Sea Hawk, The (1940): Errol Flynn Star Vehicle

Errol Flynn, collaborating for the tenth time with director Michael Curtiz, made this swasbuckling adventure at the prime of his popularity, in 1940.

In this period tale, co-written by Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller, Flynn is well cast as a brave, patriotic English privateer who defends his nation’s interests during the Spanish Armada.

Warner has assigned to this production its wonderful ensemble of character actors (see below).

Technical values are polished, accompanied by a rousing score, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.   The movie, which contains some exuisitely staged and shot action sequences, is among Flynn’s most entertaining features.

Detailed Plot

King Philip II of Spain (Montagu Love) plans to destroy England, declaring it a “puny rockbound island as barren and treacherous as her Queen.” He hopes his wall map, “will have ceased to be a map of the world–it will be Spain.” He sends his courtier Don Alvarez (Claude Rains), as ambassador to allay the suspicions of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) about the great armada he is building to invade England.  The Queen’s ministers plead to build a fleet, which she hesitates to do for economic reasons.

The ambassador’s ship is captured en route to England by the Albatross and her captain, Geoffery Thorpe (Errol Flynn). Don Alvarez and his niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) are taken aboard and transported to England. Enchanted by Dona Maria, Thorpe returns her plundered jewels, and she begins to soften towards him.

Don Alvarez complains to the Queen about his treatment, and Dona Maria is accepted as a maid of honor. The “Sea Hawks,” English privateers who loot Spanish ships for “reparations,” are scolded by the Queen for their attacks and for endangering the peace with Spain. Captain Thorpe proposes a plan to seize a large caravan of Spanish gold in the New World and bring it back to England. The Queen is wary of Spain’s reaction, but gives Thorpe permission.

Suspicious of Thorpe’s expedition, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), a minister and a secret Spanish collaborator, sends a spy to find out where the Albatross is heading, but to no avail; the courtiers are told that Thorpe is going on a trading expedition up the Nile River in Egypt. But Don Alvarez and Lord Wolfingham determine that Thorpe is sailing to the Isthmus of Panama and order Don Alvarez’s Spanish captain to set up an ambush.

When the Albatross reaches its destination, part of the crew seizes the caravan, but they fall into a trap and are driven into the swamps. Thorpe and few others survive and return to their ship, now under  Spanish control. Thorpe and crew are returned to Spain, tried by the Inquisition, and sentenced to the galleys. In England, Don Alvarez informs the Queen of Thorpe’s fat, and after heated arguments, she expels him from court.

Thorpe meets the Englishman Abbott, who was captured trying to uncover the Armada’s true purpose. Through cunning, the prisoners take over the ship, and board another ship, where secret incriminating plans are stored. Thorpe and his men sail back to England with the plans in hand.

A carriage brings Don Alvarez to the ship which, unbeknownst to him, Thorpe had captured, also brings his niece. Don Alvarez boards the ship and is held prisoner, while Thorpe, dressed as a Spanish courtier, sneaks into the carriage carrying Dona Maria. The two declare love for each other, and Maria helps Thorpe to sneak into the palace. However, Lord Wolfingham’s spy spots Thorpe and alerts the castle guards to stop the carriage. Thorpe escapes and kills Lord Wolfingham in a sword fight.  Thorpe offers proof to the Queen of King Phillip’s intentions. Elizabeth knights Captain Thorpe for his gallantry, and announces the building of a great fleet to oppose the Spanish.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Interior decoration (b/w): Anton Grot

Sound Recordng: Nathan Levinson

Score: Eric Wolfgang Korngold

Special Effects: Byron Haskin, photogrphic; Nathan Levinson, sound

Oscar Awards: None

The interior decoration Oscar went to Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse for Pride and Prejudice.  Douglas Shearer won the Sound Oscar for Strike Up the Band,  Alfred Newman won the Scoring Oscar for Tin Pan Alley, and The Thief of Bagdad received the Special Effects kudos.


Errol Flynn as Geoffrey Thorpe

Brenda Marshall as Doña Maria

Claude Rains as Don José Alvarez de Córdoba

Donald Crisp as Sir John Burleson

Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth of England

Alan Hale as Carl Pitt

Henry Daniell as Lord Wolfingham

Una O’Connor as Miss Latham, Doña Maria’s English duenna

James Stephenson as Abbott

Gilbert Roland as Captain Lopez, Don José’s sea captain