Feb 6, 2019

On Blu-ray: Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk (1940)

I’m always delighted to watch Errol Flynn in any kind of movie, but like many film fans, I find him most irresistible in his swashbucklers. There’s a lightness to him in these roles; partly because of his easy athleticism, but also because he never seems to be taking things too seriously. Maybe there was a bit of self-mockery at play there, but the effect is charming. It was fun to see him again in one of his best roles as English Captain Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk (1940), which recently debuted on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The Sea Hawk is grand, big studio, golden era filmmaking. With majestic brass on the soundtrack, magnificent towering sets, and gorgeous costumes, it is a luxurious production. The film also benefits from some of the most charismatic players of the day: Claude Rains playing a Spaniard, Flora Robson as an appropriately regal, but lightly humorous Queen Elizabeth, and the eternally reliable Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell, and Alan Hale as support. Flynn is at his most dashing, approaching his role with a pleasing mix of gravity and zing. While there are many who wish Flynn’s frequent co-star Olivia de Havilland had played his love interest here, and it is true those two would have had more sparks between them, I liked Brenda Marshall’s moodier vibe, not to mention that she’s more believable as the niece of a Spanish ambassador (Rains).

Flynn’s Captain Geoffrey is the leader of a band of privateers who sail the sea taking supposed reparations for England. They have the public disapproval and private support of the queen when the crew commandeers a ship carrying Rains and Marshall. He is enroute to the queen to attempt to distract her from her suspicions about King Philip of Spain, who is secretly planning to send an armada to England in his quest for world domination. Marshall instantly falls for Flynn, how could she not? And settles into a new life as a lady in waiting for the queen.

Queen Elizabeth accepts the Captain’s suggested plan for a secret mission to intercept a shipment of Spanish gold. When he and his men are captured and enslaved, he learns about the armada and escapes so that he can warn his queen. All the while, he must deal with the treachery of Rains and Daniell, who is a traitor working undercover for Spain.

While it doesn’t skimp on story, The Sea Hawk is a classic because of its magnificent action set pieces. It opens with a chaotic sea battle, keeps up the pace with a few other bursts of excitement and closes with a fast-paced swordfight between Daniell and Flynn that ends in near darkness as Errol slices the tops off candles. These moments, and the charisma of the players, for the most part justify the long running time, though I did find myself drifting at the midpoint of the film, until those final action sequences roared into action.

The restored disc image is of solid if not sparkling quality. A sepia sequence midway through the film seemed less sharp, but overall there are no significant issues with the look of the film.

Special features include the featurette The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action, which includes astonishing footage of the enormous and elaborately-designed ships constructed for the production. It was lovely to see interviewee Robert Osborne talk about the film as well. The disc includes the Warner Night at the Movies 1940 feature from the DVD release, introduced by Leonard Maltin, which replicates a night at the theater back in the day with a newsreel, live-action short Alice in Movieland (featuring a pre-stardom Joan Leslie), the cartoon Porky’s Poor Fish, and theatrical trailers.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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