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19 October 2016

Errol Flynn's Greatest Swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk; and the Fight Against Fascism

The Sea Hawk is perhaps Warner Brothers’ greatest swashbuckler. From the first moments of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s thrilling opening fanfare, everything works on a magnificent scale. But there is more to it than exciting adventure and romance; Warner Brothers was the American film community's leader in warning against the danger of Hitler’s Third Reich, and this added a moral dimension that makes this film even more compelling, then and now.
The year was 1940, and studio heads Jack and Harry Warner and producers Hal B. Wallis and Henry Blanke were committed to what was then a risky stance — exposing the threat to the United States from Nazi Germany. Other studios still held back; it seems incredible now, but it has to be remembered that these were businesses, and they stood to lose substantial income if their product was banned in Germany. It must also be remembered that the full extent of the atrocities that were taking place within Germany were not known. But what was known was enough for the Warner Brothers; not only did they produce the first thriller explicitly naming the Nazis as enemies of America (1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy) but anti-Nazi attitudes and values thread through the studio’s films of all genres, from cartoons to historical dramas like Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet.
In this film, immediately following the exciting credits is a scene set in the cavernous, shadowy throne room of the Spanish king, Philip VI, as he plots with his advisers to conquer England and with it the world. “North Africa,“ the King muses; “Eastern Europe as far as the Urals…” The parallels with Hitler’s Third Reich could not be more clear, from the fondness for Gestapo-like black apparel, to, as we eventually see, religious repression, slavery and forced labor. As is usual in a heroic adventure, there’s no doubt about who the bad guys are, but here their malevolent, world-threatening megalomania is clear from the first — and recognizable. Next comes a huge, sweeping sea battle between the Spanish ship heading to England bearing the sly new envoy, the ever-suave Claude Rains, and his half-English niece, Maria, played by beautiful Brenda Marshall, and the daring English privateer, the Albatros, captained by Errol Flynn as Geoffrey Thorpe. It’s always enjoyable to see Flynn at sea; he was an experienced sailor and clambered up the rigging with a confidence and sense of familiarity that few Hollywood actors could match. When he calls to his men, “Strike the halyards!” you get the feeling that he knows what he’s talking about.
Freeing the galley slaves

These scenes were filmed on Warners’ huge “swimming pool” soundstage with full-sized ship models; some miniatures were used in long shots, but when you see Captain Thorpe and his crew swing across to the deck of the Spanish ship on ropes, they’re really dangling over open water from an authentic height. You can see that these actions are all performed by Flynn, not a stunt double.
After conquering the enemy ship, Thorpe frees the galley slaves and informs the ambassador’s party that he’ll be escorting them to the English court as soon as possible. The lovely Maria is outraged at being, as she sees it, captured, but since she is an honest, compassionate girl, she can’t help being shamed by the sight of the slaves. This naturally is the start of a love affair; Thorpe, however, is not at ease with the ladies, and finds it difficult to talk to Maria. Flynn is so good here, being tongue-tied and too shy to speak up in her presence; he sort of hangs around her like an overgrown schoolboy with nothing to say. But of course she falls in love with him anyway, which eventually causes a breach with her uncle.

Queen Elizabeth tries to keep the peace
The next scene finds Queen Elizabeth (the wonderful Flora Robson) irritably discussing the constant tension with Spain with her ministers, and being pressured by one in particular, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), to submit to King Philip’s demands that she rein in the privateers, popularly called the Sea Hawks, to maintain peace. Wolfingham rather smarmily suggests that Spain’s resources are so vast, and their military so mighty, that England would stand little chance of resisting them. (Privateers were official pirates who shared a large percentage of whatever booty they seized with the government; the United States commissioned privateers very effectively during the revolution.) The Queen is determined to maintain peace at almost any cost, to spare the people the danger and expense of war. She is not convinced that King Philip is actually planning an unprovoked attack and invasion.
A tongue-tied romance with the lovely Maria

Thorpe eventually arrives, and after some byplay with a cute monkey ends up justifying his activities to the Queen by pointing out that the Spanish habitually kidnap English sailors, subject them to show trials held by the Inquisition, and condemn them to slavery in the galleys, thus acquiring free labor and instilling terror at the same time. He also points out that the treasure being carried from the New World to Spain, stolen from the native Americans, is being used to fund the building a huge war fleet of ships, the Armada, specifically intended to be used to invade Britain.
Speaking to the Queen in private, Thorpe puts forward a plan to cut off Spanish access to the New World’s treasure by sailing to the isthmus of Panama, crossing the narrow land bridge, and intercepting the gold shipments. The Queen approves of this, and the plan gets underway. After saying farewell to Maria, Thorpe assembles a picked crew, and they set sail for the Americas. Soon we see scenes of the hapless Britons hacking their way through the steamy jungle with machetes, with the black and white film tinted gold to emphasize the intense heat. (This is another situation Errol Flynn understood well, since amongst his amazing adventures before he ever got to Hollywood was a stint working in the jungles of New Guinea. Really.) Flynn is really excellent here, showing both the Captain’s exhaustion and his determination to hide it from the crew.
In the jungle

