Before Johnny Depp entertained audiences in his role as the charming Captain Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean, American audiences fell in love with Errol Flynn and his illustrious roles as swashbuckling heroes. Most people are most familiar with Flynn’s debut film, Captain Blood. However, Flynn played the role of another dashing pirate named Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk.
Director Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Hawk was a box office smash in 1940. Warner Bros. spent an estimated $1.7 million to produce the film, which was an extraordinary amount of money back then. Curtiz, who was also known for other such classics as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Casablanca, delivered an exciting adventure film, which also starred Claude Rains, Brenda Marshall and Flora Robson. While The Sea Hawk was supposed to be based on Rafael Sabatini’s novel of the same name, the movie’s plot was mostly inspired by the stories of Sir Francis Drake.
The Sea Hawk takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. King Phillip II of Spain is secretly planning to invade England with the assistance of his powerful Armada ships. Tensions are high between the two powerful European monarchies, but Queen Elizabeth is determined to maintain peace.
On his way back to England, Captain Thorpe (Flynn) captures a Spanish ship. Thorpe frees the galley slaves, many of whom are Spanish prisoners sentenced to row these large ships, and Thorpe forces all of the passengers onto his ship as his captives. Among these passengers are the Spanish Ambassador Don José Álvarez de Córdoba (Claude Rains) and his beautiful niece, Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall). Don Alvarez and his niece are stripped of their possessions, but, because Thorpe is smitten with Doña Maria, he returns her jewels. The act of kindness softens Maria’s anger towards the British pirate. After a short time, she falls in love with Thorpe, but out of pride, she keeps her feelings to herself.
Once they reach England, Don Alvarez falsely promises Queen Elizabeth that Prince Phillip of Spain only wants peace. Meanwhile, Captain Thorpe persuades Queen Elizabeth to give him her blessing to allow him and the other members from the Sea Hawk (a group of privateers who loot Spanish ships) to travel to the New World to capture Spain’s gold and treasures. Thorpe argues that the gold could help England protect herself. The Queen reluctantly agrees to give her blessing.
Captain Thorpe’s journey goes disastrously wrong. He and his men fall into a trap, which threatens all of their lives. Faced with a life sentence as a galley slave, Thorpe realizes that they must find a way to escape and quickly head back to England to warn the Queen of the impending danger that is headed towards her country.
The Sea Hawk is very much a movie of its time. When this film was produced, Europe was at war against Nazi Germany. Even though the United States had not yet entered the war, Hollywood films frequently commented on the evils of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis either directly or indirectly. For example, in The Sea Hawk, the portrayal of King Phillip is clearly based off of Hitler. The aesthetics in King Phillip’s scene is similar to the style that was popular in Nazi Germany at that time. In addition, Phillip obsesses over his map that is marked for complete Spanish domination. The movie concludes with a moving speech from Queen Elizabeth announcing that England must fight to preserve their freedom and liberties. A special mention should be given to Flora Robson who plays Queen Elizabeth. She gives an understated but powerful performance.
Many viewers of today might find The Sea Hawk as a dated film. Even though the movie is well-produced and well-acted, the plot is much like many other movies in its genre. The story itself is not timeless like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Casablanca. The people who will enjoy this film the most are Errol Flynn fans and classic film buffs.