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Friday Film Review: The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (1940)
Genre: Historical swashbuckler/romance
Grade: B-

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.


Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. cate
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 05:32:49

    OOOOH !! One of my all times faves. Sorry to disagree Jayne, but this is an A* for me. From good old Dame Flora doing her Bessie, to Errol throwing himself around the rigging in tights & looking uber macho & utterly shaggable whilst doing so. You even have the added bonus of the old silver badger himself – Claude Rains (what a voice ).
    Whenever I see this film, I frequently pull out Heyer’s Beauvallet & reread it, as the two seem to dovetail nicely .
    Good choice Jayne – must dig out the DVD this weekend

  2. Carolyn
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 06:08:59

    The thing is, at that time England was facing an enemy as strong as Nazi Germany. It was David against Goliath. And I think Churchill rather looked to Elizabeth in the speechifying department. She gave a rousing speech to her troops at Tillsbury before engagement with the Armanda:

    “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms.”

    Rah! Rah!

    I love this period of history – wouldn’t want to live then, but it was certainly exciting. I’ve always admired Elizabeth. I vaguely remember seeing this film years ago; I’d watch again for the portrayal of Elizabeth I.

  3. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 06:13:02

    @cate: I totally agree that Flynn is delicious here and think he’s at his best during the rigging climbing and fencing scenes. But his chemistry with Brenda Marshall leaves a lot to be desired.

    Oh, totally agree with the nod to Beauvallet which was one of my first, and still one of my favorite, Heyer novels.

  4. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 06:16:50

    @Carolyn: Well, I think Churchill couldn’t have chosen a better speechifyer to look to than Elizabeth as she rallied the troops. Great stuff.

    Who do people like better in the role? Robson, Davis, Mirren, Glenda Jackson? Someone else?

  5. Sandra
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 06:48:58

    @Jayne: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench. The list goes on and on…

  6. DS
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 07:26:43

    Glenda Jackson is my favorite QE1.

    I liked both the book and the movie. Before cable (when we only had 3 channels) pirate movies were a Saturday afternoon staple. That’s when I saw most of these great old swashbucklers. It’s fun to be reminded of them.

  7. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 08:34:21

    @DS: Saturday afternoons – ah yes, I remember watching swashbucklers then too. That’s when I first saw Captain Blood.

    Speaking of QE1 – Miranda Richardson in “Black-AdderII!”

  8. Kristi
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 08:55:56

    I love this movie. I got on a kick of classic pirate and ship-themed movies for a while in high school after AMC had a marathon of them one New Years Eve while I was babysitting.

    I re-watched this one fairly recently too. I think I’d DVR’d it months earlier. My tastes have grown quite a bit since high school and if I’d just seen it for the first time I wouldn’t have been quite as enamoured. But the first meeting between the H/H was great and it was still a good story, and it brings back good memories.

  9. Darlene Marshall
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 09:18:54

    Much as I love Claude Rains (Am I the only person who had a lech for him?), I have to say I’d pick Captain Blood over The Sea Hawk any day. Better story, better film, and it had Basil Rathbone, who was an amazing fencer. Bliss!

  10. cayenne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 09:39:52

    I discovered this movie as a kid (Saturday Night at the Movies on local Ontario public television) & have loved it ever since. That being said, Captain Blood is far and away the better movie: the story is tighter & more compelling, Flynn is more intense, de Havilland > Marshall (lots), and there’s the swordfight on the rocks with Basil Rathbone. I own DVDs of both, but I’ll watch either one any time they’re on.

  11. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 10:05:08

    @cayenne: When you watch it next, look for the way Daniell is positioned after he’s killed in the duel. It mirrors Rathbone’s positioning on the rocks in Captain Blood. I guess Curtiz knew a good shot and didn’t hesitate to steal from himself. ;)

  12. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 10:06:57

    @Kristi: AMC introduced me to a lot of good older movies too.

  13. cayenne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 10:23:29

    @Jayne – absolutely. His signature was the duel or fight seen in giant shadow, and it’s in both films, too.

  14. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 10:25:22

    @cayenne: I tried to find a screencap of the giant shadows dueling but no joy.

  15. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 10:27:01

    @Darlene Marshall: I enjoyed seeing Rains in a more sympathetic role after his dastardly turn in “Robin Hood.”

  16. Maria Zannini
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 10:40:32

    I’m glad you mentioned the similarities between films because I kept having a case of deja vous. I thought I was mixing them up.

    I prefer Captain Blood of the two. Have you reviewed Essex and Elizabeth? I loved seeing Errol Flynn and Bette Davis together on screen. Amazing actors.

  17. cayenne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 11:14:58

    @Jayne, there’s a version in a lot of his films, not just the Flynn ones (though here’s one from Robin Hood: I seem to recall one from Angels with Dirty Faces,, too.

  18. Jayne
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 13:17:15

    @Maria Zannini: No, I haven’t reviewed E&E. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve even seen it. Or if I have, it’s been eons ago.

  19. Christine
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 16:51:41

    I really love the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, particularly anything with Olivia DeHavilland. This is a great movie but I would have to put it behind Captain Blood and Adventures of Robin Hood. I am firmly convinced that Laurie McBain used this as the idea for the backstory of the parents in “Wild Bells To The Wild Sky” merely changing the father’s name to “Captain Geoffrey Christian” from “Captain Geoffrey Thorpe.”

  20. Barb in Maryland
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 20:55:12

    @Christine. Hmmm, you could be right! (Must go re-read Laurie McBain). The first time I read Beauvallet I was convinced it was inspired by this movie. Until I looked at the copyright date and realized that Beauvallet was written in the 1920’s and thus well pre-dated the movie!

    Jayne–Every time I watch this movie I choke up when ‘Strike for the Shores of Dover’ comes on. Hokey I know, but I love it.

  21. orannia
    Jun 18, 2011 @ 23:52:31

    I never realized the ‘why’ behind the film – thank you Jayne.

    And Flynn swashbuckling around is always fun to watch :)

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