”THE SEA HAWK” (1940) Review
If anyone has ever read Rafael Sabatini’s 1915 novel, ”The Sea Hawk”, he or she has clearly seen that the so-called 1940 film adaptation with the same title . . . is not the same story. I have never read Sabatini’s novel. But I have a friend who has. And according to him, the 1924 silent film adaptation bore a closer resemblance to the novel.
In the end, it is not surprising that this 1940 adventure bore little or no resemblance to Sabatini’s novel – aside from the main protagonist enduring a stint as slave aboard a Spanish galley. Although Warner Brothers studio had owned the film rights to the novel and released the 1924 version, one of their staff screenwriters – Seton I. Miller – had written a treatment that happened to be an Elizabethan adventure called ”Beggars of the Sea” in 1938. Warners decided to use Miller’s treatment and the title of Sabatini’s novel for an Errol Flynn vehicle.
”THE SEA HAWK” told the story about an Elizabethan privateer (official pirate for the English Crown) named Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) who belongs with a group of other privateers known as the Sea Hawks. Thorpe’s capture and plunder of a galley carrying Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains), the Spanish ambassador to the English Court and his niece, Doña Maria de Cordoba (Brenda Marshall); attracts the attention of Spain and a traitorous minister in Elizabeth I’s court – Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell). The privateer proposes to Elizabeth (Flora Robson) an expedition to plunder Spanish gold in Panama. Lord Wolfingham and Don Alavarez learn of his plans via one of their English spies and set a trap for Thorpe in Panama. At the same time, Don Alvarez uses the privateer’s capture as an excuse to pressure the Queen to disband and arrest the other Sea Hawk captains.
I had noticed something rather curious about the movie’s cast. A good number of them happened to be American-born – including leading lady Brenda Marshall (born in the Philippines to American parents), Alan Hale, Edgar Buchannan (of ”PETTICOAT JUNCTION” fame) and a good number of others. This was not the first Flynn movie with an English or British setting. After all, Hale had appeared in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” (1938), along with fellow American Eugene Pallette. And actor Ross Alexander had appeared in ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935). But this is the first time I can recall this number of Americans in a Flynn movie set outside the United States. I wonder if this had anything to with the possibility that many younger British actors – leading and supporting – had left Hollywood to join the British forces after the war began.
Amongst the supporting players in the cast was a veteran from one of Flynn’s past – namely Ona O’Connor. As she had done in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, she portrayed another plain-faced maid of a noblewoman, who manages to find romance with one of Flynn’s men. In ”THE SEA HAWK”, the lucky fellow in question turned out to be Hale. And if one is sharp, one would recognize Gilbert Roland as the Spanish sea captain, whose ship is captured by Thorpe in the film’s first action sequence. Being just as handsome and dashing as Flynn, it seemed only natural that Roland’s character would get his revenge in the movie’s second half. I must say that the collection of supporting actors and extras that had made up Geoffrey Thorpe’s crew did a first-rate job, despite the number of American accents. Unlike those who portrayed Robin Hood’s Merrie Men in the 1938 film, the actors that portrayed Thorpe’s crew had the opportunity to display their talents for on-screen suffering during two major sequences in the film.
Another one of Warner Brothers’ top character actors and veteran of past Flynn movies was Alan Hale, who portrayed Thorpe’s first officer Carl Pitts. I have been trying to think of something original to say about Hale, but why bother? Let’s face it. Everyone knows that he was a talented actor until his death in 1950. ”THE SEA HAWK” not only provided enough proof of his talent, but also his obvious screen chemistry with Flynn. I had especially enjoyed one of their scenes that involved a humorous discussion on Panamanian mosquitoes. And it still amazes me how an American actor can project an Old World aura while sporting a questionable accent. ”THE SEA HAWK” also marked legendary British character actress Flora Robson second portrayal of the Tudor queen, Elizabeth I. She had first portrayed this role in the 1937 movie, ”FIRE OVER ENGLAND” with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. In this movie, her Elizabeth possessed a witty and extroverted nature that easily became commanding and a little frightening when crossed. I have only seen ”FIRE OVER ENGLAND” once and it happened over a decade ago. But I must admit that I enjoyed Robson’s interpretation of Elizabeth in this movie, very much. And her scenes with Flynn crackled with the obvious chemistry of two people who seemed to enjoy each other’s company.
