This rousing pirate adventure shivers Judge Maurice Cobbs's timbers from bow to stern.
Never before so many thrills! Never such adventure, such romance! Sail to high adventure with "The Robin Hood of the Sea"!
What's this? Who's that in Errol Flynn's arms? Not Olivia de Havilland? That's right, true believers…This time, Errol's puttin' the oh-so-smooth moves on Brenda Marshall—at the time only recently ascended from Broadway to the Warner Bros. galaxy. While the quite lovely Marshall lacks the sheer star wattage of our Olivia, she's more than adequate for the task of being swept off her feet by the dashing Mr. Flynn (nice work if you can get it, eh, wot?). Still, you needn't fear: There are plenty of familiar faces all around. Claude Rains is on hand for bad-guy duty (even though Basil Rathbone is not—a pity, as he must have hated missing out on that slam-bang swordfight at the end); and Alan Hale and Una O'Connor are along for the ride as well, with Michael Curtiz behind the camera once again. The sets and costumes may look familiar, too: Most of them were recycled from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex!
Five years had gone by since Flynn first wowed audiences in Captain Blood, kicking off a string of hit swashbucklers that reached its pinnacle with this one: certainly a grand exit for a marvelous period in Hollywood filmmaking, from the explosive opening battle to the rousing duel at the end.
Facts of the Case
Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn, The Prince and the Pauper) is the terror of the Spanish Main, striking crippling blows against the oppressive Spanish war machine, freeing English slaves from the galley ships and filling England's coffers with Spanish gold—with the tacit approval of England's Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson, who'd previously played this part in Fire Over England). When the dashing Thorpe raids and sinks a diplomatic vessel bringing the silkily evil ambassador Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains, Now, Voyager) and his beautiful niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall, The Smiling Ghost) to England, he's gentlemanly enough to deliver them safely onto English shores—along with the galley full of wrongfully imprisoned slaves. Smarting from this insult, Don Alvarez conspires with the duplicitous Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell, Jane Eyre ) to stop Thorpe once and for all and smash the Sea Hawks: the small fleet of privateers that stands between England and King Philip of Spain's thirst for global domination!
Although the title of this seafaring adventure is taken directly from a novel by Raphael Sabatini (whose name should be quite familiar to romantic adventure fans), that's really all that was taken from the book. Instead, the decision was made to loosely weave a tale from the colorful exploits of Sir Francis Drake, the English privateer whose daring and devastating raids on the Spanish inspired their fear (and even respect), earning him the nickname El Draque ("The Dragon"). Here, Drake becomes Captain Geoffrey Thorpe: dashing privateer, unwavering patriot, terror of the seas. Watching Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk back to back provides an interesting portrait of the development of an actor: Though there is still a hint of the brash enthusiasm that dominates Flynn's performance as Peter Blood, it's as if Blood has grown up in the five-year interim, and what a man he's become! Captain Thorpe is much more restrained, as brave as Blood and every bit as idealistic as Robin Hood, but tempered now with a touch of cynicism—a man who inspires other men less with his high spirits and more with his steely, commanding presence.
Brenda Marshall is adequate for the role of Dona Maria, but there seems to be some chemistry missing between her and Flynn. Certainly, there's no electricity of the type when Flynn and Olivia de Havilland share the screen; Marshall's best scenes as Maria are when she's indignant and huffing at some insult that she's been dealt by Thorpe. Perhaps it's just as well that they don't fall into each other's arms at the end of the movie—although they've been sparkin' for the entire movie, would we really want Errol to wind up living happily ever after with anyone other than Olivia? Of course, if Claude Rains and Henry Daniell have their way, poor Errol won't be living ever after at all, happily or otherwise. This dastardly double-dealing duo plays quite well together, injecting a great deal of sinister, urbane menace into the movie, and adding extra levels of complexity to the story. Lord Wolfingham's a traitor, but Marshall plays his duplicity with an air of Nazi-esque superiority (small wonder, considering when this was made), and Rains allows his dark schemes for Spanish world domination to conflict somewhat with his empathy for his niece's affection for his enemy, Captain Thorpe. Not that he's going to have a change of heart, or anything as silly as that, but he is genuinely regretful that the political realities of his objectives have left his lovesick niece in pain.
