in the Frank Lloyd sense, was a craftsman who could be counted on to make a movie that checked all the boxes, followed all the rules, and would come out a really handsome, well-built piece of cinema, all without the need to busily insert himself and his ideas into the process. Hacks of this kind are the classical Hollywood style; they make perfect, and perfectly impersonal movies one after the other. Their talent is real and it is deep: it is the talent for doing the right thing always, even though it is usually not the inspired thing. One is rarely moved or transported by hackwork; but one is also virtually always entertained by the best hackwork, and this was the grease that ran the Hollywood system right up to the United States' entry into World War II.

So back to that anonymous hack Lloyd and his thoroughly run-of-the-mill adventure movie from 1924, The Sea Hawk. Run-of-the-mill, that is, for something that's still a hugely entertaining epic nine decades later (assuming you can get over the whole "silent film with intertitles" thing, and if you can't, you'd likely have figured it out long before you ever get as far as The Sea Hawk), with setpieces made on a level that is mind-boggling to even daydream about now, all of it shot in a perfectly bland, perfectly functional style designed to put as much of those setpieces onscreen at one time as could be managed. This is not a movie like the fantasies of Germany at the same time, that remains fresh and exciting to watch because of the ingenuity of its visuals, for as I have just finished laying out, the the key element of Lloyd's style is that he's not ingenious. It's not even fresh and exciting because, like fellow class of 1924 adventure epic The Thief of Bagdad, it coasts on the effortless charisma of its star: no Douglas Fairbanks was Milton Sills, a B-lister who was 42 at the time the film came out and looked like he had another 10 years on that.

No, The Sea Hawk gets by the old fashioned way, literally. It is the kind of film that decides the best way to present spectacle is to stage spectacle. In the '30s, a film of this sort would involve models and backdrops; in the '50s, it would involve a boat set in the backlot tank and rear projection; in the modern era, it would have half a boat built in front of a green screen. Back in the '20s, though, they didn't fuck around, and it was the order of the day that if the script called for two 16th Century sailing ships to nearly smack into each other during a sea battle, the film crew would fucking well build replicas of 16th Century sailing ships and drive them at each other, with a camera pointing over the edge. It says everything that needs to be said that, 16 years later, when Warner Bros. made another film titled The Sea Hawk (not based on the same novel and sharing virtually no plot similarities whatsoever), they could use action footage from the '24 film and have it look absolutely great and in no way dated or deficient. I dare you to imagine that happening now - here's a terrifically straightforward example, imagine the new Legendary Pictures Godzilla padded itself out with CGI from the 16-year-old Tri-Star Godzilla. When you are done puking, please continue with the rest of the review.

The Sea Hawk didn't just hold up for 16 years; it has held up, quite effortlessly, for 90, and barring the disappearance of cinema as an artform, I can't think of any reason it won't still hold up for 90 years yet to come. There's no reason for it not to: the sea battles are eye-popping, magnificently over-the-top indulgences of real ships and real men being rocked about by real waves. There are no special effects to have aged poorly, because there are no special effects. And there in the middle of it is Frank Lloyd and his crew: ship designer Fred Gabourie, cinematographer Norbert Brodine, art director Stephen Goosson, editor Edward M. Roskam. All of them working with single-minded intensity to make sure that you don't notice what they're doing; all of them focused on creating the illusion of being on those boats with those men in the moment so invisibly that you're not thinking of anything but the boat and the battle and the torrid human drama. That's hackwork, and it takes a genius to be as bland at it as Frank Lloyd.

If I have gotten so deep into reviewing The Sea Hawk without really talking about The Sea Hawk, that's because it's frankly all so much high-spirited hokum. The movie opens at an indefinite point when Spain and England were still constantly fighting each other on the seas: privateer Sir Oliver Tressilian (Sills) has lately received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to making life awful for the Spanish, and currently enjoys the quiet life of a country gentleman with his engagement to the beautiful Rosamund Godolphin (Enid Bennett) occupying all of his mind that isn't otherwise taken up with running off to fight duels against Rosamund's protector, Sir John Killigrew (Marc McDermott), for provoking his dignity and honor. Another provocation has just come from Peter Godolphin (Wallace MacDonald), Rosamund's brother; recalling her admonishments that he needs to stop poking people with his sword, Sir Oliver manages to calm himself down, but he cannot control his shiftless brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes), who bumps into the drunken Peter in the woods, and finding himself equally provoked, and with no knowledge of his brother's quarrel with the man, kills Peter in a very quick duel. Lionel immediately throws himself on Sir Oliver's mercy, but the evidence all points to one of the residents of the Tressilian household, and the only way for Sir Oliver to get out with his relationship to Rosamund intact is to sell Lionel out. So Lionel quickly arranges for the dissolute sea captain Jasper Leigh (Wallace Beery) to kidnap his brother, hoping that it will look as though Sir Oliver has fled to escape justice. Which is how, more than half an hour into a movie titled The Sea Hawk, we finally see the goddamned sea.