One could always count upon an Errol Flynn swashbuckler to include first-rate villains. ”THE SEA HAWK” certainly had two – namely Henry Daniell as the traitorous Lord Wolfingham and Claude Rains as the Spanish ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba. Rains had already appeared as the backstabbing Prince John in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. Although his Don Alvarez is clearly Geoffrey Thorpe’s enemy, one could never accuse the character of being perfidious, like Prince John. Don Alvarez is first and foremost a patriot. Despite his plotting against Thorpe, the other Sea Hawks and the Queen, his actions clearly stemmed from his patriotic fervor and loyalty to Spain and outrage toward Thorpe’s piratical actions against his country. He also seemed to have a close and warm relationship with his Anglo-Spanish niece, Doña Maria. Their kinship turned out to be strong enough to withstand her feelings of love toward Thorpe and her decision to remain in England, instead of returning to Spain with him. Henry Daniell’s Lord Wolfingham turned out to be a different kettle of fish . . . a true villain. He was an Englishman who clearly seemed bent upon working against the English Crown. One could assume that he was a practicing Catholic with hostile feelings toward Elizabeth’s Protestantism – like the Duke of Norfolk character in the 1998 film ”ELIZABETH”. But Miller and Koch had never offered any hints of his religious affiliation. It did reveal his desire for more political power if Spain had ever conquered England. Which made his betrayal all the more distasteful. And I must say that actor Henry Daniell had superbly portrayed Wolfingham with a lively relish I have rarely seen in his other roles.
One of the commentators for the movie’s DVD featurette had described actress Brenda Marshall as ”good at playing outraged”. That was it . He said nothing about her skills as an actress or screen presence. As for other critics, they tend to point out that in ”THE SEA HAWK”, the leading lady was not Olivia De Havilland. As if that is supposed to explain everything. I have been a fan of the movie for years and to be frank, I have never been bothered by Brenda Marshall as Flynn’s leading lady in this film, instead of De Havilland. The American-born actress seemed more suited for this role as the Anglo-Spanish Doña Maria, who found herself falling in love with her uncle’s enemy – Geoffrey Thorpe. She may not have generated the same level of chemistry with Flynn as De Havilland did. But she and Flynn certainly managed to create a strong screen chemistry. And what I especially liked about Marshall’s performance was her ability to flesh out Maria’s strength of character beneath the delicate façade. Especially when the character helped smuggled a wanted Thorpe into the royal palace for an audience with the Queen. Yet, Marshall’s finest moment in ”THE SEA HAWK” occurred during Doña Maria’s encounter with the British galley slaves pouring from beneath the ship, following Thorpe’s victory in the film’s first quarter. The mixture of shock and embarrassment on Marshall’s face seemed to confirm her skills as a talented actress.
Based upon some of the online reviews I have read for ”THE SEA HAWKS”, most critics seemed impressed by Errol Flynn’s portrayal of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe. They seemed to be impressed by his on-screen daring-do and sense of command. The critics labeled Flynn’s Thorpe as a mature Captain Blood or Robin of Locksley. Like the critics, I was impressed by Flynn’s performance. However, I certainly do not agree with their assessment of role merely as a mature Captain Blood”. Geoffrey Thorpe struck me as a different kettle of fish. Yes, believe that Thorpe was a more mature character than his previous ones. But I saw him as a mature professional that possessed an intense, no-nonsense personality. Yet, Thorpe also managed to retain a sharp sense of humor that seemed to come from nowhere and bite his victim in the ass. When it came to romance, he became a shy, tongue-twisted lover-to-be – something that has never been apparent in his previous roles. And Flynn captured all of these different nuances of the Geoffrey Thorpe character with a competent skill that should have garnered him more professional respect from Warners Brothers and the Hollywood community at large. I view Geoffrey Thorpe as one of Flynn’s best roles during his twenty-something long career.
I have one last thing to say about both Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall’s roles in ”THE SEA HAWK”. The last time I had viewed this movie, something about their characters that I found curious. The characters of both Geoffrey Thorpe and Doña Maria Alvarez reminded me of two literary characters from a novel I have not read in over a year. Has anyone ever read ”The Shadow of the Moon” by M.M. Kaye? It is a novel about the 1857-58 Sepoy Rebellion in India that was first published in 1959 – nineteen years after ”THE SEA HAWK”. The two main characters – Contessa Winter de Ballesteros and Captain Alex Randall - bore a strong resemblance to Thorpe and Doña Maria. Both Thorpe and Alex Randall are two military men that possessed an intense, professional demeanor countered by a sharp sense of humor. And both Doña Maria and Winter de Ballesteros are two young Anglo-Spanish women who hide their emotional personalities behind a reserved manner. Curious indeed.
I have never read Rafael Sabatini’s novel. But I have read the synopsis. And I must say that it read like a first-rate adventure. I can honestly say the same about this 1940 film version as well. Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch (who co-wrote ”CASABLANCA”) had created a top-notch script that eventually became one of Errol Flynn’s best movies. It provided plenty of humor, action, intrigue, pathos and romance. And like some of Flynn’s better movies, it possessed something unique that made it memorable. ”THE SEA HAWK” had been released about year after World War II began in September 1939. Many film critics and fans have pointed out that the movie’s plot seemed to serve as some kind of allegory of the war in 1940. In the movie, England stood alone against the growing threat of Imperial Spain. Around the time of the movie’s release in July 1940, Great Britain found itself standing alone against the growing threat of Nazi Germany. Sixteenth century Spain. Nazi Germany in 1939-1940. I get the feeling that Miller and especially Koch knew what they were doing when writing the movie’s script. Especially since Spain (under Franco’s Fascist rule) happened to be one of Germany’s allies in 1940. The strongest indication of ”THE SEA HAWK” being an allegory of World War II’s early years came in the form of the Queen’s speech in the final scene that hinted for all free men to defend liberty, and that the world did not belong to any one man. She might as well have been speaking to the British subjects of 1940, instead of 1588.
