Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Overlooked Films: The Sea Hawk (1940)

After reading and reviewing Rafael Sabatini's novel The Sea-Hawk (that's HERE), I was eager to take another look at the Errol Flynn version. My vague memory of the film was that Flynn played a pretty standard pirate hero in the Captain Blood mold. This would be very much at odds with the book, where the title character is an Englishman who has converted to Islam. Sabatini's Sea-Hawk wears a turban and commands a crew of Muslim corsairs

Well, my memory proved correct, and the explanation is fairly simple. The 1940 version of The Sea Hawk was not based on Sabatini's novel at all. A fairly faithful silent version had been made back in 1924, and Warner Brothers held the rights, but when they got around to doing a remake they decided (probably wisely) to go with an entirely different story and keep only the title.

In this version, the King of Spain wants to rule the world, and plans on starting with England as soon as his Armada is ready. England has almost no navy, so her only protection lies in The Sea Hawks, a band of loyal privateers whose most effective member is Captain Geoffry Thorpe, in the person of Errol Flynn. The only similarity to the book is that the Spanish are the bad guys, and at one point our hero is captured and chained to an oar in a Spanish galley.

That said, The Sea Hawk is one hell of a fine adventure film, with plenty of rousing sword fights, sea battles and rollicking pirate humor. Flynn is at his swashbuckling best, and among his crew are perennial sidekick Alan Hale and Edgar Buchanan. Claude Rains and Gilbert Roland ably portray Spanish villains. And Henry Daniell makes a suitably slimy traitor, a role that was probably intended for Basil Rathbone. Warner Brothers built two full size ships on the studio lot, and even flooded the set with water to provide more realistic battle scenes. Even the musical score is outstanding.

Lots more Overlooked Films at SWEET FREEDOM.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've got the book. Never seen the movie.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Classic swashbuckler - as you say, nothing to do with the book but instead a kind of summation of Flynn's costume epics to that time, polished to a high shine by director Michael Curtiz - great choice as this film really is enormous fun!

Anonymous said...

Though different from the novel, I love this movie.

Yvette said...

I've read the book (I love Sabatini) and I've seen the movie. Both are spectacular as far as I'm concerned. Though, as you say, the movie has little to do with the book except for the title.

The music is wonderful as are the swashbuckling scenes and what's not to like about Errol Flynn?

I love Flora Robson in this as Queen ELizabeth (I think it was she) and Henry Daniell - hsss...! Daniel was always the perfect sneering bad guy.

For me the only weakness is Brenda Marshall, not someone who lights up the sceen with personality. But overall, love the movie.

Brent McKee said...

Flora Robson was indeed playing Queen Elizabeth I. It was the second time she played the role, the other being in 1937's "Fire Over England" opposite Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

The timing of the movie is quite interesting and may help to explain the changes in the story. This was 1940, when the British were fighting the Germans, and the RAF was outnumbered by the Luftwaffe. While the USA wasn't at war yet, most of the Hollywood moguls - including Jack and Harry Warner - were actively supporting the British against Germany...for obvious reasons. The 1940 version of "The Sea Hawk" is telling of a time when England was also outnumbered and facing huge odds. The parallels were made even more obvious in the Queen's speech before the assemble privateers and their crews where she knights Thorpe. Reportedly this was originally shown only in Britain

Many of Captain Thorpe's adventures are similar to the activities of Sir Francis Drake. The attack on the mule train in the film is similar to a 1573 raid by Drake in Panama. And although Drake was never captured by the Spanish, he did lead a raid into the harbour of Cadiz in 1587 which not only sank 37 ships but severely impacted the Armada's ability to store food and fresh water.

Evan Lewis said...

Good stuff, Brent!

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