PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
The film begins with King Philip II of Spain (Montagu Love) declaring his intention to destroy England and after this “puny rockbound island as barren and treacherous as her Queen” is out of the way, he believes that world conquest will follow: he says his great wall map, one day, “will have ceased to be a map of the world; it will be Spain.” He sends one of his courtiers, Don Alvarez (Claude Rains), as his ambassador to allay the suspicions of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) about the great armada he is building to invade England. In England, some of the Queen’s ministers plead with her to build a fleet, which she hesitates to do in order to spare the purses of her subjects.
The ambassador’s ship is captured en route to England by the Albatross and her captain, Geoffery Thorpe (Errol Flynn). Don Alvarez and his niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall), are taken aboard and transported to England. Thorpe is immediately enchanted by Dona Maria and gallantly returns her plundered jewels. Her detestation of him softens as she too begins to fall in love.
Don Alvarez is granted an audience with the Queen and complains about his treatment; Dona Maria is accepted as one of her maids of honour. The “Sea Hawks”, a group of English privateers who loot Spanish ships for “reparations” appear before the Queen, who scolds them (at least publicly) for their piratical attacks and for endangering the peace with Spain. Captain Thorpe finally appears and proposes a plan to seize a large caravan of Spanish gold in the New World and bring it back to England. The Queen is wary of Spain’s reaction, but allows Thorpe to proceed.
Suspicious of Thorpe’s expedition, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), one of the Queen’s ministers (and a secret Spanish collaborator), sends a spy to try to discover where the Albatross is really heading, but to no avail; the courtiers are told that Thorpe is going on a trading expedition up the Nile River in Egypt. Upon visiting the chartmaker responsible for the chart for Thorpe’s next voyage, Don Alvarez and Lord Wolfingham determine that he is really sailing to the Isthmus of Panama and order Don Alvarez’s Spanish captain to sail ahead to set up an ambush. When the Albatross reaches its destination, part of her crew seizes the caravan, but they fall into a well-laid trap and are driven into the swamps. Thorpe and a few others survive and return to their ship, only to find it in Spanish hands. Thorpe and his crew are returned to Spain, tried by the Inquisition, and sentenced to the galleys for the rest of their lives. In England, Don Alvarez informs the Queen of Thorpe’s fate, causing his niece to faint. The Queen and Don Alvarez exchange heated words, and she expels him from her court.
On the Spanish galley, Thorpe meets an Englishman named Abbott who was captured trying to uncover evidence of the Armada’s true purpose. Through cunning, the prisoners take over the ship during the night. They board another ship in the same harbor, where an emissary has stored secret incriminating plans. Thorpe and his men capture both and sail back to England with the plans in hand.
Upon reaching port, Thorpe tries to warn the Queen. A carriage bringing Don Alvarez to the ship which, unbeknownst to him, Thorpe had captured, also brings his niece. Don Alvarez boards the ship and is held prisoner, while Captain Thorpe, dressed in the uniform of a Spanish courtier, sneaks into the carriage carrying Dona Maria, who has decided to stay in England and wait for Thorpe’s return. The two finally declare their love for each other, and Maria helps Thorpe in sneaking into the palace. However, Lord Wolfingham’s spy, who had escorted the ambassador and his niece, spots Thorpe and alerts the castle guards to stop the carriage and take Thorpe prisoner. Thorpe escapes and enters the Queen’s residence, fending off guards all the while. Eventually, Thorpe runs into Lord Wolfingham and kills the traitor in a sword fight.
With Dona Maria’s assistance, Thorpe reaches the Queen and provides proof of King Phillip’s intentions. Elizabeth knights Captain Thorpe for his gallantry, with Dona Maria present, and declares her intention to build a great fleet to oppose the Spanish threat.
I was asked earlier this year to maybe think about throwing in some classic swashbuckler films, preferably with Errol Flynn. So, to honor that request, I dug out one of Flynn’s not-so-well-known pictures, at least to modern audiences, The Sea Hawk. I have to say that this film left me underwhelmed compared to similar pictures of the time.
What is this about?
Hired on by Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson), buccaneer Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) loots and pillages the Spanish fleet and the New World colonies while sailing the high seas, but is stopped in his tracks when he attacks a vessel and lays eyes on beautiful Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall). Thorpe is captured, but escapes to warn England of the advancing Spanish armada in director Michael Curtiz’s swashbuckling adventure.
What did I like?
Swashbuckling. In the heyday of cinema, an action flick like this didn’t require gigantic set pieces and huge explosions to be impressive. Instead, the focus was on the acting, story, and most importantly, the action. A simple, choreographed, sword fight went a long way towards making a film memorable, believe it or not. Flynn was one of the best, at least that I’ve seen, at making these fights exciting and not come off as a couple of guys dancing with toy swords.
Fake. Audiences back then may not have realized it, but today we look at the set of this film and pick apart every obvious fake prop, from the pool the boats are in to the painted backdrop, to the styrofoam rocks. Thing is, though, I actually like stuff like that. There is a certain charm, if you will, that is one of the reasons I like old films so much better than the new ones. The fake props show imagination. Something that typing in a couple of program sequences into a computer will never show.
What didn’t I like?
Pacing. It seems with all classic action films, they are longer than they need to be with very slow pacing. With that in mind, they usually tell a great story, I just wish there was something to light a fire under them and get things going to the last 10-15 minutes when things pick up and we get some action.
Music. Please note that my issue with the music is not that it is bad, but that this is literally just recycled from another film starring Flynn, Captain Blood. You know, the one they watch in The Goonies, remember? If this was a sequel, I would have any issues. Look at the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises, they recycle music all the time, but its all in the same universe, if you will. As far as I can tell, these are two totally different films that have the same music.
When I decided to watch The Sea Hawk this evening, I didn’t know what to expect, other than some kind of pirate/privateer film starring Errol Flynn. For what it is, one can’t really complain, but it doesn’t compare to previous Flynn films I’ve seen. There is a drop off in terms of quality and entertainment that hampers this, but it still is worth checking out sometime. For me, it wasn’t great, but it has some pretty good moments near the end.
3 1/3 out of 5 stars