This is my contribution to the Swashathon! blogathon hosted by moviessilently.com.
When you hear the word "swashbuckler", what is the first thing that comes to your mind? I'm sure some of you might say Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but for most folks it would be Errol Flynn. Flynn is to the swashbuckler as John Wayne is to the Western, or Karloff and Lugosi are to the classic horror film. Call it fate, destiny, or happy accident, the decision to cast Flynn in Warners' 1935 pirate adventure CAPTAIN BLOOD set the young actor on a course that would see him define an entire genre of film.
There have been many, many stars (male and female) who have taken up a sword, defended the honor of a monarch, or stood upon the deck of a pirate ship. But nobody did it quite the way Errol Flynn did it. Put any other actor in green tights and a green vest, and have him swing from a tree, and that actor would look as silly as the time Daffy Duck tried to prove he was Robin Hood. But Errol Flynn....for whatever undefinable reason, Flynn was the perfect swashbuckler--at home in Sherwood Forest, Middle Ages England, or on the Seven Seas.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is the greatest Robin Hood movie of them all, and the definitive Errol Flynn swashbuckler performance. But there's another high cinematic tale of adventure--an almost semi-sequel to ROBIN HOOD--that in some ways, I think, is even better than ROBIN HOOD.
1940's THE SEA HAWK is the Errol Flynn movie to end all Errol Flynn movies. It is a bold, vast epic that has a 127 minute running time (very few mainstream movies went that long back in that era). With THE SEA HAWK, Warner Bros. went out of their way to try and repeat the successful formula that had created ROBIN HOOD. Both films shared on-camera (Flynn, Claude Rains, Alan Hale, Una O'Connor) and off-camera (director Michael Curtiz, screenwriter Seton Miller, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold) talent. In ROBIN HOOD Flynn plays a dashing rogue who, even though he goes by his own rules, really just means to faithfully serve his English monarch. That description also applies to the character Flynn plays in THE SEA HAWK.
In 1580s England, Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) is a "Sea Hawk"--a privateer who, while not officially under the command of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth, uses his ship and crew to harass and loot England's enemies. (In other words, he's supposed to be "better" than a mere pirate--although he basically is a pirate, no matter how the screenplay tries to cover it up.) The continued raids of the Sea Hawks on Spanish interests has led that country to the brink of declaring war on England. Queen Elizabeth (the magnificent Flora Robson) is tired of the threats of Spain, but she also believes that England is not yet ready for war. The Queen tries to keep a tenuous peace while at the same time keeping happy both the Sea Hawks and ministers like the treacherous Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), who is actually loyal to Spain.
The very beginning of the film showcases the artistry of director Michael Curtiz and the glorious black & white camera work of cinematographer Sol Polito. In an expressionistic meeting chamber, King Phillip of Spain (Montagu Love) and his ministers plot the conquest of England. The chamber is dominated by a huge map of the world, and as Phillip rises from his seat his shadow looms ominously over the map--a clever visual metaphor.
What follows next is one of the greatest action sequences in all of classic Hollywood history. A Spanish Galleon is en route to England, transporting the new ambassador (Claude Rains) and his lovely niece (Brenda Marshall). The Spanish Captain believes that since the ambassador is on board, none of the Sea Hawks will dare to trouble his ship. He's greatly in error, however--the masts of the Albatross are sighted, the ship commanded by none other than Geoffrey Thorpe. Soon both ships are engaged in fierce combat, with the cannons of the Albatross scoring major hits on the Galleon. Thorpe runs his ship alongside the Galleon, and has his crew board and capture her. The hand-to-hand fighting between the two crews is still breathtaking, even in this day and age. Hundreds of men battling one another, with swords flashing, flintlocks shooting....there's so much going on during this sequence it is almost too much to take in. The two ships were full-size replicas built by the studio and then placed in a large water tank located in a giant stage on the Warners lot. The final effect is simply astounding--once you see it you'll swear there was no way it could have been filmed on a California soundstage.
The opening sea battle showcases Errol Flynn at his best--swinging over the rails of a ship, engaging in a swordfight with the Spanish Captain, and barking out orders to his crew. What's interesting about Flynn's screen persona was that even though he usually was an individualistic rogue, he was still able to appear natural when commanding large groups of men. Naturally the Spanish ambassador and his niece are upset at Thorpe's actions. Thorpe promises the duo he will safely take them to England--but not before confiscating the treasure the Spanish have stored aboard their vessel.
