Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) is the captain of The Albatross, part of the Sea Hawks, a private fleet of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson), taking "reparations" from the Spanish fleet of King Phillip II (Montagu Love—my new favorite actor name), who has plans to (dare I say it?) rule the World.
Well, not if Thorpe (rather loosely based on Sir Francis Drake in the Howard Koch-Seton I. Miller screenplay that has nothing to do with the Rafael Sabatini novel) can fire across their bow. On a diplomatic mission to see the Queen, the ship carrying Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) and his daughter Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall) is intercepted, fired upon and boarded by Thorpe and his all-too-eager crew. Once there, they see that the oarsmen for the Spanish are former English sailors, who are then freed and taken back to home and family. Don José is allowed to keep his meeting with the Queen, but all puffed up and protesting about it, and he and the Queen's adviser, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Darnell) demand that Thorpe be arrested and thrown in the dungeon, or the brig, or the tower, or whatever gray-bar hotel they had in 16th century England. The Queen puts on a stern public face, but is only too happy to let Thorpe command his ship to the isthmus of Panama to commandeer supplies from South America to the Spanish Armada.
But, the Queen's court has divided loyalties and Wolfingham is working with Don José to intercept Thorpe's plans, and the crew, once on land, and in a tinctured yellow setting, is trapped by Spanish forces and imprisoned as oarsmen on an enemy ship on its way back to Europe. Can Thorpe and his men escape their fate and warn the Queen about the oncoming attack by the Spanish Armada?
What do you think?
It's a grand epic, and director Curtiz, accustomed to filling the film-frame with detail, has a lot of scenery to use. The ships are big and impressive sets (especially when there are two next to each other), and the sea battles, some shots culled from Captain Blood (which is why this one is black and white and not Technicolor), are rousingly busy affairs starting with the chases, the cannon lobs, the swinging from ship to ship, then the sword-fights. They're frenetic and fun, the stuff of our pre-Johnny Depp cultural memories, and blood-shed is kept to a minimum. Curtiz and his designers also make the film feel a bit more gritty than one associates with a Hollywood studio film of the type (except of course in the Queen's court where everything is vast, spotless, and polished to the point of reflection). But compare Curtiz's slave galley to the one Charlton Heston occupied in Ben-Hur, and although the effort displayed by the rowers in the latter seem more strenuous, the conditions in the former are far more depressing. And Curtiz keeps it moving, no dawdling over the ironic dialogue or key sequences, as there's another just around the cut to get to. The cherry on top is one of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's greatest film-scores, which in itself has an awful lot of swash-buckling just in the playing.
Try to see the longer version, though. For awhile, The Sea Hawk had its final scene plucked—The Queen's speech before the attack of the Spanish Armada, which may be the strangest speech a Queen has even been given:
And now, my loyal subjects, 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. Firm in this faith, we shall now make ready to meet the great armada that Philip sends against us. To this end, I pledge you ships - ships worthy of our seamen - a mighty fleet, hewn out of the forests of England; a navy foremost in the world - not only in our time, but for generations to come."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." What do you mean "we," Queen E? Fact is, Elizabeth didn't say this.* But, as this film was released in 1940, it serves as its own little shot across the bow to another "one man" who wanted the map, not to be of Spain, but of the Third Reich—Herr Hitler. The film, when first released, had that bit of rallying to it, in the days before The Blitz. After the war, prints had that speech removed as unnecessary (and probably anachronistic, and not in a Queen's spirit.
|"...vast, spotless and polished to the point of reflection."
* She ACTUALLY said this: "My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourself to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people ... I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm." "My" realm. See that? "My".