Lucky am I to be surrounded by film fanatics from all over the country on Day 1 of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival as we wait for the second round of films to start. But to be part of the screening of The Sea Hawk achieved epic status now that Rory Flynn, Errol Flynn’s daughter and the foremost authority on all things Errol, is in attendance, excited as always to speak about her father, ably interviewed by TCM’s Scott McGee.
Ms. Flynn recounts that she was only 12 when her father passed, and although seeing him on the screen was originally odd, what now she finds the most fascinating is how she sees her father in her own son, who she introduces to the appreciative and warm audience.
More than just the child of a movie star, Ms. Flynn is an expert on her father and his films, and recounts illuminating production elements. She discusses the production design and the two ships used in photographing the breath-taking exploits of Captain Thorpe, a 165 ‘ and 135’ ship, floating in a tank at a depth of only 12 feet. Still and all, both the smaller models used, and the full scale ships belie the studio-grounded production. The usual suspects both in front of and behind the camera for an Errol Flynn swashbuckler included Cinematographer Sol Polito and composer Erich Korngold, whose rousing themes seem part and parcel with Flynn’s high-flying exploits.
The Sea Hawk is the type of big-budget swashbuckler that Errol Flynn is remembered best for, and was the ninth film he and director Michael Curtiz collaborated on successfully. You could say they were the Scorsese and DiCaprio of their time, the only difference being Curtiz and Flynn couldn’t stand each other. But business is business and Warner Brothers wanted to cash in on the success of Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, both high points in the duo’s 1930s output. This time, however, Flynn was without his usual lady fair, Olivia deHaviland, who had begun to tire of playing damsels in distress, and so young ingenue Brenda Marshall took the role, doing an admirable if not wholly unique performance. (She was later to become Mrs. William Holden). And of course there was Flynn’s recognizable sidekick, Alan Hale, playing his first mate, although he still seems like another permutation of Robin Hood’s “Little John.”
Howard Koch, fresh off scripting the Orson Welles’ radio sensation War of the Worlds, was a new face in Hollywood, and tackled the already penned Sea Hawk screenplay with the concise sensibilities and taught dialogue he would later bring to such classics as Letter From An Unknown Woman, Sergeant York, and of course, Curtiz directed Casablanca. Studio head Jack Warner, however, was none too happy with Koch’s obvious modern allusions to the war in Europe and his anti-Fascist sentiments (we were still a “neutral” country) and attempted to soften his tone.
The story, set in the 16th Century, follows the tenuous relationship between massively powerful Spain, and feisty upstart England. Although the two countries are not at war, many British privateers (acting as lawless pirates who strip Spanish ships of their gold and slaves) known as “Sea Hawks” are unofficially doing Queen Elizabeth’s bidding. Officially, however, the Queen chastises these vigilantes. Spain, secretly building an Armada to attack England, sends courtier Don Alvarez (a brilliant, as always, Claude Raines) to put the Queens mind at ease, as well as present his niece, Dona Maria (Marshall) as an addition to the Queen’s court. En route, Don Alvarez’s ship is seized by Captain Thorpe and his men, his galley slaves freed, and Alvarez and his niece escorted to England.
Thorpe and the Queen share a “special” relationship, and he implores her to let him capture a Spanish caravan’s shipment of gold in the New World to help fund their own construction of a British fleet. Unfortunately, the Queen’s main advisor, Lord Wolfingham (the oily Henry Daniell) is a traitor with hopes of currying favor with the Spanish, and tells Don Alvarez the plot. In the midst of their shanghai, Thorpe and his men are captured and sentenced to be galley slaves. It’s up to Thorpe then to escape with his men intact, and bring the Queen stolen plans that prove Spain is building its Armada.
The plot gives ample opportunity for director Curtiz to stage grand action scenes, from Thorpe’s storming of the Spanish ship in the beginning, to his men’s battle in the tropics and finally, as slaves, violent mutiny aboard the ship. Finally, Flynn gets to show off his ever improving mettle for swordplay when he and Daniell face off in the thrilling conclusion.
The Sea Hawk may not be as perfect as Captain Blood (the film that made Flynn a star) or The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Waner Brothers knew how to capture all the necessary ingredients to deliver a jovial good time. And the TCM audience in attendance was an exuberant and supportive group of pirates -er – viewers. Ahoy and avast ye!