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The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk(1940)

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teaser The Sea Hawk (1940)

SYNOPSIS

Captain Geoffrey Thorpe is a "sea hawk," the best and most famous of the privateers who roam the seas in the service of Queen and Country, but without her official blessing. (The character is based on the real-life historical figure of Sir Francis Drake, a privateer who eventually became Elizabeth's second-in-command against the infamous, and ultimately defeated, Spanish Armada). While trying to keep her kingdom from going to war with Spain, Elizabeth I must publicly condemn Thorpe's raids on Spanish ships while secretly supporting his attempts to foil King Philip's plans to raise an armada against England. When they are betrayed by a duplicitous minister of the Queen, Thorpe and his men are captured in the New World and forced into servitude as galley slaves...but they soon turn the tables on their captors.

Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Howard Koch, Seton I. Miller
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Original Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cast: Errol Flynn (Captain Geoffrey Thorpe), Brenda Marshall (Doa Maria Alvarez de Cordoba), Claude Rains (Don Jos Alvarez de Cordoba), Donald Crisp (Admiral Sir John Burleson), Flora Robson (Queen Elizabeth), Alan Hale (Carl Pitt), Henry Daniell (Lord Wolfingham).
BW-128m. Closed Captioning.

Why THE SEA HAWK is Essential

There were certain contentious yet productive combinations among the film industry's most famous personnel that, for all their mutual antagonism, somehow fueled each other to make motion pictures that stand as hallmarks in both their careers. Often it's an abrasive producer-director combo: Darryl Zanuck and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940; My Darling Clementine, 1946) or Samuel Goldwyn and William Wyler (Wuthering Heights, 1939; The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946). A director and actor can have the same effect on each other. In the 12 films they made together at Warner Brothers between the mid-30s and the early 40s, director Michael Curtiz and star Errol Flynn feuded constantly. An impatient and demanding taskmaster, Curtiz hated Flynn's casual attitude toward his work. In particular, the actor's often late arrival on his sets, showing up ill-prepared and often worse for wear thanks to his wild private life, made Curtiz furious. Flynn, like many who worked with the director, found Curtiz callous and arrogant. It's fairly safe to say the two despised each other, yet their work together produced not only many of Warners' biggest hits but some of the most entertaining films of their time; among them were such enduring classics as Captain Blood (1935), the film that made Flynn a star; The Charge of the Light Brigade, (1936); The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), a movie Curtiz was brought in to complete after William Keighley failed to effectively capture on screen Flynn's charisma and appeal; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which added Bette Davis's dislike of both director and co-star to the mix; and Santa Fe Trail (1940).

It could easily be argued that the qualities each found objectionable in the other are exactly what makes The Sea Hawk work so well. Errol Flynn more or less fell into filmmaking, stumbled into stardom (after Robert Donat bowed out of Captain Blood), and stumbled out of more than one party and night club. He never took himself or his screen image very seriously, and although his acting range may have been limited, his cavalier tone, the off-handed casualness of his demeanor, playful sense of humor and daring athletic feats made for an easy charm and appealing heroism. For Curtiz's part, it took a director with his drive and dynamism to manage a production as mammoth as The Sea Hawk, despite frequent run-ins with studio bosses (notably production chief Hal B. Wallis). Although he was never considered among the top artists of cinema, Curtiz knew exactly how to deliver a formula film with everything needed for a real crowd-pleaser.

Opening with a rousing battle at sea and climaxing in a tense and energetic swordfight, The Sea Hawk contains all the elements that made the Flynn-Curtiz action cycle so popular: the richly detailed (if frequently anachronistic) period setting, lavish sets and special effects, a noble cause, an at-first reluctant then ardent fair maiden, dastardly villains, and the one man best equipped to fight their tyranny, the studio's top male star of the time. Flynn made movies with other directors, but outside of Raoul Walsh, none had such a grasp of the essential mix of humor, romance, and action as Curtiz.

As important to the formula as Curtiz and Flynn is the musical scoring of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. An acclaimed composer of the late Romantic period with a background in opera and serious orchestral music, the Austrian's first film work was on Captain Blood. Although he won a well-deserved Academy Award® for The Adventures of Robin Hood, many consider his score for The Sea Hawk to be his best. Far more complex than mere thunderous background for action sequences, his music incorporates a number of motifs that define and amplify character and setting.