Unbeknownst to Thorpe, of course, he and his crew have been betrayed by spies at court, led by Lord Wolfingham, who is a traitor in the pay of the Spanish. They are ambushed, captured, tried by the Inquisition in a strikingly Nazi-like courtroom (for “witchcraft”) and sentenced to the galleys. The righteous anger and defiance of the free-born English crew subjected to the torment of slavery again parallels the fierce determination Great Britain displayed in standing off the forces of the Third Reich alone. They are resolute, self-possessed, and utterly ruthless. The message of this sequence is that nothing can break them — and so it proved with Britain during the war.
Trial by the Spanish Inquisition -- that logo looks sort of familiar, doesn't it?

Despite their misery, the galley slaves, under the leadership of Captain Thorpe, keep alert for any opportunity for escape, with the discovery from a new prisoner that evidence proving Spain’s plan to invade England is on that very ship providing an additional spur. When one of the men dies, still chained to his oar, that opportunity arrives. Thorpe stages a brief rebellion in which a guards knife is stolen; and later, during the late watch, the prisoners are able to use the knife to detach their chains from the oars. Though still manacled, they have freedom of movement. When they reach Cadiz, the Spanish captain and his officers leave the ship for a strategy meeting on another vessel, and Thorpe strikes. Maintaining absolute silence, and with impressive discipline, the grim-faced, nearly naked slaves swiftly kill the guard who holds the keys to their shackles, and pour out onto the deck to take over first the ship where they were imprisoned and then the neighboring ship, seizing the incriminating documents and the officials aboard.

Planning an escape from the galleys
Thorpe and his men sail back to England with the evidence of Spain’s treachery, but the agents of King Philip mobilize to keep him from reaching the Queens. After several narrow escapes, and with the timely assistance of Maria, he reaches the palace only to be intercepted by Lord Wolfingham, now revealed as a traitor. Thorpe and Wolfingham duel fiercely (a scene made very difficult to film by the fact that Henry Daniell, though a fine villain, was not a fencer, and had to have a double). Thorpe is victorious and, disheveled and panting, presents his evidence to the Queen. She is finally convinced that the Armada is on its way, and immediately calls her soldiers and sailors to arms.

The final duel
 In the final scene we see the Queen preparing to address her troops before the upcoming battle. (Queen Elizabeth actually did this — dressed all in white, on a snow-white horse, wearing gleaming silver armor! She gave a famous speech — this isn’t it, however.) But first she confers a knighthood on Captain Thorpe, as Maria gazes proudly on. Then Flora Robson speaks these words, which had a particular resonance in 1940: 

The Queen speaks to her sailors and soldiers
“…when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man but to all men. And that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.”
In fact, they have resonance today, don’t they?

The Sea Hawk, despite a large budget of $1.7 million, was extremely successful and brought in three times that amount for Warner Brothers. It was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Art Direction (Black-and-White); Music (Scoring); Sound Recording; and Special Effects (Photographic Effects, Byron Haskins, Sound Effects (Nathan Levinson). It was very well-reviewed everywhere, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill loved it!

It’s rather a painful irony that Errol Flynn, who was thirty-one when this film was released, was subject to criticism and a certain amount of scorn in Britain for not serving in the military during World War 2. No one knew that his serious health problems (which included incurable malaria, tuberculosis, and a damaged heart, all of which contributed to his early death nineteen years later) prevented this, because these were kept completely under wraps by the studio. Flynn did what only he could do for the war effort; this, and a series of extremely high-quality wartime films, were of real help by keeping what we were fighting for — and against — before the audience’s eyes. These films helped keep up morale and a sense of solidarity among the Allies; Flynn’s roles in particular showed the fight against Nazism from several different points of view; he played Canadian, French, Norwegian, and American heroes, with characters ranging from regular army officers to a condemned criminal who finds the courage to sacrifice himself for his country in the great Uncertain Glory. It’s hard to call these films propaganda, since they were motivated by sincere belief of everyone involved; and, far from exaggerating the crimes of the Third Reich, they were actually unaware of some of the worst offenses against civilization.