The Sea Hawk (1940)
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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