Leigh's ship is quickly overtaken by the Spanish, and Sir Oliver is captured and made a galley slave; he shares a bench with an Algerian named Yusuf-Ben-Moktar (Albert Prisco), who happens to be the nephew of Asad-ed-Din (Frank Currier), Basha of Algiers. And luckily for everyone, Asad-ed-Din is on the hunt for his nephew, and conquers the Spanish ship. Yusuf dies in the ensuing battle, but a grateful Sir Oliver pledges himself to Asad-ed-Din, renouncing the hypocritical Christianity that was so cheery to see him locked in chains, and builds a reputation for himself over the next three years as Sakr-el-Bahr, "Hawk of the Sea", a fearsome Barbary corsair. But even as he makes a fortune in plunder and slaving, he never forgets the ill done to him by Lionel, and when he chances to meet up with Leigh again - still a Spanish prisoner - he begins the process of making plans to avenge himself.

How closely this hews to Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel, I cannot say. But it surely makes for a ripping yarn, the sort that I sketched out briefly to two different people, and found their glassy, dubious expression made me immediately follow up with, "but, like, in a good way". It's a bit pokey during the initial intrigue in England, helped not at all by the male cast's tendency to look so similar that it's hard to follow the details of who's doing what to who (when the lumpy, be-stubbled Beery finally showed up, I cheered to see a man's face without a Van Dyke beard and little upturned moustache). And the final 20 minutes are such a frenzy of quick changes and schemes that it feels wildly contrived just from speed, the exact same plot stretch out a bit might have landed better. But on the whole, it's grandly committed melodrama, with a game if hardly legendary cast: Sills hams it up without having the charisma to sell it, in addition to looking somewhat old, as mentioned; Currier leans much too hard on sickening leers, in addition to having a peculiarly unconvincing coat of brownface makeup; Hughes bugs out his eyes a lot. The only standouts are Beery, whose casual, relaxed, satisfied meanness of soul clearly indicates why he'd have a strong career over the next decade and change, and Bennett, whose simple, charming performance undoubtedly benefits from the amount of time she spends next to the straining Sills.

And anyway, the not-so-secret appeal of the thing isn't the human element: it's the extravagant set pieces and the gorgeous, palpably costly sets, creating the best kind of historically romantic atmosphere. The film's goals are not psychological or thematic. It wants to overwhelm you with the sheer quantity of its spectacle, covering two continents and multiple seagoing vessels over a period of years, with costumes and backdrops that are plainly meant to be impressive rather than historically authentic, and are there solely to put us in the mood for heightened adventure, intrigue, and romance. There is, again, no particular artistry to the way this is put together, outside of one single dolly shoot backwards along a boat to emphasise Sir Oliver's authority, skill, and the respect with which he is viewed. Lloyd cared only to make sure that we saw the action with clear sightlines and a functional, direct mix of medium shots and close-ups to make sure we see what the characters feel, so we can feel it to. But when the onscreen action is this involving, putting the camera in front of it is all you really need to do to make a vigorous piece of entertaining nonsense, and by God, The Sea Hawk is every bit as entertaining as it is nonsensical.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1924
-Erich von Stroheim's massive epic Greed is cut to barely more than two hours. The complete version is believed irretrievably lost
-Buster Keaton stars in the ingenious meta-movie Sherlock Jr.
-Victor Sjöström makes his first American films, including the excellent Lon Chaney melodrama He Who Gets Slapped

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1924
-René Clair arrives on the scene in France with the audacious Dadaist short Entr'acte
-Greta Garbo makes her starring debut in the Swedish Saga of Gösta Berling
-F.W. Murnau's exquisite The Last Laugh codifies a new language of camera movement and storytelling with virtually no intertitles