Sea Hawk, The (1940)

“By now you know the purpose of the Sea Hawks: in our own way to serve England and the Queen.”

Synopsis:
A privateer (Errol Flynn) and his men in Elizabethan England are captured by Spaniards, and must find a way to escape the galleys in time to warn Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) about the presence of a traitor in her court.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “Errol Flynn swashbuckler is as good an old-time adventure as you’ll find”, and nominates it as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book. He notes that it possesses “great ships, sea battles, swordplay, spies, slaves, [and] Spaniards”; a “rousing score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold”; “exuberant and stylish direction by Michael Curtiz (who, as usual, makes great use of light, shadows, and space)”; “a strong, spirited script”; “a marvelous group of supporting actors” (including Flora Robson, Claude Rains, Henry Daniell, Una O’Connor, Alan Hale, and others) — and “even a little smooching” (though Flynn’s romance with beautiful but boring Brenda Marshall is definitely the weakest aspect of the story). Most importantly, however, he notes that it stars “Flynn, the talking pictures’ greatest adventure hero”, who is once again a pirate and once again “champion of the underdog, in this case the England of 1585 that is being set up for conquest for Spain”.

While I find nearly every aspect of this adventure flick to be in fine order, I’ll admit that Flora Robson’s “splendid” performance as Queen Elizabeth I remains its greatest personal enjoyment for me. As Peary so accurately explains, Robson presents the Queen “not as a man in a woman’s body but a woman of intelligence, wit, high spirits, temper, strength, and love for country and subjects; she’s no prude, she just prefers ruling men to loving them”. And speaking of its historical grounding, the parallels made between the film’s “imperialist and evil” Spain of 1585 and Nazi Germany are indeed — as many have pointed out — rather overt, with Robson “start[ing] out like Neville Chamberlain, willing to appease the aggressors rather than risk war”, but eventually “becom[ing] as dogged as Winston Churchill”. As Peary argues, much like 1942’s Casablanca (also directed by Curtiz), this is ultimately a thinly “veiled propaganda piece that attempts to get Americans solidly into the war effort” — but it’s easy to overlook such metaphorical heavy-handedness in the face of what amounts to a bracingly vigorous, finely mounted adventure flick in its own right.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth
  • Errol Flynn as Captain Thorpe
  • A fine set of supporting performances
  • Authentic period detail
  • The exciting climactic duel (between Flynn and Henry Daniell)
  • E.W. Korngold’s score

Must See?
Yes, as an adventure classic.

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2 Responses to “Sea Hawk, The (1940)”

  1. I’ll concede this is a must as an adventure classic. It’s easy for ffs to derive satisfaction from it, for reasons brought out in the assessment.

    And I strongly support the opinion that Robson’s work as Queen Elizabeth is the main reason for watching. Hers is a wonderfully layered performance and it’s always a plus when she returns in yet another scene.

    ~I don’t, however, claim the film as a personal favorite. Though there’s much to enjoy in the well-written script, I don’t find myself escaping from the fact that this film sometimes leans towards being very much a Hollywood ‘product’. By that I mean, here and there, there’s a certain forced quality in the film; a kind of by-the-numbers feeling comes over me which indicates that the film doesn’t actually hold a lot of unique surprises. (Yes, the love angle is kind of boring as well – though I don’t blame Marshall so much for that; her character is written in a slight fashion.)

    The supporting cast is generally fine, even if no one seems called on to stand out particularly. (Rains is rather subdued this time out, to some disappointment. He’s still good, just not allowed to ‘let fly’.)

    The DVD has an informative extra which takes us behind-the-scenes of the film’s making, and it made me want to enjoy the film more than I actually do. What went into old-style Hollywood filmmaking can indeed be impressive, as the extra reveals. But it also states that, at this point in his career, Flynn was a little weary of ‘buckling swashes’ (so to speak) yet again – and, to me, that comes off a little in his performance, even though I still find him charismatic in ‘The Sea Hawk’ and worthy of his star power.

    For me, one of the best aspects of the film is that it simply looks magnificent – even in the interesting switch to a sepia tone in Spain. Its marvelous production values help offset certain misgivings I have. Overall, I like the film more when I’m not feeling manipulated by it (for reasons stated, as well as by composer Korngold’s score – which has a repetitive main theme hellbent on reminding us that we’re in a rousing adventure).

  2. Interestingly, I concur with your overall assessment above. Something I didn’t mention in my original review is that I watched this film in two sittings — a month apart. Clearly, I wasn’t so invested in the story that I had to know what happened next. I think you nailed it when noting that it has a bit too much of a forced “Hollywood” vibe — and yes, Flynn by this point was likely a bit weary of playing this type of role (though he remains as charismatic as ever).

    So, I probably won’t be returning to this flick anytime soon myself — but I certainly would recommend it to any fans of this genre; and, like you, I’ll continue to feel it’s at least a “once must”, for Robson’s performance if nothing else. (Too bad she really didn’t make more of a name for herself in films.)

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