Monday, October 10, 2011


BACK-GROUND: “The Sea Hawk” was a remake of the 1924 silent classic, but while the original was loosely based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, the 1940 version was inspired by the adventures of Sir Francis Drake. The film marked the tenth pairing of Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz (they made a total of twelve including “Captain Blood” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”). The two brought out the best in each other although they did not like each other. The movie had a huge budget of $1.75 million and was a box office success. Part of the money went into building a sound stage that had a water tank that could hold two full-size ships (which were built for the film). The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards: Art Direction, Music, Sound Recording, and Special Effects. In an interesting decision, “The Sea Hwak” was filmed in black and white whereas the earlier “Adventures of Robin Hood” was in Technicolor.

OPENING: The movie opens in Spain in 1585 (three years before the Spanish Armada). King Philip II complains about the English “Sea Hawks” who are raiding Spanish treasure ships. Spain will defeat that “puny rock-bound island” and rule the world. The devious Philip sends ambassador Don Alvarez (Claude Rains) to assure Queen Elizabeth I that Spain is not plotting an invasion. Alvarez will bring his beautiful niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) to be a handmaiden to the queen.

SUMMARY: Don Alvarez travels on a Spanish galleass (a hybrid of a galley and galleon) which is rowed by slaves or prisoners or captives. Whatever – they look straight out of “Ben Hur” with the whips and drum. An English ship is sighted so they realistically go to battle stations. There are soldiers on board armed with crossbows. The mysterious ship is the notorious “Albatross” captained by the swashbuckling Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn). As a contrast, his crew of pirates is lacking discipline but full of panache.

     The Spanish fire a laughable broadside. We know it’s laughable because the pirates laugh at it. The “Alabatross” cannons are deadly accurate against the masts and rigging of the Spanish ship. It then rakes the Spaniard and comes around to the other side. This realistically depicts the British ability to sail circles around the slower, clumsier Spanish ships of the era. The pirates board using grappling hooks to pull the ships together and then swing over on ropes. The Albatross has enough ropes for every man to have his own! There is a frenzied melee climaxing in a duel between Thorpe and the Spanish captain, of course. Guess who wins? Thorpe encounters Dona Maria and it’s hate at first sight for her. It looks like there is no hope for any love developing between them, just like all the other Hollywood relationships that begin with mutual dislike. Sad. However, when Thorpe returns her jewels plus some, she begins to look at him in a different light. Errol Flynn + diamonds = ‘nuf said.

     At Queen Elizabeth’s court, the Sea Hawks are called to account for their inhospitable treatment of Spanish shipping. Thorpe sends his monkey on ahead and then makes a grand entrance (not that anyone could top a monkey, but what Queen can truly scold you with a monkey in the room?). Liz feigns indignation at the actions of the pirates and backs the nefarious Lord Wolfingham’s “Armada – what Armada?” policy. Behind closed doors with a bit of monkey-charming, Elizabeth wink-winks at Thorpe’s proposed raid on a Spanish treasure caravan in Panama. Unfortunately, Lord Wolfie (Henry Danell - Basil Rathbone being unavailable) and Don Alvarez snoop out the destination and send advance warning. As the “Albatross” prepares to sail, Maria rushes to see Thorpe for possibly the last time. In a nice unHollywood touch, she is too late and only gets to see his rear (calm down ladies, I’m referring to the stern of the ship).

     The ambush of the mule train in the tropical jungle is marked by mosquitoes, but little sweating. It is easy, perhaps too easy. Soon the ambushers become the ambushees. The Spaniards have a big advantage because their flintlock muskets require no reloading! Thorpe and the survivors flee into the “no one can survive in there” swamp. The appropriately bedraggled and now semi-sweating crew persevere and reach the ship which is ghost-like for good reason. Guess who is there to greet them and usher them into the grand world of Spanish galley rowing? The Spanish captain with the laughable broadsides and cheek to duel with Thorpe! If you think he is going to have the last laugh, stifle it.

     Thorpe is now a shirtless galley rower ala Judah Ben Hur. Ironically, the sweating is being done by the ladies in the audience. Thorpe starts a rebellion that gets the rowers freed and they did not even have to endure a ramming. They board an adjacent ship that just so happens to have the Spanish Armada plans – proof that Wolfingham is a traitor and support for the Sea Hawks’ farsighted policy of waving a cape in front of the Spanish bull. Wait till Liz hears about this!

     But first Thorpe has to fight his way into Elizabeth’s bed chamber. Naturally this involves a sword fight with Wolfingham. Since Danell is no Rathbone, the director wisely utilizes shadows to depict the duel. We are treated to a tour of the palace via sword-fight.

