Fridays With Errol Flynn: The Sea Hawk (1940)
Fridays with Flynn moves from the plains of the heartland to the high seas with a retread of a film Flynn made five years earlier. Swashbucklers don’t necessarily thrill me, but even I couldn’t resist the breathless excitement that came from watching Flynn in Captain Blood (1935). By the time Flynn reteamed with Michael Curtiz for The Sea Hawk, his breed of buckling swash was coming to a close. The Sea Hawk, though amazingly executed on such a lavish stage that could have only been accomplished by a major studio like Warners Bros., can be a cumbersome slog groaning under the weight of its own star power. Lavish in some areas and lacking in others, The Sea Hawk sees Flynn plagiarizing himself.
Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) is a privateer willing to do anything for Queen and country. When he gets information that the Spanish have an armada they’re going to use against England it’s up to Thorpe and his mates to save the day.
Much of what happens in this Michael Curtiz film was done in the last Michael Curtiz film. Reuniting with Errol Flynn, Claude Rains and Alan Hale might leave you thinking this is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – a film Curtiz helmed alongside William Keighley – but the closest comparison is the aforementioned Captain Blood. Though its been awhile since I took in that Errol Flynn adventure film I recall a fair share of boats, sword fights, and an exotic locale.
But calling it a discount Captain Blood is unfair. Curtiz was actually gearing up for his magnum opus, Casablanca (1942). Much of The Sea Hawk critiques the burgeoning war with Germany, which had already started in England by the time this film hit American shores. Opening on a map of England, the villainous King of Spain plans to conquer it all. “It’ll cease to be a map of the world. It’ll be Spain!” As his shadow engulfs the map, Spain takes on the all-encompassing rhetoric of German domination, a point that’s hammered home during Queen Elizabeth I’s (Flora Robson) final speech declaring, “The Earth does not belong to any one man.”
The battle lines are fairly cut and dry, heavily condensed for audiences not up to speed on global politics, and as a history of England at the time it’s hit or miss in authenticity; the evil Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) was a take on Lord Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth’s most ardent supporters. Then again, what do you expect with a guy who’s got “Wolf” in his name?
Flynn’s a man with a devotion to his country, but no overseer. He’s a privateer captaining a boat called the Albatross, good luck for England but bad luck for the Spanish. Flynn’s charm is so intrinsic to his persona there’s no need to praise it; it’s to be expected. Unlike most pirates Geoffrey Thorpe is a pirate with a staunch moral code, who treats slaves and captives with equal amounts of respect and wouldn’t dream of taking a beautiful woman’s jewels away. (I wonder if Una O’Connor’s maid character received the same treatment?) In fact, Flynn’s such a whiz with the ladies it’s hard believing he gets tongue-tied around women. Come on, this is Errol Flynn we’re talking about; the man gets out a syllable and the women are falling for him. He’s so smooth even the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth, turns coquettish, giggling behind a fan at his actions.
But, unlike Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk never properly takes flight. Thorpe and crew are introduced in a fantastic sea battle utilizing Warners’ immense “Maritime Stage” – so big it allowed two massive ships to float side-by-side – before everyone returns to England. After that things slow down with Flynn wooing Brenda Marshall’s Dona Maria (a Spanish woman living in Britain with no accent from either country). The Spanish Armada is the big bad, but the Flynn and crew take their time getting to the actual fleet, ending up in Panama and becoming slaves themselves. There are various story threads lifted and put down when they’re convenient, but it leaves the entire affair to plod along. Thorpe’s pirating and Queen Elizabeth’s political issues yield results, but Flynn and Marshall are as cool as cucumbers – probably because everyone, from the audience to the cast, knew Marshall was a poor man’s Olivia De Havilland – and everything was done better in prior movies with the assembled crew.
And, it’s a minor issue, but casting English actors to play Spaniards presents its own problem. The only distinguishing marks separating the English from the Spanish is some dark hair dye – and Claude Rains’ Sharpie-drawn facial hair. The total absence of Spanish accents just leaves you presuming it’s British infighting more than anything else.
The Sea Hawk never lives up to the sweeping highs of Captain Blood. In spite of the same cast and director lightening just doesn’t strike twice.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Nice post but I have to disagree, the Sea Hawk is my favourite Flynn movie!
I completely understand. It’s interesting how people fall into divided Flynn camps: Captain Blood or The Sea Hawk.
What? The Sea Hawk is twofold superior than Captain Blood!!! Better music, better suspense (almost spooky as Thorpe and seven of his men are returning to their ship, whilst the Spaniards waiting for them), better locations, better final (I much prefer the excellent rapier duel with the shadows on the wall than the bombast ship sinking of Blood). Flynn also plays superior than as Captain Blood. AND De Havilland had better chemistry with Flynn, but I can’t imagine her as a spanish Lady. Brenda Marshall had the looks.