Errol Flynn is synonymous with the Classic Hollywood swashbuckler. While many other stars (Tyrone Power, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Burt Lancaster, Basil Rathbone, to name a few) made swashbucklers, it was Flynn who is the most recognized of the genre. It could be argued as well that Fairbanks Sr., was also a well known swashbuckler, though his career was in silent film. In 1935, Flynn picked up where Fairbanks Sr., left off when he was cast in the titular role in the star-making Captain Blood.
By 1940, Flynn was a major star, having appeared in his most iconic role, Robin Hood, in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn would begin the new decade with another iconic role, that of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk. In this film, Flynn plays the British captain of “The Sea Hawks,” a group of British pirates or “privateers.” Thorpe and his men operate on behalf of Elizabeth I (Flora Robson), Queen of England. Elizabeth I is concerned that the Spanish are preparing to invade England with the armada they are building. And Elizabeth isn’t wrong. Spain’s King, Phillip II, has designs on conquering England. He sends Don Alvarez (Claude Rains) as his representative to speak with Elizabeth I and soothe her worries–even though obviously he does want to conquer England.
Don Alvarez and his niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) board one of the Spanish ships and are soon captured by Thorpe and his fellow Sea Hawks. The Sea Hawks rob Don Alvarez and Dona Maria of their riches. But of course, since this is an Errol Flynn movie, he quickly falls for Dona Maria and returns her jewels. However, this capture of Don Alvarez and Dona Maria does not sit well with Elizabeth I and she scolds Thorpe for potentially endangering the peace between England and Spain. Thorpe then suggests that they capture a Spanish treasure fleet that is returning from the Americas. Elizabeth I is wary, but allows them to continue. However, one of Elizabeth I’s ministers, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) doesn’t believe Thorpe and starts to investigate where the Sea Hawks are truly headed.
This is a really great movie. I would argue that Brenda Marshall is a little weak as Flynn’s leading lady in this film. While she’s fine and is pretty, Marshall always comes across as a little bland to me. I much prefer Flynn with a leading lady with a stronger personality, like Olivia de Havilland, Alexis Smith, or Ann Sheridan. I always love Claude Rains. He’s amazing in any film he appears in. Flora Robson’s Elizabeth I, for me is a standout. As much as I love my queen, Bette Davis, I prefer Robson’s portrayal of The Virgin Queen. Davis’ interpretation of Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (also co-starring Flynn) is excellent, but she’s so fidgety and not subtle in her portrayal.
My favorite part of the film is the part when Flynn and the Sea Hawks are captured and forced to work as slaves on the galley. This entire scene is preceded by a sepia tone segment that was reused footage from a 1924 version of The Sea Hawk. I *would* say that I love this scene because I love the suspense and the men planning their escape… but I’d be lying. I really love this scene because, even though he looks a little rough around the edges, Flynn plays the whole scene in just a pair of raggy shorts 😉
The real star of the film however, is Thorpe’s monkey, played by Flynn’s real life pet monkey. In my opinion, every film is improved by an actor monkey–especially a monkey wearing a costume.