As much as they were purely popular entertainments, the Flynn-Curtiz adventures occasionally took on a certain gravity from the times in which they were made. Flynn's Robin Hood, a defender of the poor and disenfranchised against the rich and powerful few, gained resonance from the Great Depression and the desperate times so many were living through. The Sea Hawk makes an even stronger and more intentional analogy. At the time of its release, Europe was at war, and as one country after another fell to Germany, England remained the single challenge toand biggest target ofthe Nazi juggernaut. In this story, Hitler is embodied in the coldly imperialistic King Philip of Spain, plotting the invasion of this "puny rock-bound island" with the launch of the Armada, just as Germany was embarking on its relentless air raids over Great Britain. In case anyone missed the comparison, screenwriters Howard Koch (who would later be partly responsible for the directly anti-Nazi storyline of Casablanca, 1942) and Seton Miller gave Philip a map of the world on which to plot his vision of total conquest. He also wrote a stirring speech for Robson's Queen Elizabeth about standing up to the "ruthless ambition" of a single man that Winston Churchill himself would have envied (and, reportedly did). Although much of the anti-isolationist sentiment was toned down prior to the final shooting script, The Sea Hawk's message of support for the stalwart little island nation could not have been lost on an American public increasingly drawn into the conflict.

The Sea Hawkrepresents the apex of the sound-era swashbuckling action-adventure movie and a remarkable technical collaboration between Warner Brothers top artists and craftspeople, engineered by Michael Curtiz and given life by Errol Flynn. It is a supreme example of the Hollywood factory production and of the lush, large-scale action picture Warners moved into in the mid-to-late 1930s, a genre as identified with the studio as the gritty crime dramas with which it began the sound era.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Sea Hawk (1940)

Because they share the same name, period setting, and certain minor details from Rafael Sabatini's novel, many people believe The Sea Hawk is a remake of the 1924 First National Picture starring popular matinee idol Milton Sills and directed by Frank Lloyd. In fact, the two stories are quite different, the earlier picture is fairly faithful to the novel and the 1940 version is based on the true story of Sir Francis Drake.

Sharp eyes may be able to spot footage from Captain Blood (1935), which is used again to the same rousing effect.

A pirate parody in an episode of the animated TV series The Family Guy quotes Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score from The Sea Hawk.

Queen Elizabeth I of England has been a frequent character in movies and is perhaps the monarch most depicted on screen. She has been played by such actresses as Sarah Bernhardt (1912), Bette Davis (1939 and 1955), Jean Simmons (1953), Glenda Jackson (1971, on TV and film), Cate Blanchett (1998 and 2007), Judi Dench (1998, an Oscar® winner), and Helen Mirren (2005, on TV). Flora Robson played her twice, inThe Sea Hawk and previously in Fire Over England (1937). Some film historians consider Robson's portrayals among the best.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), with Cate Blanchett as the queen, covers mostly the same historical territory in the monarch's conflict with King Philip of Spain and the latter's build-up of the Spanish Armada, a failed naval attempt to invade England and take the throne.

Sections of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for The Sea Hawk were used in the teen comedy Mannequin: On the Move (1991). The aria "Glck das mir verblieb" from his acclaimed 1920 opera Die tote Stadt turned up later as a segment of the anthology film Aria (1987) and in the Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski (1998).

The character of Alan Swann, the hard-drinking, swashbuckling actor portrayed by Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year (1982), was based on Errol Flynn.

Geoffrey Thorpe, the character Errol Flynn plays in The Sea Hawk, is based on the famed English sea captain, privateer, slave trader, and second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada, Sir Francis Drake. Among his many famous exploits, he is perhaps most revered for leading the first English circumnavigation of the globe, from 1577 to 1580, which resulted in his being knighted by Elizabeth I; this angered the Spanish monarchy, who considered Drake a pirate and trespasser in Spanish waters.

