Errol Flynn and his home studio of Warner Bros. made a picture in 1940 that’s highly regarded as one of his best—well, by many devotees of classic cinema if not by me. I’ll readily acknowledge some brilliant moments, but I have too many nits to pick with The Sea Hawk to love it. One of my chief complaints is the script, and the funny thing is, The Sea Hawk didn’t make any sense to me until yesterday when I finally had a huge and hilarious aha moment. Compounding my problem is that way back in college I had first seen the 1947 reissue print of this picture, multiple times in fact, and that memory had stuck with me. The reissue print had more than 20 rather key minutes removed, including the opening strategic speech by King Philip II of Spain and the closing strategic speech by Queen Elizabeth I of England.
In the past 30 years, the missing footage was reconnected into a full 126-minute print of The Sea Hawk, and I only ever applied my brain to that print yesterday when it played on TCM/U.S. I realized just yesterday that the only way the absurd, confusing plot of The Sea Hawk can be comprehended is to substitute the word Germany every time you hear the word Spain. Any time they say the word Philip, insert the word Hitler. Then and only then does any of the nonsense make sense.
Guess what: It’s history time!
The Sea Hawk went into production at the end of January 1940 after delays of a few weeks while Flynn rested up following the exhausting production of wild and wooly Virginia City, chronicled previously on these pages.
CUT TO: King Philip of Spain’s opening speech: “The riches of the new world are limitless, and the new world is ours, with our ships carrying the Spanish flag to the seven seas; our armies sweeping over Africa, the Near East and the Far West. Invincible everywhere but on our own doorstep. Only northern Europe holds out against us? Why? The reason is a puny rock-bound island as barren and treacherous as her queen, who secretly gives aid to our enemies while her pirates plunder our commerce. We cannot keep northern Europe in submission until we have had a reckoning with England.”
He goes on at great length to say how short his lifetime is and how he must fulfill his destiny (Hitler had said this time and again). Then Philip stands beside a massive, and I mean 20-foot high, 30-foot wide, world map, and in silhouette, his finger pointing directly at Germany, recaps the global spread of Nazism—er, Spanish domination—concluding, “One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will cease to be a map of the world. It will be Spain!”
As actor Montagu Love recited his lines on a Warner soundstage, Hitler had conquered Poland just four months earlier, completing the first round of European real estate acquisition—Austria, the Sudetenland, then the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and now Poland. Cameras rolled on The Sea Hawk during the time period known later as the Sitzkrieg, when it became quiet. Too quiet, and Hitler was apparently making Western Europe guess what he would do next. In reality, little Germany was trying to recover from war with Poland because what seemed to be a rollover was anything but, and the Poles had packed more of a punch than Hitler would allow in public. Germany always stretched its limited resources to the max any time it made an attack; history has lost sight of the fact that the Germans only had so many guys, weapons, fuel, and food to go around, which is why gobbling up territory became so important—to replenish all these things.
I can’t imagine that any kid in the audience, and there had to be scads of them because this was an Errol Flynn pirate picture, had any clue what all the speechifying was about, but their parents got an earful about the looming threat of Nazism and the inevitability of war. Warner Bros. was at the forefront of spreading the word after drawing a line in the pavement with production of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939—it was a picture that pissed Hitler off and he said so. But pounding the message home was a gamble for the studio because the United States was still an isolationist nation determined to let the Europeans work out their problems.
It never made any sense to me why in this movie English pirate ships captained by “sea hawks” were allowed to raid Spanish shipping in time of peace. But careful listening reveals the British admiral in charge explaining to the queen, “Our privateers have made substantial contributions for the very purpose of providing a navy.”
And only Errol Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe, coolest of the “sea hawk” captains, has the guts to proclaim in the queen’s court: “Spain is at war with the world.”
There, the “puny, rock-bound island” needs defenses from the looming threat, and German—er, Spanish—ships deserve to be attacked because of the ruthless ambitions of Hitler—er, Philip.
