The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk, 1940, Warner Bros. Starring Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains. Directed by Michael Curtiz. B&W, 128 minutes.

It is 1585, and Spain is in the process of overtaking and ruling the world. King Philip II of Spain (Montagu Love) looks to the future, where he envisions his map of the world to be instead a map of Spain—in other words, Spain would rule the world.  However, England appears to be standing in his way. To counter that threat, he sends Don Alvarez (Claude Rains) to England to assuage any fears the Queen may have about the fleet Spain is building.

On its way, the ship carrying Don Alvarez and his daughter, Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall) is seized by the Albatross and  her captain, Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn). Don Alvarez and Doña Maria are taken aboard the Albatross and transported back to England. Captain Thorpe finds himself unexpectedly captivated by Doña Maria, who, initially at least, resists his charms. It’s only when the Captain returns her jewels that she lets her guard down—and begins to open her heart.

Back in England,  privateer Thorpe approaches Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) with a new plan: to venture to the New World and capture Spanish gold to pay for a fleet that can resist Spain. The Queen, reluctant to spend her subject’s money on such a fleet, agrees. She also makes Doña Maria one of her maids of honor.

But the plan does not unfold as it is laid out for the Queen, and Captain Thorpe finds himself in troubled waters.

Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) and Captain Thorpe (Errol Flynn) debate his next steps.

Flora Robson, Errol Flynn

The Sea Hawk received nominations for four Academy awards: Art Direction, Original Score, Special Effects, and Sound Recording. It won none, but the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is considered one of his finest compositions and has been re-recorded numerous times since. 

Olivia de Havilland was first considered for the role of Doña Maria, but she balked at starring in yet another Errol Flynn film. The role then went to Brenda Marshall, who had made her film debut only a year before. Despite this auspicious beginning to her career, she never became a Hollywood success story, although she stayed in the limelight to some extent due to her marriage to William Holden.

Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) is wooed by Captain Thorpe (Errol Flynn).

Brenda Marshall, Errol Flynn

Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) gave an inspiring and rousing speech that had a very contemporary message for audiences in 1940—that all free men have a duty to defend liberty, and the world does not belong to any one man, but to all men. Designed to inspire British audiences, it very well may have had an impact on American viewers as well, many of whom were sharply divided in their beliefs about America’s role in the war in Europe. Sir Winston Churchill was said to have been moved by the movie as a whole, which was released at a time when the British were facing grave danger from Hitler.

No doubt one of Flynn’s greatest adventure films, The Sea Hawk delivers more than standard pirate fare. It is a look into an emerging world view at the time of the film’s release and the fears of many. Flynn is, as always, striking as the privateer and romantic lead; his popularity over the years is clearly understood.