It's possible to draw direct lines between the characters in The Sea Hawk and those in the earlier Flynn-Curtiz classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). In both, Flynn plays an outlaw figure whose "illegal" activities are in the service of the English crown (Richard the Lionhearted in Robin Hood, Elizabeth I here). Brenda Marshall plays the role taken earlier by Olivia de Havilland, that of a noblewoman from the opposing side who falls for Flynn's outlaw and takes up with his cause. Claude Rains virtually repeats his villain role and turns his Prince John from the earlier film into the Spanish ambassador here. As the equivalent of Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Henry Daniell's dastardly Lord Wolfingham likewise dies in the climactic sword fight with Flynn. Una O'Connor plays the heroine's dithering attendant in both films, and Alan Hale is again Flynn's stalwart sidekick. Much of the crew was also the same on both films, including producer Hal Wallis, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, cinematographer Sol Polito, and swordfight coordinator Fred Cavens.

Some glaring anachronisms in The Sea Hawk's script were not unintentional mistakes but deliberate attempts to parallel the story to the war raging in Europe at the time. The use of the word "British" is inaccurate, since in the Elizabethan age there was not yet an official realm called Great Britain. And instead of correctly referring to events at Plymouth, the location was changed to Dover, the British port which received the hundreds of thousands of British troops evacuated from Dunkirk, France, just prior to the film's release.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Sea Hawk (1940)

The Sea Hawk was released in July 1940, and by the end of the year had brought in twice its $1.7 million production cost at the box office.

George MacDonald Fraser, in his book The Hollywood History of the World states that even though many actresses have played Queen Elizabeth, "it remains [Flora] Robson's part; she had the voice, the style, the authority, the sheer physical presence of Gloriana, and when she needed it, the hidden bitterness and tormented doubt."

London's Daily Express said the film made the case for England's struggle against Hitler "nearly as well as Mr. Churchill."

Along with That Hamilton Woman/Lady Hamilton (1941), this was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's favorite historical film.

Michael Curtiz started his career as an actor and director in his native Hungary in 1912. His first American film was a Dolores Costello silent, The Third Degree (1926), for Warner Brothers, the studio where he would work almost exclusively for the bulk of his career and have his greatest successes. Never considered among the greatest film artists of all time, Curtiz's career nevertheless produced some of the most entertaining and enduring movies of the 1930s and 1940s, including Marked Woman (1937), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and the eleven movies he made starring Errol Flynn. His films after leaving Warners in the early 1950s include the historical epic The Egyptian (1954), the Elvis Presley vehicle King Creole (1958), and his last film, the John Wayne Western The Comancheros (1961). He died in 1962 at the age of 75.

Errol Flynn was born in Australia in 1909. His wild nature asserted itself at an early age, and he was thrown out of every school he was enrolled in. He went through a wide range of youthful occupations before dabbling in acting by playing the famous mutineer Fletcher Christian in the Australian film In the Wake of the Bounty (1933). His good looks, obvious charm, and great athletic ability caught the eye of Warner Brothers, and he was soon signed to a contract, playing a handful of forgettable small roles until he was a last-minute, risky replacement for well-known actor Robert Donat in Captain Blood (1935). It was Flynn's first pairing with director Michael Curtiz, and he became an overnight sensation in the kind of carefree swashbuckler role with which he'd always be associated. He became one of the studio's biggest stars for the next decade, alternating between period adventures, Westerns, and, with less success, sophisticated comedies. His career waned after World War II, and his hard life of drinking, fighting, sailing, and amorous scandals began to take its toll on his looks and abilities. When he died at the age of 50 in 1959 from a massive heart attack, he appeared to be a much older man.

Vienna-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy who composed his first orchestral piece at the age of 14. His first opera, Die tote Stadt, completed in 1920 at the age of 23, was an international success. A composer in the Romantic vein, he was highly respected by the mid-1930s when he came to Hollywood first to adapt Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and again to compose the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which earned him an Academy Award. That trip was fortuitous; while in America, Hitler invaded Austria, and Korngold and his family were safe from the fate that befell his fellow Jews. He received further Academy Award nominations for The Sea Hawk and another Flynn vehicle, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). After the war he tried unsuccessfully to return to his work on operas and orchestral compositions because the vogue for his style of music had passed, but his early work has come back into favor in the years since. He retired from film work in 1947 and died ten years later at the age of 60.