The last half of the 1930s in European history is covered concisely during two hours of plot time in The Sea Hawk, courtesy of a hasty rewrite of the original script by Warner screenwriter Howard Koch. There’s the expansionism of Germany, the attempted appeasement by the British Chamberlain regime, and most important, the imminent threat of a German invasion of England as exposed in communications intended for the chief Nazi—er Spanish—agent working near the queen but intercepted by Thorpe in the last reel.
The picture concludes with a grim speech by the queen that was cut from reissue prints: “A grave duty confronts us all: to prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country. But when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.” And she goes on from there with even more flag-waving.
No kidding, this is how a major motion picture ended in 1940, with a political speech! But Warner Bros. wasn’t run by fools, and the U.S. print faded to The End right after the queen knights her favorite sea hawk and before she holds her political rally. Only the British print contained the full Elizabethan address.
Upon the picture’s splashy release at the end of August, 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging, and wise ones in the audience knew the “great armada” of Spain, whose use had been threatened throughout the picture, wasn’t seaborne but rather airborne in the form of hundreds of German bombers and their fighter escorts.
I imagine little boys walked out of the theater wondering what the hell, but there had been enough action, pirates, and ships and cannon, to hold their interest. Who knew or cared about Nazi spies?
It would be another 16 months until the United States entered the war, and the conflict would indeed become a nightmare. The queen’s speech, shot at the beginning of February 1940, became prophetic about ruthless ambitions engulfing the world, and many in the audience who watched The Sea Hawk would die in the conflagration ahead. Then followed long decades and re-releases of edited prints of what would become just another pirate movie, if a revered one, with a plot that made no sense. At least to me. Until yesterday.
I never quite understood why “The Sea Hawk” never clicked with me. It’s one of Flynn’s finest films made at his peak of physical perfection, it boasts a strong cast, and it is a swashbuckler, a genre I like. But it’s always seemed long and boring and, as you pointed out, the plot didn’t quite gel. I knew that the events of the impending war left its imprint on the film, but it just seemed too forced and obvious a piece of propaganda to me, and I never liked it much. Perhaps the absence of Olivia de Havilland had some bearing on my apathy for the film, because as lovely as Perdita (Brenda Marshall) is in the role of Flynn’s ladylove, she has little chemistry with Flynn and makes such a bland impression that she practically evaporates from the screen.
As I recall, Olivia was originally slated to do the part, but perhaps she and Flynn were in one of their “off again” periods, so neither really wanted her to do it. I believe she was rebelling at being typecast as Flynn’s damsel in distress, and he resented her for resenting it. I could be wrong.
Great article, Robert! By the way, I’ve been plugging “Dutch Girl” and a few of your earlier books to my cinephile friends.
Thank you, Bonnie. Keep plugging!
The Sea Hawk went into production during the tremendous hoopla surrounding the release of GWTW, while at Warner Bros., the civil war between JL and OdeH raged. The studio had recently signed Marshall and wanted to give her the big push, which as you say was one misguided effort on their part.
I agree with your descriptors: long and boring and didn’t gel. So much of what we love about the Flynn swashbucklers involves great villains. Rathbone was one and scenery-chewing Claude Rains as Prince John another. And one of the most vicious bad-guys of all, Robert Douglas in Adventures of Don Juan. But in The Sea Hawk we have a Claude Rains who’s uncharacteristically stiff and wearing a shoe-polish wig and beard, and poor Henry Daniell lacking anything resembling a bad-boy’s appeal. He’s just so wrong in the part. So, so wrong. And there’s no motivation for WHY he’s a Nazi, er, Spanish spy. He just is, and it doesn’t work.
Oops, I meant to say Ardis, not Perdita, was Brenda Marshall’s real first name. I saw the nickname Perdita attached to her somewhere, but not sure if she truly used that nickname. Interesting fact, if tragic…Brenda Marshall’s great-grandson is the accused Gilroy Garlic Festival shooter. I won’t mention his name.