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The Sea Hawk

by Glenn Erickson Dec 22, 2018

Grand action entertainment bursts forth on the high seas, showing us how much production value Golden Hollywood could lavish on an exciting, artful swashbuckler. Errol Flynn is at his glorious best, backed by greats like Flora Robson, Henry Daniell and Claude Rains in fine form. The special effects and full-sized ship sets impress in ways that computer generated images never will. And the rousing music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold seals the deal — the term ‘Timeless Classic’ was invented for marvels like this.

The Sea Hawk
Warner Archive Collection
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 127 min. / Street Date December 18, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains, Donald Crisp, Flora Robson, Alan Hale, Henry Daniell, Una O’Connor, James Stephenson, Gilbert Roland, William Lundigan, Julien Mitchell, Montagu Love, J.M. Kerrigan, David Bruce, Fritz Leiber, Francis McDonald, Pedro de Cordoba, Ian Keith, Jack La Rue, Halliwell Hobbes, Victor Varconi, Robert Warwick, Herbert Anderson, Mary Anderson, Edgar Buchanan, Frank Lackteen, Gerald Mohr, Nestor Paiva, Jay Silverheels.
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editor: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Special Effects: Byron Haskin, Hans F. Koenekamp
Original Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Written by Howard Koch, Seton I. Miller
Produced by Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis
Directed by
Michael Curtiz


I have a close associate who practically shouted “Yes!” when the WAC announced this title; he’d be happy if the WAC Blu-ray program doubled back and doted on older Warners classics with stars like Flynn, Cagney and Bogart. We were knocked out last year when Warners released the recently rediscovered, restored The Sea Wolf on Blu-ray; it hadn’t been seen in its full-length version since a reissue before the days of television.

Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk has arrived right on time, to wow everybody for the holidays. The lavish pirate movie is one of the ‘cappers’ of Hollywood’s Golden Age, just before the war broke out, when it seemed as if American movies could do anything. I’m not sure that it’s Flynn’s biggest action spectacle, as The Adventures of Robin Hood has both Technicolor and Olivia de Havilland, and perhaps a more ‘timeless’ appeal. But this ultimate pirate epic, a follow-up to Flynn’s breakthrough swashbuckler Captain Blood was the 1940 equivalent of Star Wars. Our heroes are dashingly noble thieves, English privateers preying on Spanish galleons carting home the plunder of Moctezuma and Atahualpa. We see a ship taken by direct sea combat, and another is captured from within, in a revolt of its own galley slaves.


Modeled after Sir Walter Raleigh, privateer Jeffrey Thorpe is the ultimate Errol Flynn character, a noble rogue and adventurer who wins through charm and kisses what he can’t take by force of arms. Naturally, he has a band of merry men hearty crew of loyal buck-os eager to help him sieze Spanish gold: after Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) takes her cut, Thorpe splits the take generously with his crew. The crew must be loyal, as all the sailors volunteer for Thorpe’s next mission, rather than invest their loot and settle down. The exceedingly pro- English script makes Queen Elizabeth into a merry Olde Maid secretly in love with dashing swains like Jeffrey Thorpe. Playing two-faced games with Spain’s ambassadors is easy for Liz, because the Spaniards have no sense of humor, and anyway it’s just too tempting to steal their gold.

This story of the ‘pirates for the Queen’ the Sea Hawks was a direct inspiration for the first Star Wars. Especially in its original, slightly longer cut (restored in the 1990s), the 1940 movie twists the 16th-century spats between global sea powers into an undisguised shout-out against Hitler’s crimes in Europe. Spain’s monarch is given Adolf- like ambitions to conquer Europe and the whole world, by seizing the gold of the Americas and using captured English sailors as slaves to power its warships. A ‘Confessions of a King Philip II Spy’ vein runs through the entire movie, with Philip’s slick diplomat Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains, superb) plotting with the Queen’s sinister Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell, never nastier) to undermine the Sea Hawks’ yo-ho mischief campaign looting Spanish ships. We aren’t supposed to think of The Sea Hawks as greedy pirates, but as an irregular English Navy, bringing Her Majesty gold to build ships to hold off the inevitable Spanish Armada. Jeffery Thorpe and his humorless fellow sea pirate Sir John Burleson (Donald Crisp) are positioned as patriotic General Doolittle types, warning against peacetime isolationism in the face of foes abroad preparing for war.

