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Film / The Sea Hawk

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

The Sea Hawk is a 1940 Warner Bros. Swashbuckler of piracy in the age of Elizabeth I, directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, and Flora Robson; notable minor roles were sustained by Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Sr., Henry Daniell, and Claude Rains. Though the film took its name from the 1915 novel by Rafael Sabatini, it featured an almost entirely original screenplay by Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller, based loosely on the life of Sir Francis Drake and the story of the Spanish Armada. (It shows some influence from the 1937 Armada film Fire Over England, which also starred Flora Robson, as well as a young Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.)

Sabatini's picaresque novel had already been filmed as a silent in 1924, a version that hewed much more closely to the book. The 1940 film was deliberately designed not only as an adventure film, but also as a call to rally to the defense of Britain, then threatened by the Nazi juggernaut. The film was originally intended to end with a shot of England's modern-day battle-fleet; as it is, it ends with a speech by Robson denouncing "ambition of one man" who threatens peace for all — the parallel between Philip of Spain and Adolf of Germany being all too obvious. It was, indeed, this timely message, delivered before America had entered the war, that caused this film to be ranked, along with Lady Hamilton, as one of Winston Churchill's favorite films.


Errol Flynn plays a much more controlled, subdued character as Captain Geoffrey Thorpe than in his previous swashbucklers; Thorpe is a man driven solely by his patriotic duty. Olivia de Havilland having rejected the part of Doña Maria for fear of type-casting (she was, moreover, at odds with the Warners' management over her insistence on playing the part of Melanie in Gone with the Wind), was replaced by Brenda Marshall, who made a lusciously raven-haired, sloe-eyed, aristocratic Spanish lady. Similarly fearing to play to type, Basil Rathbone rejected the part of the scheming Lord Wolfingham, and was replaced by the icily evil-sounding Henry Daniell. Montague Love took the part of King Philip II, and Claude Rains played Maria's Satanic-appearing but ultimately rather sympathetic uncle.

The eminent Austrian composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who had been driven from his home by the Nazi Anschluss, having already produced outstanding scores for two previous Flynn swashbucklers, Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, undertook to score The Sea Hawk as well. The resulting score was a lush Late Nineteenth Century evocation of the spirit of the sea, of adventure, and of romance, characterized by Wagnerian themes and Leitmotifs, and seasoned with hints of Spanish rhythms and Elizabethan lute-songs (Maria sings the original song, "Stood a Maiden at Her Window," accompanying herself on a lute). The music garnered Korngold an Academy Award nomination for Best Music Score (losing to Alfred Newman's Tin Pan Alley) and has been considered a classic of film music ever since.


Other notable talents engaged for the film included fencing master Fred Cavens to choreograph the duels. Unfortunately, Henry Daniell, though an outstanding actor, was absolutely hopeless as a fencer — so, for the climactic Duel to the Death between Thorpe and Wolfingham, Cavens had Errol Flynn progressively snuff out with his rapier the candles lighting the scene, conveniently hiding the fact that Cavens himself was standing in for Daniel except in close up shots.

This film provides examples of:

  • Blade Lock: Happens during the duel with Thorpe and Wolfingham; unusually, they do not exchange taunts, perhaps because Wolfingham is conceived of as a much colder villain than most swashbuckling villains are.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: The perfect description of Geoffrey and Maria's relationship.
  • Duel to the Death: Between Thorpe and Wolfingham.
  • Evil Chancellor: Privy Councillor Wolfingham's interest in aiding Philip is to see "a ruler friendly to Spain on the throne of England" — himself, for instance.
  • Expy: Miss Latham, Maria's lady-in-waiting (Una O'Connor), is somewhat similar to Bess, Marian's lady-in-waiting (also Una O'Connor), in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and likewise carries on an amour with one of Errol Flynn's character's men.
  • Fanfare: Notably, Korngold uses a repeated horncall to symbolize the Albatross, at least once explicitly performed as source-music by a bugler in the crew.
  • Flynning: The philosophy of Fred Cavens, who choreographed the duels, was to take the basic fencing moves and to exaggerate them, to make them more spectacular for film audiences.
  • Hanging Judge: Fritz Leiber (the father of the science fiction writer) appears as a merciless judge from The Spanish Inquisition.
  • Historical Domain Character: Queen Elizabeth I; King Philip II; Captain Hawkins and Captain Frobisher.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Philip II is generally considered now not to have been so much a cruel tyrant, as a rigidly conscientious man who felt he had a duty in maintaining his Habsburg patrimony and re-establishing the Roman Catholic faith in Europe.
  • Hollywood Costuming: It would take a small book to analyse, but among the common Hollywood variations from Elizabethan design seen in this film are panniers in place of the farthingale, either English or Spanish; an avoidance of the ubiquitous Elizabethan ruff; the substitution of patterned fabrics for embroidery, and a tendency to replace stockings with a sort of modified trousers, at least for heroic characters. Compare and contrast these costumes from the 1580's (Spanish Princess Clara Eugenia, Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth) and this still from the film.
  • Insult Backfire: When tried by the Inquisition, Thorpe is accused of plundering seven cities and forty-three ships. He corrects this, by saying he has plundered nine cities and fifty-four ships.
  • In Name Only: The novel was a tale of an English gentleman framed for murder by his fiancée's brother, getting shanghaied to the Mediterranean, and converting to Islam that he might become a pirate and wreak vengeance on the people that threw him away. The movie is a tale of an English privateer and his mission for Queen Elizabeth, with a bit of background about the Spanish Armada.
  • Knighting: In the finale of the film, Geoffrey Thorpe is knighted by the Queen aboard the Albatross.
  • Leitmotif: Korngold employs several in the score, including the Fanfare mentioned above, a sweeping love theme for Geoffrey and Maria, and a jaunty march to represent the Spanish treasure caravan in Panama.
  • Made a Slave: Thorpe and his men are sentenced to serve as galley slaves by the Inquisitorial court.
  • The Mole: Wolfingham is a spy for the Spanish.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The character of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe is almost certainly based on Sir Francis Drake, the English privateer who successfully robbed the Spanish Silver Train, as Thorpe fails to do in this film.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: About half of the Spaniards are Mexican actors; the other half speak as if they were elocution coaches from Eton and Oxford.
  • People of Hair Color: Nearly all the Spaniards in the film are raven-haired — the greatest exception is King Philip, who is grey-bearded.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Elizabeth and the ladies of the court of course wear them.
  • Pirate: Strictly speaking, Thorpe is a privateer sharing his plunder with the English government, but the Spanish make no distinction.
  • Privateer

  • Re-Cut: The film originally had two endings: one with Queen Elizabeth's rousing anti-fascist speech and another without it. The former was used in Britain and other territories involved in the war at the time, while the latter was used in countries who were at the time neutral towards getting involved in the fight against Nazi Germany, particularly the United States. In recent years, the British version has become the default source for video and television copies.

  • Shout-Out: The title theme-music to the 1990 Fox cartoon Peter Pan & the Pirates deliberately echoes the Main Title music of this film.
  • Sinister Minister: The sinister Inquisitor who tries Thorpe and his men.
  • Slave Galley: Thorpe and the other surviving crew of the Albatross are sentenced to this by the Inquisition. Why didn't they just hang him?
  • Socially Awkward Hero: "Him what's taken whole fleets of Spanish ships, can't say a word to a slip of a girl."
  • Spiritual Successor: To Captain Blood, with Errol Flynn in a sea epic directed by Michael Curtiz. Also arguably to The Adventures of Robin Hood.
  • Stock Footage:
    • Portions of the battle scenes are lifted from earlier Warners' silents; the attentive viewer can catch glimpses of Napoleonic ship design and costumes among the 16th century piracy.
    • The scenes of Doña Maria's carriage traveling through the countryside were taken from David Copperfield. The film had to be darkened to disguise the fact that the carriage depicted was clearly too modern for this film's Elizabethan setting.
    • Several shots in the battle at the beginning of the movie are re-used from Captain Blood, a man sitting up in the rigging being shot and several crew members below decks in a flooded room.
  • Sword Fight: Notably, Geoffrey's duel with Captain Lopez (Gilbert Roland) at the beginning of the film, and especially his final climactic duel with Lord Wolfingham, one of the finest cinematic duels ever filmed.
  • A Taste of the Lash: How the Spanish motivate their galley slaves.
  • Title Drop: The Elizabethan privateers were actually known as "Sea Dogs"; Koch and Miller deliberately changed the term to cash in on the Rafael Sabatini title.
  • Why Won't You Die?: Lord Wolfingham greets Geoffrey Thorpe, who has escaped from numerous perils, with the words, "Have you nine lives, Captain Thorpe? Surely most of them must be used up by now." Cue Flynning.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men:
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Thorpe and Lopez exchange pleasantries as they duel aboard the Santa Eulalia.