London-born Claude Rains was a distinguished and respected actor whose long career (1920-1965) included a variety of roles on stage, screen, and television as leads, villains, and various supporting characters. He was mostly unseen but unforgettable in his first American film, The Invisible Man (1933), and was nominated four times for Best Supporting Actor. Rains made a total of 10 feature films and one short under the direction of Michael Curtiz.

Warners contractee Brenda Marshall had only been in the movies a year when she was given her big break in a role intended for Olivia de Havilland in The Sea Hawk. She worked with Errol Flynn again in Footsteps in the Dark (1941) and once more under Michael Curtiz's direction in Captains of the Clouds (1942). She retired from films after The Iroquois Trail (1950). Marshall always hated her studio-given name and preferred to be called by her real first name, Ardis. She was married to William Holden from 1941 to 1971; by all accounts, it was an unhappy union marked by frequent and lengthy separations and mutual extra-marital affairs.

Sol Polito was one of the pioneer cinematographers of the industry and a significant contributor to the Warner Brothers style of the 1930s and '40s. He began his career in 1914 and retired in 1949. His work includes such Warner classics as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), 42nd Street (1933), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Sergeant York (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). When the studio added big-budget period adventures to its usual roster of gritty urban dramas, Polito was at the forefront, working in both lush black-and-white and the then difficult three-strip Technicolor process. In this vein, he was responsible for the look of many of the great Errol Flynn action pictures: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (which featured some of the finest color work of its time), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (his first Oscar® nomination). He also worked on several of Flynn's WesternsDodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940), Santa Fe Trail (1940)and with director Michael Curtiz 14 times. Polito died in 1960 at the age of 67.

Award-winning screenwriter Howard Koch contributed to a number of top films of the 1940s, including The Letter (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). He was blacklisted in the 1950s for alleged communist ties and thereafter wrote under the pseudonym Peter Howard and occasionally accepted work in Europe.

Both Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn had been married to the same woman, French actress Lili Damita. Curtiz and Damita were married for only a year (1925-26). She and Flynn were married from 1935 to 1942 and they had one son, Sean Flynn, an actor and journalist who was captured and likely executed in 1970 by either Viet Cong or Khmer Rouge while covering the war in Southeast Asia.

The Sea Hawk was re-released in 1947 on a double bill with Warners The Sea Wolf (1941) and did booming business again. Around 15-20 minutes was cut out of the film, mostly scenes involving Donald Crisp's character; they were restored later.

by Rob Nixon

Memorable Quotes from THE SEA HAWK

CREW MEMBER ON THORPE'S SHIP: You ever see a Spaniard the captain couldn't swallow whole?

CARL PITT: It'll be just like that Spaniard to surrender and spoil all our fun.

CAPTAIN THORPE: By now you know the purpose of the Sea Hawks. In our own way, we serve England and the Queen.

BEN ROLLINS: I hear her majesty's the only woman he could ever talk up to without his knees bucklin'.
DANNY LOGAN: That's different. Man-to-man, I calls it!

QUEEN ELIZABETH: So you have taken it upon yourself to remedy the defects of Spanish justice?

KING PHILIP OF SPAIN: With England conquered, nothing can stand in our way. Northern Africa; Europe as far east as the Urals; then the New World: to the north, to the south, west to the Pacific. Over the Pacific to China and to the Indies will our empire spread. One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will have ceased to be a map of the world. It will be Spain.

WOLFINGHAM: We serve others best when at the same time we serve ourselves.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: A grave duty confronts us all: To prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants....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.

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teaser The Sea Hawk (1940)

The historical adventure was one of the most successful offshoots of the Romantic movement in literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of writers were greatly inspired by pirate themes, none more so than Rafael Sabatini (1975-1950), whose novels of derring-do on the high seas and in the courts of Europe were quickly acquired as promising properties and given lavish treatment by several movie studios in the silent era.