The parallels with 1940 geopolitics are almost too convenient: in 1940 Franco’s Spanish fascists had just won a civil war. Outraged U.S. leftists saw the coming World War as a plague of fascism, even as Spain kept a technical neutrality — Spain-bashing in The Sea Hawk fit the liberal agenda to a ‘T.’ Queen Elizabeth’s rally to arms against the approaching Spanish Armada is a costume version of the “ring yourselves with steel” speech that would follow a couple of months later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Errol Flynn’s movie was in theaters during The Battle of Britain, while Hitchcock’s thriller greeted the fall of France. Both are stirring, inspirational pictures for very dark days.

Accompanying Don Alvarez to London is his luscious dark-haired daughter Doña María (Brenda Marshall), passionate looker sure to catch Jeffrey Thorpe’s eye. She’s the only good character depicted in the Nazi Spanish culture; she even has a feisty English maid (Una O’Connor) to assure us where her loyalties lie. Don Alvarez is a sincere patriot, but every other Spaniard is power-mad, gold-greedy or a nasty Inquisitor. The creepy Fritz Leiber is the Torquemada-like main judge; the inference is that every court in Spain is run by mad torturers. He also dresses just like George Lucas’s Evil Emperor.

The immediate impact of The Sea Hawk is the sheer scale of this enormous production. Audiences in 1940 must have been awestruck by the realistic sea battles between massive 16th-century galleons. Warners constructed a new sound stage with a vast water tank: twelve feet deep and big enough to hold two entire full-sized ships, side by side. The studio craftsmen in charge of special effects did such good work that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish full-sized physical effects from miniature work. Led by ace cameraman and effects whiz Byron Haskin, the Warner effects department had been staging miniature sea battles and nautical epics since the silent days. The tricks used to make model boats look full-sized are really convincing. The big sails billow out, while little pumps provide a ‘bow wake’ as the ship cut through the water (or sits in place ‘fake sailing’ as the water goes by.


Michael Curtiz’s ever-prowling crane crawls all over the full-sized ship mock-up, catching Flynn on deck peeping at María below and cruising through the rigging as if through tall trees. Ships filmed on stage sets oftentimes look extremely fake, but the WB engineers pulled off impressive illusions. Not only does the boat appear to rock, an interesting ‘animated’ backing places fairly convincing water in the background of shots — the sparkly surface is just realistic enough to please the eye. The coordination between direction and effects work is excellent. As Rocco Gioffre (a real Errol Flynn aficionado) once pointed out to me, editor George Amy was able to recycle a few gags and long-shot boats from Captain Blood. One excellent moment with a pair of pirates being knocked off a high spar, may have originally come from a silent movie.

With the brilliant, reckless taskmaster Curtiz in charge of the ship-to-ship mayhem, the violent combat has us believing that the film’s daily production reports carried lists of injured extras and stunt men. The swords look potentially dangerous and all manner of shot ‘n’ shell blasts, pointy pikes and other harmful items are flying through the air. The set looks to be at least 35 feet tall. Wounded fighters fall from spars and tumble messily through broken oars into the water. Who knows, when they drained the giant water tank at night, maybe a couple of missing extras showed up.


The palace hall sets are bigger than ever, allowing Curtiz and Sol Polito to cast the shadows of fencing combatants even higher onto stone walls. If the sets are being re-used, it’s all well disguised; we see only one circular stair that looks like a hand-me-down from Robin Hood. Matte paintings and rear projection help out scenes in a garden and at the port (Dover?).

Errol Flynn is of course as smooth as silk, born to these dashing hero roles that he came to resent. His chivalry is such that he can kidnap a woman and her father, loot everything of value on their ship, but still win the girl’s heart by returning her personal jewelry box. Flynn’s appeal never faded an iota; In college I remember joining some girls late at night for cocoa in their dorm room (hope springs eternal). One of them had a picture of Flynn on her wall; a single question brought on a long conversation about why they loved swashbuckler movies. Yes, in the mid-’70s, young people were primed and ready for the spectacular romantic action thrills that Star Wars would soon provide.

