If you've seen a handful of vintage pirate movies, odds are The Spanish Main won't have any real surprises for you. Nearly every convention of the genre is worked into the film's 100-minute running time, but the problem is that the movie isn't as much fun as the many films it imitates. The chief reason for this: it lacks a memorable pirate.
Our story begins when a Dutch ship is wrecked off the coast of Cartagena, a Spanish settlement ruled by the corrupt Governor Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak, Lifeboat). Most of the Dutch refugees aboard the ship are sold into slavery, and Captain Laurent van Horn (Paul Henreid, Casablanca) is sentenced to death. Laurent and a handful of his men escape from prison and begin new lives outside the law. Within a few years, Laurent has become an infamous pirate known as “The Barracuda,” a man feared by all who sail the seas.
The Barracuda's latest quest for booty finds him stealing a ship carrying Contessa Francisca (Maureen O'Hara, The Quiet Man), who is pledged to be married to Governor Alvarado (despite the fact that she has never met the governor). Francisca is repulsed by The Barracuda's mercenary methods, and at one point makes him a desperate offer: if Laurent will spare a ship full of innocent people, she will marry him. Laurent is delighted by this proposition and immediately agrees. This causes some grumbling among his men, but has even larger political consequences within the world of piracy, placing The Barracuda in conflict with fellow pirates like Anne Bonny (Binnie Barnes, The Trouble With Angels) and Benjamin Black (Barton MacLane, The Maltese Falcon).
The tempestuous romantic relationship that develops between O'Hara and Henreid occupies a sizable chunk of the film, and it's basically the exact same thing we saw between O'Hara and Tyrone Power a few years earlier in The Black Swan: Henreid makes inappropriate advances, O'Hara protests angrily, Henreid makes more inappropriate advances, O'Hara begins to fall in love with him. Leaving aside the outdated gender politics, this is the sort of romance these pirate movies often peddled, allowing viewers to witness a respectable, beautiful woman falling for an exciting scallywag against her better judgment.
Unfortunately, Henreid is no Tyrone Power, which is saying something considering that Tyrone Power was no Errol Flynn. Henreid was well-cast as the dull, earnest Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, but he's almost embarrassingly out-of-place as a swaggering pirate. He's far too stiff for the free-spirited role he's been handed, and his attempt at rakish charm feels more likely clumsily aggressive flirting. O'Hara does her best to make it work (and honestly, she's better at playing this sort of character than just about anyone), but it's hard to shake the feeling that we're watching a pale imitation of more entertaining movies. The Black Swan gave its two leads a generous supply of witty banter and colorful insults; The Spanish Main merely gives them a general sense of ever-fading antagonism.
The film isn't a complete bore, as other genre pleasures are left intact. The movie earned an Academy Award nomination for its lush Technicolor cinematography, and it's always a pleasure to behold on an aesthetic level. Slezak is consistently entertaining as the villain, delivering a handful of genuinely hilarious sequences (the writing is so much better in these scenes that one can't help but wonder if Slezak improvised a few lines). The energetic score by Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (a talented man who would soon be forced to leave Hollywood after being blacklisted) is a winner, too. It's possible to have a bit of fun with The Spanish Main, but you'd almost certainly have more fun with the movies this one borrows from.
The Spanish Main
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 1945