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There you are, watching Errol Flynn play 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 creative team's 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.”
It seems the studio was unable to make up their minds and decided to use both methods. In some versions, the film was completely black-and-white while other versions had the sepia scenes.
Later, when the film was restored to add back footage which was removed to make the theatrical cut shorter, the sepia tint was used for all of the intended scenes.
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.