Warner Brothers acquired the rights to Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel The Sea Hawk in 1929 when the studio took control of First National Pictures, which had filmed a silent version of the novel in 1924. It told the tale of an English gentlemen, Sir Oliver Tressilian, who is accused of murder and shanghaied, thanks to the machinations of his evil half-brother. Captured by Spaniards at sea, Sir Oliver becomes a galley slave but escapes with the help of some Moors, who nickname him the Sea Hawk for his subsequent prominence among the Barbary Coast Corsairs. The buccaneer eventually clears his name and saves his ladylove from his brother's clutches.

When Errol Flynn became an overnight sensation in the hit swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), based on another Sabatini novel, the studio immediately began looking for a suitable follow-up. Sabatini's Sea Hawk story seemed a natural choice.

Contract writer Delmer Daves was assigned the task of updating the story. He completed his screenplay in 1936, but by that point, the studio already had several other projects lined up for Flynn, all adventure pictures.

By 1939, with a string of successful Errol Flynn hits in release, the studio finally decided to go ahead with a production of The Sea Hawk, but instead of using Sabatini's original story, they turned to an original story they had bought a short time before from Seton I. Miller, one of the writers credited with the script for Flynn's box office smash The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Miller's "Beggars of the Sea" centered on a character loosely based on real-life Elizabethan-era privateer and seafarer Sir Francis Drake and contained many of the elements that made so many of Flynn's movies box office magic.

Executive Producer Hal B. Wallis, head of production at Warners, didn't like the script Miller wrote from his treatment and ordered it to be revised by Hollywood newcomer Howard Koch, who had recently made an impact as the original adapter of Orson Welles's notorious 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Koch was also assigned to do some (uncredited) work on the Flynn Western Virginia City (1940). An ardent anti-fascist, Koch was working on his draft of The Sea Hawk as war broke out in Europe, so he used the historical basis of England's conflict with Spain under the reign of Elizabeth I to parallel the country's struggle against Hitler and Nazi Germany, a connection particularly obvious in a scene in which Spain's monarch looks at a map of the world, relating his plans to conquer all of it and raging against England as "a puny, rock-bound island" standing in his way.

The blatant political analogy was eagerly approved by Flynn, director Curtiz, and producer Henry Blanke, although certain bits of dialogue clearly aimed at isolationist forces in America were toned down or eliminated. Yet the approach was seen as a good way to fulfill a strong urging by the British Minister of Information, Alfred Duff Cooper, for Hollywood studios to produce patriotic, pro-British stories. Beyond the appeal to higher values, it didn't hurt that Cooper was certain British audiences would eagerly flock to the cinemas for such productions.

Studio archives contain a number of memos from Wallis to Curtiz detailing the production chief's dissatisfaction with the director's handling of many scenes in his previous films with Flynn Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Attempting to avoid such conflicts and misunderstandings on The Sea Hawk, he spent several hours with Curtiz in July 1939 going over Koch's script scene-by-scene. However, production delays on the Curtiz-Flynn Western Virginia City pushed back casting tests for The Sea Hawk to January 1940.

Flynn had played an English adventurer opposite Bette Davis's queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), but the monarch role in The Sea Hawk's script was too small for the studio's top female star. Flora Robson had played the role to much acclaim in the British film Fire Over England (1937). Her January 1940 test for the Warners picture was successful, but she was unwilling to take the part because of a theater offer that came to her around the same time. Curtiz eventually persuaded her to do the movie by promising to shoot her scenes first so she could take on the stage role.

By this point, Errol Flynn was the studio's top male star, bringing in more at the box office than any others on the roster, but he felt that he was not given the same deferential treatment as some of his colleagues. Flynn always felt ill-treated by the studio and was at frequent loggerheads with Jack Warner, who ran the West Coast operation. Warner, in turn, was tired of the constant problems he had with his star. Attempting to scare him into line, the studio tested contract player Dennis Morgan for the role, but it was never really going to be anyone else's picture but Flynn'sand he knew it.