Right now, I want to speak about some of the movie’s major sequences. At least those sequences that left a big impression upon me. The first major sequence involved Thrope’s sea battle against the Spanish galley conveying Don Alvarez and Doña Maria to English. In all honesty, I found myself feeling less impressed with this sequence. Although filled with thunderous canon fire, men swinging from one ship to the other and plenty of swordplay, the entire battle seemed to possess a lack of urgency. And the large number of men participating in the battle struck me as over-the-top in a way that made me wonder how so many people – a good number of them that became Thorpe’s prisoners – managed to reach England without the English ship sinking from the sheer weight. I wondered if producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz had originally mistaken this sequence with the final cavalry charge from ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”.
Thankfully, there were other sequences in ”THE SEA HAWK” that I found impressive. Thorpe’s private meeting with Queen Elizabeth had allowed Flynn and Robson to sparkle on screen. I understand that they were very fond of each other. In fact, Flynn had so much respect for Robson that he eschewed his usual lax discipline and appeared on the set on time and always knew his lines. This behavior baffled director Michael Curtiz, who had grown used to Flynn’s less than admirable on-the-set behavior.
The one sequence that left a strong impression in my mind featured the adventures of Thorpe and his crew in Panama. Thanks to cinematographer Sol Polito, the entire Panama sequence had been filmed with a sheen of yellow sepia to evoke a tropical world filled with humidity and corruption. This became especially effective in the scenes that featured Thorpe and his men’s attempts to escape the Spanish troops hunting them down in the jungle. Personally, I found the entire sequence rather chilling . . . at least a first. It became downright depressing when one of Thorpe’s men – an elderly sailor – dies in the longboat taking them back to the ship.
And if you thought that the Panama sequence seemed a little horrifying, try watching the following one that featured Thorpe and his surviving crew as slaves aboard a Spanish galley. Stripped to the waist and sporting torn breeches and scraggly beards, Thorpe and his men readily physically reflected the hellish situation in which they found themselves. While the galley is docked in Cadiz, Thorpe learns from a new prisoner (an English spy) that there are papers aboard ship indicating Wolfingham as a traitor and Spain’s plans to send an armada against England. The escape attempt that followed harbored an air of a grim deadliness, resulting in the deaths of some Spanish crewman.
Thorpe and his men finally make their escape from the Cadiz docks to the tune of a rousing Korngold score. The movie eventually shifts back to England, where Thorpe reunites with Doña Maria. She helps him overcome obstacles in his efforts to acquire an audience with the Queen. One of these obstacles turned out to be a duel between Thorpe and Wolfingham. Frankly, I consider this duel to be one of Flynn’s best on screen. Unfortunately Henry Daniell, Flynn’s opponent, lacked the experience and skills for on screen fencing and the Australian actor ended up fighting against a stunt double. Despite this little setback, Curtiz managed to create a more than credible fencing duel by mixing actual fighting between Flynn and the stuntman with occasional close-ups of both Flynn and Daniell, and shadows of the two swordsmen reflected on the palace walls. In terms of action, I consider this to be one of Curtiz’s finest moments. I must also say the same for Flynn. I had noticed a series of cuts on the actor’s upper body and face, following Thorpe’s fights with Wolfingham and the palace guards. I cannot ever recall Flynn looking so exhausted and bedraggled following an on-screen duel in any movie – before or after this one.
The last major sequence in ”THE SEA HAWK” featured Geoffrey Thorpe being knighted Queen Elizabeth for his service. A patriotic speech by the Queen followed, in which she urged the English citizens to persevere against the upcoming threat of the Spanish Armada. This speech was a clear indication that the movie was more than just another Flynn costumed adventure. It was also an allegory of Great Britain’s wartime position in 1940. Unfortunately, the speech bored the pants off me. Miller and Koch’s attempt to express their sympathy toward Britain’s struggles against Nazi Germany struck me at best, heavy handed.
For years, ”THE SEA HAWK” used to be my favorite Errol Flynn movie. After a recent viewing of the 1936 movie, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, the movie has slipped to number two on my list. But thanks to solid performances by Flynn and a first-rate supporting cast, superb photography by Sol Polito, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’ stirring score, an excellent yet occasionally heavy-handed script by Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch, and exciting direction by Michael Curtiz; ”THE SEA HAWK” is still a superb costumed adventure that has not lost its touch in the past sixty-eight (68) years. I feel that it is a must see for everyone.