A devil-may-care rogue with the good looks of a matinee idol, Errol Flynn effortlessly coasted along on movie star charm. 1935’s Captain Blood was a warm-up for his live-for-the-moment, die-for-romance characterizations, made enjoyable because he never seemed to fret too much. He might break an athletic sweat fencing with Basil Rathbone, or whatever heavy the studio pitted him against, but action-adventure and chasing the girls was all just a silly game to him. That’s what makes his movies so much fun. The Adventures of Robin Hood has Flynn playing a cheerfully immature grown-up whose enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures—food, sport, and girls—informed his heroism. He was never more believable than swinging to the rescue of whatever girl he fancied that month (Olivia DeHavilland was the most well known), or rallying his merry men and hearties into a form of stage combat that felt closer to ballet.
By the time The Sea Hawk rolled into production, the Flynn swashbucklers had found their formula. All the stock characters were in place and accounted for: Flynn’s smoothly courageous hero, a pretty girl to moon over him (in this case, Brenda Marshall), her dippy old maidservant (Una O’Connor, from Robin Hood), a loyal sidekick (Flynn’s regular big-hearted buddy, Alan “Little John” Hale), a suave diplomatic villain (Claude Rains), and a sword-wielding heavy for Flynn to defeat in the final reel (Henry Daniell, whose cross between fop and serpent informed Christopher Guest’s wry homage in The Princess Bride). All the plot elements remain pretty much the same: an opening sea battle with cannons and swordplay, a light romance, an imprisonment in the galleys and subsequent escape by moonlight, and a final round of love-talk with the girl before swordplay and victory.
It’s a reliable template, handled with visual flair by able director Michael Curtiz (who previously made Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and several other flying Flynn spectacles). This time, they were given a substantial budget, giving audiences more bang for their buck. The final palace swordfight is a cinematic feast of movement, accompanied by expressionistic shadow dances on the wall and a score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that keeps the blood pumping. The escape from slavery, almost entirely without dialogue, is all taut editing between chains being worn down and sweaty close ups of indignant heroes—leading into breathtaking wide shots of sailors rope-climbing to their freedom. The economy, clarity, and muscular force of Curtiz’s imagery shines when compared to Peter Weir’s oft-confusing spatial relationships between men and ships in Master and Commander.
Flynn was a man of action, even in his best love scenes, which are chaste except when he feels like throwing caution to the wind. In The Sea Hawk, his buccaneer Geoffrey Thorpe never looks like he wants to ravish Spanish aristocrat Dona Maria (Marshall). She’s beautiful but too pure, and her coquettishness with him seems like a dippy girl putting on airs (because that’s the only way she can define herself). Strangely enough, Flynn has warmer chemistry and a saucier repartee with Flora Robson’s virgin queen, Elizabeth I—even in scenes where they’re competing with a “cute” monkey that doesn’t so much upstage them as pad out the screen time. As long as his scenes were about sports and boyish lust, Flynn didn’t need to be much of an actor; he could coast on his good diction, looks, and charm. When Flynn is labeled dashing and gallant, it’s all in his grooming.
When The Sea Hawk is purely cinematic, it’s at the top of its class. The action sequences are at least as good as those in Robin Hood, trading in that film’s gorgeous Technicolor for crisply respectable black and white. The romance is passable and inoffensive. But the film owes a slavish obligation to propaganda that cursed many a wartime adventure story. The Elizabethan era is a cloak for World War II moralizing, with the Spanish armada standing in for Hitler’s quest for world power, and Elizabeth I as a Churchill-style orator calling all good free men into action against the powers of evil. This gets a bit thick, and during the endless political sermonizing in Elizabeth’s court (no doubt penned by Casablanca screenwriter Howard Koch), Flynn looks like a schoolboy eager for recess. One breathes a sigh of relief when the action moves from the stuffy castle to the exotic jungles of Panama. The best thing about Flynn’s films is inseparable from all his on and off-screen faults: the glee of arrested development.