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There you are, watching Errol Flynn be a charming pirate in The Sea Hawk, when suddenly, an odd thing happens to the color of the picture… It goes from black-and-white to sepia!
Don’t worry. Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. In fact, this color change was intentional.
As soon as Errol Flynn and his men travel to Panama to steal Spanish treasure, a sepia tint takes over. The intention was to visually illustrate the intense heat, especially as our hero and his men would encounter the treacherous temperature when they take refuge in the swamp.
Interestingly, the first thought was to tint these scenes green. However, fear of an unintended consequence, changed this course.
Executive Producer Hal B. Wallis wrote Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner:
“George Amy [the film editor] brings up a point that I think is very well taken. That is, that green is a cooling color… It is entirely possible that by putting this green tint on the film, we are apt to get just the opposite effect than we want, namely, a feeling of coolness instead of one of terrific heat.
An amber or perhaps a straw or yellowish tint might be even better, but I think in order to be safe we should let the print alone just as it is – black and white.”
When the film debuted in theaters, some prints had the sepia scenes. Later, when the film was restored (since the original cut took out several scenes to make it shorter for its theatrical run), the sepia tint was kept in.
The Sea Hawk wasn’t the first film to tint certain scenes though. In 1939, The Wizard of Oz tinted the Kansas scenes sepia to contrast the bright and colorful land of Oz.