In March 1940, while The Sea Hawk was already in production, Seton Miller raised a fuss over Howard Koch's determination to receive sole screen credit for the script. In a letter to the studio dated March 18, 1940, Miller outlined the similarities in the two scripts, noting a few minor details added by Koch, such as a softening of the characterizations of Elizabeth and the two villains, a change in the nationality of the servant of the Spanish noblewoman, and the addition of a pet monkey for Flynn's Captain Geoffrey Thorpe. Miller conceded that Koch had tightened the structure of the story, shortening some scenes, eliminating others, adding a few new ones, and changing some of the dialogue. But he also insisted the meaning of the dialogue was the same and in some cases lifted wholesale from his own script, while the basic story and characters were all present in Miller's version. He suggested that fair credit would be Original Story by Seton Miller (since, contrary to the studio's initial decision to include Sabatini's name, the screenplay had nothing to do with the original novel) and Screenplay by Koch and Miller. A couple days later, Koch countered that while Miller was correct in many of his facts, he was mistaken in "most of his conclusions." Koch also insisted he did not want sole credit but that he did feel he should get top billing. By the end of that week, Miller agreed to take second screenplay billing and not go into arbitration. The studio also dropped Sabatini's name from the credits.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Sea Hawk (1940)

The historical adventure was one of the most successful offshoots of the Romantic movement in literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of writers were greatly inspired by pirate themes, none more so than Rafael Sabatini (1975-1950), whose novels of derring-do on the high seas and in the courts of Europe were quickly acquired as promising properties and given lavish treatment by several movie studios in the silent era.

Warner Brothers acquired the rights to Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel The Sea Hawk in 1929 when the studio took control of First National Pictures, which had filmed a silent version of the novel in 1924. It told the tale of an English gentlemen, Sir Oliver Tressilian, who is accused of murder and shanghaied, thanks to the machinations of his evil half-brother. Captured by Spaniards at sea, Sir Oliver becomes a galley slave but escapes with the help of some Moors, who nickname him the Sea Hawk for his subsequent prominence among the Barbary Coast Corsairs. The buccaneer eventually clears his name and saves his ladylove from his brother's clutches.

When Errol Flynn became an overnight sensation in the hit swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), based on another Sabatini novel, the studio immediately began looking for a suitable follow-up. Sabatini's Sea Hawk story seemed a natural choice.

Contract writer Delmer Daves was assigned the task of updating the story. He completed his screenplay in 1936, but by that point, the studio already had several other projects lined up for Flynn, all adventure pictures.

By 1939, with a string of successful Errol Flynn hits in release, the studio finally decided to go ahead with a production of The Sea Hawk, but instead of using Sabatini's original story, they turned to an original story they had bought a short time before from Seton I. Miller, one of the writers credited with the script for Flynn's box office smash The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Miller's "Beggars of the Sea" centered on a character loosely based on real-life Elizabethan-era privateer and seafarer Sir Francis Drake and contained many of the elements that made so many of Flynn's movies box office magic.

Executive Producer Hal B. Wallis, head of production at Warners, didn't like the script Miller wrote from his treatment and ordered it to be revised by Hollywood newcomer Howard Koch, who had recently made an impact as the original adapter of Orson Welles's notorious 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Koch was also assigned to do some (uncredited) work on the Flynn Western Virginia City (1940). An ardent anti-fascist, Koch was working on his draft of The Sea Hawk as war broke out in Europe, so he used the historical basis of England's conflict with Spain under the reign of Elizabeth I to parallel the country's struggle against Hitler and Nazi Germany, a connection particularly obvious in a scene in which Spain's monarch looks at a map of the world, relating his plans to conquer all of it and raging against England as "a puny, rock-bound island" standing in his way.

The blatant political analogy was eagerly approved by Flynn, director Curtiz, and producer Henry Blanke, although certain bits of dialogue clearly aimed at isolationist forces in America were toned down or eliminated. Yet the approach was seen as a good way to fulfill a strong urging by the British Minister of Information, Alfred Duff Cooper, for Hollywood studios to produce patriotic, pro-British stories. Beyond the appeal to higher values, it didn't hurt that Cooper was certain British audiences would eagerly flock to the cinemas for such productions.

Studio archives contain a number of memos from Wallis to Curtiz detailing the production chief's dissatisfaction with the director's handling of many scenes in his previous films with Flynn Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Attempting to avoid such conflicts and misunderstandings on The Sea Hawk, he spent several hours with Curtiz in July 1939 going over Koch's script scene-by-scene. However, production delays on the Curtiz-Flynn Western Virginia City pushed back casting tests for The Sea Hawk to January 1940.

