The Sea Hawk reunites director Michael Curtiz and swashbuckling star Errol Flynn, resulting in one of their best collaborations together.
This film might be a period adventure film but it was an allegorical film about Hitler and the need to fight back during WWII. King Philip II of Spain basically stands in for Hitler in the 1940 swashbuckler. While the film takes place in the late 1500s, one can definitely see how they use the launch of the Spanish Armada as an allegory for Nazi Germany seeking to expand their own land. Look no further than the Queen’s speech towards the end of the film.
Geoffrey Thorpe (Erroll Flynn) is an English privateer and captures Don José Álvarez de Córdoba (Claude Rains) as his ship is in route to England. While the queen’s (Flora Robson) advisors are hoping England responds, Álvarez has orders from King Phillip II (Montagu Love) to downplay the Spanish Armada. Meanwhile, something happens on the way to England. Thorpe ends up falling for Álvarez’s niece Doña María (Brenda Marshall). Meanwhile, he proposes to the Queen that they seize a Spanish treasure that is making its way back from the Spanish colonies across the plan. The Queen reluctantly approves this but Thorpe and company end up getting captured and imprisoned as galley slaves. Down but not out, Thorpe and his crew take over a ship to deliver Álvarez to justice and show evidence to the queen.
Where things get really interesting is that Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) is working with the Spanish. This guy is a completely fictional character in the film. Someone with a similarly sounding name did exist in real life but they were not a traitor. This guy is and Thorpe kicks his ass in the end. He got what was coming especially after betraying his people.
Thorpe is a stand-in for Sir Francis Drake, who served as second-in-command when England fought the Spanish Armanda. I don’t know why they changed names in the film but anyway, it’s still an adventure. The film remains a highlight for both Curtiz and Flynn even as they didn’t get along well with each other. If you’ve read Alan K. Rode’s book on Curtiz, you know how he was on set. He didn’t like Flynn’s lateness or how his off-set life impacted his work. It’s no surprise that they would only do two more films together. The fact that they did ten films at this point speaks to both the studio system and ability to churn films out rather quickly. Curtiz was a reliable director for Warner Bros. because he’s able to get the job done. For better or worse, he could deliver what works.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Queen Elizabeth I’s monologue at the end of the film could not have been more timely and relevant.
And now, my loyal subjects, a grave duty confronts us all: To prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country; but when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist. Firm in this faith, we shall now make ready to meet the great armada that Philip sends against us. To this end, I pledge you ships – ships worthy of our seamen – a mighty fleet, hewn out of the forests of England; a navy foremost in the world – not only in our time, but for generations to come.
WWII started a few months prior to production getting underway in early 1940. If you know anything about Warner Bros. in the 1930s, they were very much anti-Nazi and in favor of intervention with Europe. As such, this message also came across in films such as Sergeant York. It does not even come as a surprise that they would find a way to inject such a message into the film. The British needed the support and The Sea Hawk ends up being propaganda to draw support from US audiences in one of their most trying hours.
From a technical standpoint, the film uses a sepia tone for scenes taking place in the Americas. It’s a rather fascinating decision and not unlike what MGM did with The Wizard of Oz. Filmmakers get lazy by reusing footage from earlier films–this also includes Flynn’s own action scenes. But hey, WB isn’t alone because Disney would do the same thing with animation in Robin Hood.
The film would go onto earn for Oscar nominations (Art Direction, Score, Sound Recording, Special Effects). While neither would win anything, Erich Wolfgang Korngold delivers one of the best scores of his career. In my honest opinion, this score is better than his Oscar-winning score for The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s a shame that soundtracks didn’t work like today because a soundtrack was not properly released. That didn’t happen until sometime in the 21st century. In any event, when we think of symphonic film scores, Korngold is one of the pioneers. He even manages to outdo his work in 1935’s Captain Blood, also directed by Curtiz and starring Flynn.
Despite their relationship with each other, The Sea Hawk is the best collaboration between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn. They sure don’t make films like they used to but despite the drama on set, Curtiz knew how to work with the large sets, special effects, and period settings even if the script takes dramatic liberties with history itself.
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
SCREENWRITERS: Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller
CAST: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains, Donald Crisp, Flora Robson, Alan Hale, Henry Daniell
Warner Bros. released The Sea Hawk in theaters on August 31, 1940. Grade: 4.5/5
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