Will England hold out against the Spanish Armada? It’s up to her private navy—the Sea Hawks. [ The Sea Hawk credits: Dir: Michael Curtiz/ Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp/ 128 min/ Action-Adventure/ Voluntarism]
When Spain sent its Armada north to conquer England, its navy outnumbered England’s Royal navy two to one. But the majority of English ships that went out to meet it were not in the Royal navy. They were private merchant vessels, which in those days were fully armed. This film celebrates the exploits of these sometimes piratical “privateers” and their pivotal role in England’s defense.
The story takes place in the late 1500s, when hostilities between Spain and England were rapidly heating up. England lacked sufficient resources to build a large enough Navy to defend itself against the coming Spanish fleet, so Queen Elizabeth I instituted a system known as “privateering,” essentially legally sanctioned piracy against Spain. Under this arrangement, private merchant vessels were given a “letter of marque,” an agreement whereby they were entitled to capture enemy shipping on the condition that they share the loot with the Crown. Privateering effectively called into military service England’s vast number of pirate ships as well as its merchant ships, many of which were converted over to the task of piracy.
The hero at the center of this story is Captain Thorpe—a character loosely based on Sir Francis Drake, probably the most successful “legitimate” pirate of his time. Drake not only robbed the Spanish all over the globe but once stopped during the middle of England’s famous battle against the Spanish Armada to seize booty from one of the Spanish ships! As in the film, the real Queen Elizabeth I privately encouraged piracy against Spain (in response to its aggressions and military buildup) long before open war broke out, while publicly distancing herself from it. Her duplicity adds an occasional comic element here.
More recent versions of this film include a restored scene intended as a boost to beleaguered World War II Britain’s morale. (The film was released in 1940 when Britain still stood alone against the Axis). In this scene, Queen Elizabeth I tells her subjects that they must prepare to fight because “freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.” Indeed.
The Sea Hawk has all the elements of greatness—an interesting story, brilliant acting, clever direction, and some of the best movie music ever made. Korngold’s superb musical score accentuates every major scene, particularly the exciting action sequences. This film is also a good example of the now forgotten art of shadow and lighting, the use of which adds much to the visual experience here. Most of the top roles were played by first-rate talent of the day. Flora Robson is delightful as Queen Elizabeth I. Errol Flynn’s performance as Captain Thorpe is arguably his best work ever.
“The Sea Hawk was the last and most mature of Flynn’s swashbuckling adventure films, played with brilliant stylistic flourishes by the star at his most charismatic, and most serious and studied when working with Flora Robson, whom he apparently genuinely respected. Boasting the handsomest, most opulent production values of a Warner Bros. period film to date…”
–The New York Times