Michael Curtiz dishes up a generous dose of slam-bang action along with the romance and patriotism. The opening sea battle feels gigantic—probably because it was gigantic; the studio built the largest sound stage ever up to that point to accommodate two full-sized replica ships and about a million extras, not to mention a whole lotta water. When the action shifts to the New World (tinted sepia to drive home the sweltering heat of the Central Americas), a daring land raid in the tepid jungles of Panama adds to the excitement, even though it doesn't go as well as Captain Thorpe had hoped. And the rapid-fire final duel with the villain is one of the most thrilling scenes in any Flynn movie—it looks dangerous, as thrusts and parries cause steel to flash and clash with terrifying speed; at one point, Thorpe holds his own against three men! Fortunately, Erich Wolfgang Korngold is on hand with a magnificent score to give Flynn musical cues to jump, duck, and press his attack, or our hero might never have survived it all.
Equally thrilling are the complex political intrigues being played out, an obvious metaphor for the situation in Europe at the time the film was made, with the Spanish standing in for the Germans. King Philip II (Montagu Love, The Mark of Zorro) sets the tone early in the film when he lays out his plans for global domination, as his sinister shadow falls over a gigantic wall-sized map with almost Darth Vader-esque menace: "It will have ceased to be a map of the world," he says. "It will be Spain." Unfortunately, the only thing obstructing his dream is "a puny, rock-bound island as barren and treacherous as her Queen." Phillip's plan calls for lulling the English into a false sense of security by pursuing peace while secretly preparing his armada for war, recalling Carl von Clausewitz's famous assertion that "the aggressor is always peace-loving; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed."
When Thorpe uncovers Spain's true intentions, he fights like a lion to deliver a package of dispatches proving that England is next on King Philip's hit list, battling his way through to the Queen, who (against her better judgment), had been appeasing the Spaniards as much as possible in the hope of averting war. At the film's rousing conclusion, she pledges to build a mighty fleet for England, telling the crowd that "a grave duty awaits us all: to prepare for a war that none of us wants," and reminding her cheering subjects—as well as the viewing public—that "when the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten 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."
So stick that in your maw and chew on it, Ratzis.
All in all, this is another extraordinarily well-put-together package from Warner Bros., who continue their "Night at the Movies" format here with the usual slew of snappy features. Leonard Maltin is once more on hand to introduce the section, as we are provided with a trailer for the Flynn western Virginia City, a newsreel updating audiences on the Battle of Britain, and a delightful Porky Pig cartoon, "Porky's Poor Fish." The comedy short is a rather strange one—Alice in Movieland tells the tale of a small-town girl named Alice Purdee (get it?) who wins a trip to Hollywood, determined to make it as an actress, but who gets discouraged when things don't go as well as she'd expected. Naturally, she perseveres and eventually winds up selling her own blood just so that she can buy potatoes to live on—alright! I'm kidding! Seriously, though, this little bit of movie nostalgia is a hoot, and Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is a delight to watch, although I'm not sure if the moral of the story was supposed to be "Never give up" or "Stay away from Hollywood" or possibly "Don't fall asleep on the train" or maybe even "All grandfatherly black train porters have mystical powers." You'll have to make your own judgment. Although there's no commentary track, the surprisingly in-depth featurette "The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action" more than makes up for it. It's the sort of high-quality feature we've come to expect from our movie-lovin' friends at Warner, featuring the usual suspects: Lincoln D. Hurst, Rudy Behlmer, and Robert Osborne.
Avast, me hearties! This movie is exactly what movies were intended to be. Seriously, this is it! It rarely gets any better than The Sea Hawk.
As if you didn't already know.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1940
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