CLOSING: The film closes with a nifty bit of propaganda. Winston Churchill (oops, I mean Elizabeth I) looks at the camera and speaks directly to Hitler (oops, I mean King Philip) averring that England does not want this war. Her speech condemns the ruthless ambitions of one man. The Earth does not belong to any man. We are now ready to meet the Armada. We will create a Navy that will dominate the oceans for all time, including the 1940s, just in case another Philip comes along.


Acting - 8

Action - 7

Accuracy - 5

Realism - 6

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Are you kidding? It has Errol Flynn and a woman who does not look or act better than the average female viewer. Fantasize while increasing your self-esteem, ladies.

ACCURACY: The movie is very loosely based on the career of Sir Francis Drake. Hollywood – make a non-fiction movie about this dude! Flynn’s portrayal of Thorpe (Drake) is accurate personality-wise. I do not know how much of a ladies’ man he was. He was married, but probably had a girl in every port. The romance in the movie is totally fictional. He certainly was a swash-buckler. He buckled plenty of swash during his pirate days. He was a leading member of the Sea Dogs.

     Don’t ask me why they decided to rename them Sea Hawks. That was stupid. The Sea Dogs were a group of captains that included Drake, Martin Frobisher, Walter Raleigh, and John Hawkins. To the Sapnish they were pirates, to the British they were privateers sanctioned by the government. The movie accurately shows Elizabeth’s unofficial encouragement of the Sea Dogs.

     Flora Robson is spot on her in her portrayal of Elizabeth. Her feisty personality and scheming politics are realistic. She did try to walk a fine line between tacit support for the Sea Dogs and friendship with Spain. Her refusal to curb the Sea Dogs did motivate Philip to end their depravations by invading England. The movie conveniently leaves out the fact that Elizabeth benefited financially from the Sea Dog “acquisitions”. Wolfingham is probably based on Lord Francis Walsingham. However, this is character assassination as he was not a traitor.

      The raid on the gold train is based on an actual incident in the career of Drake. In 1573, he captured a mule train in Panama. They buried much of the gold. Under pursuit, they traversed eighteen miles of jungle-covered mountains to get to their boats. Unfortunately the boats were gone. Drake and two survivors sailed a raft back to the ship. By the way, unlike in the movie, Drake’s pursuers would not have had flintlock muskets and pistols.

      Thorpe being condemned to row a galley is not ridiculous. The Spanish did rely on convicts to row their galleys. It seems unlikely if Drake had ever been captured that he would have ended up behind an oar.

CRITIQUE: “The Sea Hawk” is definitely an old school swashbuckler, but it holds up well. The music is grand and fits the movie like a glove. It is one of the most acclaimed scores from that era. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had earlier won for a similar effort in Flynn’s “Robin Hood”. The cinematography is excellent. The costumes are wonderful. ( They were reused from the Curtiz/Flynn “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Exeter”.) The supporting cast is great, especially Robson. Alan Hale plays Thorpe’s first mate Carl Pitt and flirts with Una O’Connor as Maria’s handmaid. (They had similar roles in “Robin Hood”.) Flynn is at the top of his game which means he overshadows Brenda Marshall, but what do you expect? The sword fights are a bit disappointing, but the dialogue is better than average for this type of movie.

     The battle scene is one of the best and had an obvious influence on “Master and Commander”. Contrasting the two scenes from these movies that were made more than sixty years apart shows how technology gives modern movies an advantage, but gives you an appreciation for what Curtiz was able to accomplish with a lot less.

     The movie is not meant to be a history lesson. None the less, it gets the big picture fairly close and certainly does not claim to be more than pop corn entertainment. For anyone not familiar with Elizabeth and the Sea Dogs, you get a taste for their role in provoking Philip to send the Invincible Armada.

CONCLUSION: This is a fun movie. It is classic action/adventure and holds up surprisingly well. There are no sour notes. It is consistently strong across the board. Unlike recent members of the Greatest 100, “The Sea Hawk” is comfortable in the war movie genre. I would have to say that unlike some movies I have reviewed lately, this one is fairly placed at #48.


  1. Another one from your list I didn't know but one I will put on my "to be watched" list.
    I'd like to see how the battle scene compares to Master & Commander.

  2. the war movie buffOctober 13, 2011 at 5:31 PM

    I would be interested in hearing what you think of it. I cannot predict whether you will like it. It is certainly not as good as Master and Commander, but you can see its influence.

  3. Rod Taylor portrayed Drake in "Seven Seas to Calais" (1962). Flora Robson also played Queen Elizabeth I in "Fire Over England." There may have been some consideration of Bette Davis playing the queen in "The Sea Hawk," but she and Flynn did not get along. She may have also been too big a star to use in a supporting role.

  4. Thank you. I will have to check out "Seven Seas". I am a big Rod Taylor fan.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.