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15 February 2015

In His Element: Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk

I saw this today:

It is, of course, Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, perhaps his last great swashbuckler. (To me, Don Juan is too tongue-in-cheek to be as convincingly romantic.)

What a thrill it must have been to see this when it opened in a big-screen movie theater! It opens with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's tremendously exciting fanfare, the start of what was perhaps his greatest score. This wonderful music supports the storyline and the characters like no other, even Max Steiner,  When you hear it, you know you're in for something special.

In this story, Flynn is Geoffrey Thorpe, the daring captain of one of Britain's fleet of privateers,
serving Queen Elizabeth (delightfully portrayed by Flora Robson) by relieving Spanish ships of a great deal of their American gold. As a sort of government-backed pirate, Thorpe's position would be a bit morally questionable but for the fact that the film's very first scene shows Philip II of Spain  Philip II secretly planning to attack and invade England in the near future, just as Thorpe suspects but can't prove. The script for this 1940 release is very cleverly structured to equate Philip and the Spanish Inquisition with Hitler and the Nazis, crushing freedom and seeking to subjugate all of Europe.

This film has all the ingredients of a classic Flynn adventure. There is a cast of sidekicks including Alan Hale, William Lundigan, and J.M. Kerrigan, and a very sweet romance with lovely Brenda Marshall. And, of course, there are three very serviceable villains in Montagu Love, as King Philip, Claude Rains, as the Spanish envoy to the English court, and Henry Daniell, as an English traitor.

 Additionally, Michael Curtiz' direction of the action-packed screenplay is a marvel of clarity; you're never confused about what's going on, even when it's quite complicated.
Seen on the big screen in 1940, the opening sea battle, where Thorpe's ship swoops down upon an undefended Spanish gallleon, the prow cutting the waves, wind billowing its sails, must have been as exciting as seeing Star Wars for the first time.

But what really held my attention this time was just how miraculously good Flynn himself was. He was the ideal movie star. An intelligent actor, idiosyncratic and truly impossible to copy -- there was only one Errol Flynn -- and so strikingly beautiful. Just watching him stride down a hallway (completely in character) is entrancing. He had the posture and ease of movement of a dancer. He was 31 when this film was made, and he looks like a perfect picture of a young adventurer.

Flynn had already lived a life almost bizarrely packed with adventure by the time he shot to stardom in Captain Blood, at the age of 25. Incredibly, that was only his sixth film and his first major role in Hollywood. He had left school -- well, been expelled -- by the age of 16, and, like Huckleberry Finn, lit out for the territories. He essentially bummed around the antipodes, engaging in various unlikely schemes, including gold prospecting and, according at least one story, finding himself guarding captive slaves. He spent about two years in Papua New Guinea as a foreman on a tobacco plantation, on horseback seven days a week.

Many years ago, I remember seeing David Niven, who was a close friend of Flynn's in their younger years -- and also a great storyteller -- mentioning, in the course of some anecdote, that Flynn occasionally told tales about that time of his life. And his friends simply didn't believe him, only finding out later that it was all true. Those exciting times also were the seeds of his eventual doom, for he contracted the malarial infection that eventually damaged his heart and destroyed his health. But no one knew that at the time.

He seemed just perfect -- strong, young, and energetic, with the world before him.

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