It may be hard for some to believe, but Pirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding, the pirate-movie genre wasn't always as moribund as it is today. Tall ships with billowed sail pursuing each other through the seas, blazing cannons, swashbuckling swordplay, roguish heroes and dastardly villains were once a staple of the cinema, and no actor's name is more synonymous with such swashbuckling fare than Errol Flynn's, and The Sea Hawk is one of his very finest efforts. Many hold it second only to The Adventures of Robin Hood among the films of Errol Flynn, but somehow, I've always liked The Sea Hawk just a little bit more. Must be the wannabe-seafarer in me.
The Sea Hawk has a lot of the grand old tropes of the pirate genre. There are the slaves chained to the oars of the villains' ships; there is the woman who finds herself captured by Our Hero, but then finds herself strangely attracted to him; there are escapes and battles and duels and moments when Our Hero is captured and chained himself to the oars and all hope seems lost. And like The Adventures of Robin Hood, the final duel against the main villain includes a bravura sequence where the two combatants' giant shadows are cast on the wall behind them. And of course, it's all tied together with music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who turned in one of the best scores of his illustrious career.
There's quite a bit about The Sea Hawk that is different from the more standard pirate fare, however, and it all has to do with story. This isn't a "Hunt for hidden treasure" type of film, with voyages to the Spanish Main and wench-filled taverns in seaside villages and the like. This film's story is actually a thinly-disguised political allegory for the time in which it was made (early World War II).
As The Sea Hawk opens, King Philip II of Spain is finalizing his plans to send his newly built Spanish Armada upon England, which is the only thorn is the side of his plans to dominate the world. After dispatching his ambassador, Don Alvarez (Claude Rains) to England to allay the suspicions of Queen Elizabeth, Philip makes his heart's desires clear when he points to the giant map of the world on his wall and says, "One day before my death we shall gaze at this map upon the wall. It will have ceased to be a map of the world: It will be Spain!"
So Don Alvarez voyages to England, along with his niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall), but he doesn't arrive under Spanish sail: his ship is attacked by an English Privateer, Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn). Thorpe is one of the "Sea Hawks," a group of sea captains who, in the absence of an official navy, "defend" England's interests at sea through acts of piracy and privateering. After a thrilling sea battle in which the cannons blaze, masts tumble, swarms of pirates swing on ropes over to the other ship, and a fight at close quarters, Captain Thorpe takes the Spanish ship, and soon meets Donna Maria, who at first refuses to have anything to do with Thorpe, even refusing to board his ship (to which he replies by ordering his first mate thusly: "This young lady, I hope, will change her mind. If she doesn't, change it for her and have her carried aboard.")
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth is receiving conflicting advice from her Lords, some of whom wish her to build an expensive fleet for defense when Spain attacks, and others led by Lord Wolfingham who insist that Spain poses no real threat. It is amidst this background that Captain Thorpe brings his captives to England, and then hatches his plan for the greatest act of privateering in history, which will give the Queen enough money to build the fleet. Thorpe's plan fails, though, and he is taken prisoner; and worse, his actions are interpreted by Spain as an act of war, sanctioned by the Queen herself. So Thorpe is prisoner, chained to the oars of a Spanish ship; Spain is pushing for war against an unprepared England; Donna Maria is in love with a doomed pirate; and there are traitors working in Queen Elizabeth's own employ.
Not quite your typical pirate movie plotline, eh?
But the film isn't quite as grim and serious as the plotline above sounds. The script is smart, with a fair amount of wit and poignance. Many of the supporting characters are sharply drawn, especially Captain Thorpe's men: his first mate, Mr. Pitt (played by Alan Hale, whose son Alan Hale Jr. was the Skipper on Gilligan's Island), and a sailor named Eli Madsen who disobeys Thorpe early on and spends much of the rest of the film trying to regain his favor ("I might have a berth for you as a cabin boy," Thorpe tells him when he tries to sign on for another tour on the Captain's ship).
In terms of acting, the film's cast is top-notch, with one exception. Errol Flynn, of course, swashbuckles better than anybody; Claude Rains is a superb villain, and he finds a slightly more sympathetic note for his character here than he had to work with in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Brenda Marshall is beautiful as Donna Maria, and there's a constant hint of sadness in her eyes or in her expressions. The supporting players are all fine; the one exception is Henry Daniell's treacherous Lord Wolfingham, who is smarmy enough but is nowhere near as charismatic a villain as, say, Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy of Gisbourne from Robin Hood. While I do enjoy The Sea Hawk slightly more than the more famous Robin Hood, the latter film definitely has the edge in the villain department.
The Sea Hawk is one of my favorite films. It's the kind of old movie that, when it ends, has you sighing and saying, "They don't make