Flora Robson played monarchs both malign and friendly, but her Elizabeth here is practically the film’s romantic lead. She gets more on-screen time than the leading lady, who is only 13 years younger. Robson makes the Queen a borderline- frisky admirer of Thorpe, soaking up his provocative praise. Meanwhile, gorgeous Brenda Marshall suffers in silence. Marshall has been maligned as a drag on the movie but it’s just that she’s written as a soulful and conflicted love interest, not the vivacious blonde Playgirl-of-the-Middle Ages that de Havilland normally embodied. María actually has some era-appropriate reserve, which to me means she’s all the more desirable. If this María marries Errol Flynn, she’s not going to run out on him, should Stewart Granger or James Mason arrive with roses and a good come-on story.


Ms. Marshall is also part of the reason I always tuned into The Sea Hawk about halfway every time it came on television — her Lady in Waiting María blends into the Erich Wolfgang Korgold music score by singing a beautiful love song about separated lovers. It matters not that the singing was most likely dubbed. One of the markers of a Michael Curtiz epic is that he orchestrates a pleasing balance between action and more intimate emotional material. Marshall’s song comes right after Thorpe is chained to the oars in the belly of a Spanish ship, and Korngold’s elegant musical segue connects his imprisonment directly to her concern.

The marvelous, rousing Korngold score is busier than his music for Captain Blood. The music Mickey-Mouses Thorpe’s suspenseful hijacking of a Spanish ship, rising in pitch almost like the volley of cowboy whoops in Howard Hawks’ later Red River. The fanfares for the Queen lend her dignity and authority, and the delicate love themes for María are as touching as anything Korngold ever wrote.

Jeffrey Thorpe’s solo mission to contact his Queen may be an anti-climax after the film’s big set-pieces, but The Sea Hawk has already won us over. Henry Daniell’s fencing double gives Flynn a run for his money, while diplomatic respect is reserved for Don Alvarez. I find it interesting that Claude Rains’ enemy emissary retains our full sympathy. Twenty years later, Rains’ Foreign-Office colonial strategist in Lawrence of Arabia would come off as a completely two-faced schemer…and very English.

When the Gerhardt classic composer albums were released in the 1970s, film fans my age became more aware of geniuses like Erich Wolfgang Korngold; I’ve paid more attention to The Sea Hawk’s music over the years than the show itself. The George Lucas connection becomes complete with the music — for his main Star Wars theme, John Williams imitated almost exactly the thunderous main title orchestration for Korngold’s Kings Row.


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Sea Hawk makes me remember a 35mm screening UCLA, when those ships looked enormous. Even with the old squarish movie format, this show shares with Metropolis and King Kong the ability to make things look REALLY BIG. I don’t remember any transfer that ever looked this sharp or detailed. Instead of splices and audio warbles recalled from endless TV broadcasts, the transitions both picture and sound are velvet-smooth. I can pick out actors like Jack La Rue under heavy Spanish villain makeup.

As was the 2005 DVD, the entire Panama sequence is tinted in a color approximating original sepia tone prints. Warner’s jungle sets seem even hotter and sweatier. More sweaty. Perspirous. One cannot tell exactly which were the eighteen minutes once removed for reissue; Warners must have saved that material in prime condition.

More than ever the movie is a showcase for the Korngold music score. The presentation could well use a Jonathan Demme-like advisory title up front, telling us to play the show LOUD. When spinning the disc, you might be tempted to crank up the volume and re-start.

The Blu-ray extras go beyond those on the DVD, adding a full Leonard Maltin Warner Night at the Movies bill of short subjects. A newsreel precedes the one-reeler Alice in Movieland starring Joan Leslie as an Esther Blodgett- type that wins a spin as a studio starlet. The anarchic animation director Bob Clampett runs amuck in Porky’s Poor Fish. A couple of trailers for other 1940s shows are included as well.

The last item is a 2005 informative featurette, The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action. Alan Rode’s book from last year Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film describes the production of this show in great detail.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Sea Hawk
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Warner Night at the Movies — newsreel, short Alice in Movieland, cartoon Porky’s Poor Fish, trailers. Plus 2005 featurette The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 20, 2018


Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.


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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.