Flynn had played an English adventurer opposite Bette Davis's queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), but the monarch role in The Sea Hawk's script was too small for the studio's top female star. Flora Robson had played the role to much acclaim in the British film Fire Over England (1937). Her January 1940 test for the Warners picture was successful, but she was unwilling to take the part because of a theater offer that came to her around the same time. Curtiz eventually persuaded her to do the movie by promising to shoot her scenes first so she could take on the stage role.

By this point, Errol Flynn was the studio's top male star, bringing in more at the box office than any others on the roster, but he felt that he was not given the same deferential treatment as some of his colleagues. Flynn always felt ill-treated by the studio and was at frequent loggerheads with Jack Warner, who ran the West Coast operation. Warner, in turn, was tired of the constant problems he had with his star. Attempting to scare him into line, the studio tested contract player Dennis Morgan for the role, but it was never really going to be anyone else's picture but Flynn'sand he knew it.

In March 1940, while The Sea Hawk was already in production, Seton Miller raised a fuss over Howard Koch's determination to receive sole screen credit for the script. In a letter to the studio dated March 18, 1940, Miller outlined the similarities in the two scripts, noting a few minor details added by Koch, such as a softening of the characterizations of Elizabeth and the two villains, a change in the nationality of the servant of the Spanish noblewoman, and the addition of a pet monkey for Flynn's Captain Geoffrey Thorpe. Miller conceded that Koch had tightened the structure of the story, shortening some scenes, eliminating others, adding a few new ones, and changing some of the dialogue. But he also insisted the meaning of the dialogue was the same and in some cases lifted wholesale from his own script, while the basic story and characters were all present in Miller's version. He suggested that fair credit would be Original Story by Seton Miller (since, contrary to the studio's initial decision to include Sabatini's name, the screenplay had nothing to do with the original novel) and Screenplay by Koch and Miller. A couple days later, Koch countered that while Miller was correct in many of his facts, he was mistaken in "most of his conclusions." Koch also insisted he did not want sole credit but that he did feel he should get top billing. By the end of that week, Miller agreed to take second screenplay billing and not go into arbitration. The studio also dropped Sabatini's name from the credits.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Sea Hawk (1940)

The Sea Hawk (1940) is Errol Flynn at his rowdy, swashbuckling best, once again directed by Michael Curtiz (Captain Blood, 1935, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938). The two didn't get along well, perhaps one reason their twelve collaborations have such an unforgettable edge that the films remain exciting years later. The Sea Hawk in particular is a stand-out. Novelist/historian George MacDonald Fraser says that it not only has "great spirit and much beauty" but "did justice to a great historic theme" while commenting that it was one of Winston Churchill's favorite historical films.

Tensions are tight between Spain and England. The Spanish king is not so secretly planning to conquer the whole of Europe while building up an Armada. In defense England has authorized privateers to prey on Spanish shipping and divert seized money to British coffers to pay for a fleet. One such privateer is Captain Thorpe (Flynn) who when capturing one ship ends up with the Spanish ambassador (Claude Rains) and his attractive niece (Brenda Marshall). He soon has a desperate mission to protect England. That's only the start of an action-filled, constantly surprising story that takes in battles, the Inquisition, imprisonment, romance, traitors and honor.

The Sea Hawk reunites many of the cast and crew behind the previous year's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex: Flynn, Curtiz, actors Donald Crisp, Alan Hale and Henry Daniell, composer Erich Korngold, cinematographer Sol Polito and art director Anton Grot are only the most noticeable. This time around however, Queen Elizabeth is played by Flora Robson who Fraser says of all the actresses playing the part looks the least like Elizabeth but she remains the best, having "the voice, the style, the authority and the sheer physical presence of Gloriana." (Science fiction fans might note that the Inquisitor is played by Fritz Leiber, father of the writer with that name.)

