Friday Film Review: The Sea Hawk
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Genre: Historical swashbuckler/romance
Since Flynn’s birthday is next week, I thought I’d review another of his Warner Brothers swashbucklers. Released in 1940, it bears little resemblance to the Raphael Sabatini novel of the same name. Instead, it was supposed to be a take on the war that had just begun in Europe with Spain standing in for Nazi Germany and England once again standing alone against tyranny.
English privateer Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) and his men capture a Spanish galleon which is carrying a new ambassador, Don Jose (Claude Rains), along with his half English niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) to England. Though they are safely delivered to the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson), Don Jose’s protests to the Queen cause her to rein in the actions of her loyal privateers. All but Thorpe who presents her with too great a temptation with his plans to raid a Spanish gold shipment crossing the Isthmus of Panama.
But there’s a traitor, Lord Wolfhingham (Henry Daniell), at the English court and word is leaked to the Spanish who are ready when Thorpe and his crew arrive. Taken back to Spain, they are tried and condemned as galley slaves. When word reaches England of his fate, Dona Maria mourns him as lost. But Thorpe and his men engineer a daring escape and sail for England with news of treachery and the growing Spanish Armada. Can he reach the Queen in time to allow England to be ready?
As I said, the film bears little resemblance to the Sabatini novel (which is great, BTW) and instead tries to bolster Britain and sway the US to their support. Here historical England is the brave, plucky nation standing against Spanish European oppression just as Britain was then holding out against the sweep of Germany and Italy. I think the character of Lord Wolfhingham (note it’s not Walsingham who was one of Elizabeth’s most loyal cabinet ministers) is supposed to stand in for those who admired the Nazis before the war started and who tried to neutralize Britain.
As with “Captain Blood,” Michael Curtiz directs and the rousing score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. I think Korngold even used some of the same music in both films. Watch for the final duel between Flynn and Daniell (cleverly intercut since Daniell couldn’t fence) during which Curtiz utilizes his shadow shots. The lavish costumes and scenery were mostly reused from the earlier Warner Bros. film “Elizabeth and Essex” while a new soundstage was built for the “galleons at sea” shots. Those who’ve watched “Captain Blood” will also recognize a line that Dona Maria hurls at Thorpe when she denounces him as a “thief and a pirate!” That is until she falls in love with him. I have the 127 minute version which I think drags just a touch in some of the sequences. There’s also a 109 minute version and I wonder if the cuts speed up the pace?
At this stage, Flynn is still wildly handsome though he seems to be getting ever so slightly bored with doing swashbucklers. He’s not quite phoning it in but he appears much less excited and exciting than in earlier films. Brenda Marshall fills in for Olivia de Havilland who turned the role down since she was also tired of this style of picture. At first, Dona Maria is the standard snobbish heroine who strikes sparks with Thorpe in their “meet spitfire” scenes but later in the film she actually plays a larger role than I though she’d get and is the one who more romantically eloquent – Thorpe is supposed to be tongue tied around women and it’s hilarious to watch Flynn try and pull this off – and who pitches in during the effort to get Geoffrey in to see the Queen.
Flora Robson might not have gone to the extremes that Bette Davis did but she does a wonderful job as the vain, intelligent and tricky Queen and is given a final, bang up, Making a Point speech to deliver that is obviously a nod to what Winston Churchill was delivering about fighting on the beaches, landing strips, hills and streets. Claude Rains is actually not the villain of the movie but still does a great job as the stiff rumped ambassador who is still sympathetic to the romantic woes of his niece while Daniell is cooly evil as he plots to keep his Queen from standing up to the Spanish threat. There are also several other actors who starred in other Curtiz, Flynn, Warner Bros. movies including Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, Donald Crisp, Montague Love, and J.M. Kerrigan.
While IMO “The Sea Hawk” isn’t as good as either “Captain Blood” or “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” it is still lavish, has a great score, solid direction and swashbuckling adventure. I might laugh at the escaped English slaves climbing the rigging and belting out a happy chorus as they are supposed to be quietly slipping out of Cadiz under the noses of the Spanish, and the sepia tones of the scenes set on the isthmus were odd but what the hell, it’s a Flynn movie and he still looks great even if he’s less than enthusiastic about the role. They really aren’t making them like this anymore so check it out and see what you think.