Some film buffs have complained about the fact that Brenda Marshall is the love interest in THE SEA HAWK instead of Flynn's usual co-star, Olivia de Havilland. The romance angle really isn't important in this movie, however. At first Brenda Marshall acts "hard to get", but that doesn't last long. Marshall and Flynn are not able to develop the same chemistry as Flynn had with de Havilland, but that's more because Marshall's role is somewhat underwritten.
The major relationship in THE SEA HAWK belongs to Queen Elizabeth and Geoffrey Thorpe. When the Albatross gets back to England, Thorpe has to explain his actions to the Queen. The Queen "officially" acts perturbed toward Thorpe, but in reality she is as charmed by him as any other woman would be in the presence of someone like Errol Flynn. The scenes that Flora Robson and Errol Flynn share are delightful, and one wishes that there were more of them.
Flora Robson had already played Queen Elizabeth on the big screen in Alexander Korda's 1936 British film FIRE OVER ENGLAND. That movie has a lot of similarities with THE SEA HAWK, and there's no doubt Warner Bros. was influenced by it. Warners had also made an earlier film involving the Virgin Queen, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring as Essex, none other than....Errol Flynn. The role of the Queen in that picture was filled by Bette Davis. In that movie Elizabeth and Essex are supposed to have a serious relationship, but you never buy it. Flynn and Davis did not work well together, and the movie itself is very turgid. Robson and Flynn, however, are quite entertaining, and even though several female stars have essayed the role of Queen Elizabeth (such as Davis, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench), I think that Flora Robson is the best screen Elizabeth of them all.
Thorpe convinces the Queen to unofficially give her sanction to his latest plan--a raid on the Isthmus of Panama and the Spanish treasure haul located there. Lord Wolfingham and the Spanish ambassador learn of Thorpe's plans, and they are able to get warning to the New World before Thorpe and his crew get there. Thorpe and his men are ambushed, and they are sentenced to serve on the slave galleys of the Spanish navy. The indefatigable English Captain leads his men in an escape, and they even wind up capturing a Spanish ship!
Thorpe finds plans that prove that the Spanish Armada is ready to attack England. He also finds out that the Sea Hawks have been declared outlaws by the Crown, as a way to try and appease Spain. Thorpe and his crew sail back to England, and the Captain attempts to sneak his way into the Queen's chamber. He is confronted by Lord Wolfingham, and the two have an epic sword duel.
The climatic sword fight in THE SEA HAWK is even more impressive than the one between Flynn and Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. It is set up with Thorpe taking on four of the Queen's guards at the same time, rousing the audience's expectations for the ultimate confrontation with the traitorous Wolfingham. Henry Daniell was truly as much of a villain as Basil Rathbone was, but sadly he wasn't anywhere near the swordsman Rathbone was. In the final duel Daniell is relegated to only a couple of close-ups, but he is doubled so effectively the viewer doesn't really notice. Curtiz's well-known use of shadows is on full display here, as Wolfingham and Thorpe fight each other throughout the castle. (I love how in one point in the duel Flynn chops down the candles lighting a room!) Backed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's stirring music (which is as much of a main character in the movie as Flynn is), one can't help watching this duel and wanting to jump off the couch and join in. And having Queen Elizabeth burst in, and Thorpe drop his sword and kneel at her feet? Can it get any more swashbuckling than that??
THE SEA HAWK ends with Queen Elizabeth giving a impassioned speech on the eve of the battle against the Spanish Armada. The speech is a thinly-veiled reference to what 1940 England was experiencing against Nazi Germany. Robson's delivery of the Queen's speech is both moving and uplifting, and her performance, combined with the final flourishes of Korngold's majestic score, brings the film to a memorable close.
I realize that I've told way too much of the plot that I usually do in one of my blog posts, but there's so many things I enjoy about this movie, and I have to share them. THE SEA HAWK was made at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and everything about it--art direction, production design, music, stunts, special effects, editing--proves that when the studio system was at its best, there was nothing like it. THE SEA HAWK is pure old-fashioned adventure on a grand scale, and you can't help but feel good after seeing it.
The greatness of Errol Flynn is that you believed in whatever he was doing. He took his swashbuckler roles seriously, but he was still able to have a sense of humor about himself and his situation. Men (and kids) dreamed of being Flynn, and women dreamed of loving him. Before his personal problems caught up with him, no other film actor exuded the sense of fun and adventure that Errol Flynn did. He remains the epitome of the entire swashbuckling genre, and I submit that THE SEA HAWK is one of the best all-time swashbuckling films.
An iconic image of an iconic performer.