The 1940 production of The Sea Hawk was top-rate. Warner Brothers budgeted it at an enormous $1.75 million, for their troubles eventually making nearly $1million in profit. The studio built not only a new soundstage but full-scale ships for the battle scenes. The script was by Howard Koch (who had written Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast The War of the Worlds) and Seton I. Miller (The Adventures of Robin Hood). The Sea Hawk had originally been intended as an adaptation of the Rafael Sabatini novel of the same name (which had been filmed before in 1924) but along the way the writers kept only the title and came up with their own story, one that reflected more closely on England's real-life perilous situation in 1940. They also didn't pay too much attention to historical details, even changing the genuine term for privateers "sea dogs" to "sea hawk" but in the end they captured some of the real flavor of those times and left us with an unforgettable film.

Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis (executive)
Screenplay: Howard Koch, Seton I. Miller, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editor: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cast: Errol Flynn (Geoffrey Thorpe), Brenda Marshall (Dona Maria Alvarez de Cordoba), Claude Rains (Don Jose Alvarez de Cordoba), Donald Crisp (Sir John Burleson), Flora Robson (Queen Elizabeth).
BW-128m. Close captioning.

by Lang Thompson

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teaser The Sea Hawk (1940)

Awards & Honors

The Sea Hawk was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Art Direction (Anton Grot), Special Effects (Byron Haskin, photography; Nathan Levinson, sound), Music Score (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), Sound Recording (Nathan Levinson)

The Critics' Corner: THE SEA HAWK

"The Sea Hawk retains all the bold and swashbuckling adventure and excitement of its predecessor...but the screenplay of the new version is expanded to include endless episodes of court intrigue...that tend to diminish the effect of the epic sweep of the high seas dramatics."
Variety, July 24, 1940

"Of course, [the film] is all historically cockeyed, and the amazing exploits of Mr. Flynn, accomplished by him in the most casual and expressionless manner, are quite as incredible as the adventures of Dick Tracy. But Flora Robson makes an interesting Queen Elizabeth, Claude Rains and Henry Daniell play a couple of villainous conspirators handsomely, there is a lot of brocaded scenery and rich Elizabethan costumes and, of course, there is Brenda Marshall to shed a bit of romantic light. And, when you come right down to it, that's about all one can expect in an overdressed 'spectacle' film which derives much more from the sword than from the pen."
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, August 10, 1940

"The Sea Hawk is 1940's lustiest assault on the double feature. It cost $1,700,000, exhibits Errol Flynn and 3,000 other cinemactors performing every imaginable feat of spectacular derring-do, and lasts two hours and seven minutes....Produced by Warner's Hal Wallis with a splendor that would set parsimonious Queen Bess's teeth on edge, constructed of the most tried-&-true cinema materials available, The Sea Hawk is a handsome, shipshape picture. To Irish [sic] Cinemactor Errol Flynn, it gives the best swashbuckling role he has had since Captain Blood [1935]. For Hungarian Director Michael Curtiz, who took Flynn from bit-player ranks to make Captain Blood and has made nine pictures with him since, it should prove a high point in their profitable relationship."
- Time, August 19, 1940

"To this day it remains one of the most completely satisfying products to emerge from the Hollywood dream factory."
Jeffrey Richards, Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York

"A rousing swashbuckler ... The Spanish talk peculiar slang, considering that the year is 1585, but Flora Robson's Queen Elizabeth is a vigorous shrewdie."
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Moviesbr>
"As good an old-time adventure as you'll find. ... [Flynn] proves he's an excellent movie actor. ... [Flora Robson's] verbal battles with Daniell, her untrustworthy minister, and Rains, a sneaky, shrewd Spanish ambassador, are as exciting as the physical warfare Flynn engages in on the high seas."
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic (Simon & Schuster, 1986)

"Warners lavished a then-staggering $1.7 million on The Sea Hawk, with gorgeous results. The 31-year-old Flynn, at the peak of his spectacular career, is magnificent in his swashbuckling role; Marshall was never more radiant; Rains is deliciously evil; and Robson makes a wonderfully witty and intelligent Elizabeth."
TV Guide

"People who don't like black and white should always see The Sea Hawk."
TCM's Robert Osborne, commentary on DVD special features

by Rob Nixon

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