Errol Flynn swings into HD action in “The Sea Hawk”
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“THE SEA HAWK: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray; 1940; Not Rated, contains action violence
Best extra: “The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action”
IT WOULD BE five years and over a dozen hits before Errol Flynn starred in the sequel – of sorts – to his breakthrough box office smash “Captain Blood” (1935).
“Captain Blood,” like “The Sea Hawk,” was based on a book by Rafael Sabatini, the wildly popular author who also wrote “Scaramouche,” made into several films and TV series, the first in 1952 starring Stewart Granger and Janet Leigh, and “The Black Swan,” an Oscar-winner for cinematography made in 1942 starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara.
Michael Curtiz directed Flynn in “The Sea Hawk,” as he did in “Captain Blood” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). He was also the director of “Casablanca,” 1942; “White Christmas,” 1954; and “The Comancheros,” 1961. His range was unsurpassed.
The story, according to TCM, is Curtiz and Flynn didn’t get along even though they’d worked on 12 films together. Aspects of Flynn’s party-hardy lifestyle put many people off, perhaps even the gracious Olivia de Havilland, who declined to co-star in “Sea Hawk,” although she’d played Flynn’s ladylove in other films such as “Captain Blood” and “Robin Hood.” That measure of antagonism between Curtiz and Flynn may have provided an “exciting edge” to their collaborations. During the time of the Hollywood contract system, directors, actors, writers and others could only work within the studio’s dictates and had very little choice with whom they worked.
“The Sea Hawk” takes place during the conflict between Spain and England, when Elizabeth I was queen. Played by Dame Flora Robson, Elizabeth is the not-so-secret commander of the Sea Hawks, a loose coalition of privateers that includes Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), who harry, pillage and destroy Spain’s treasure galleons bringing gold from the New World back to the mother country. In the opening raid, Thorpe also captures the Spanish ambassador’s niece, played by Brenda Marshall in the role de Havilland turned down. The lack of chemistry between Flynn and Marshall is one of the film’s few flaws. She has little onscreen presence despite her fabulous wardrobe.
Publically, Elizabeth must threaten and condemn her pirates; privately, she cautiously supports them as they hand over captured loot and information of Spain’s plans. Thorpe approaches her with a scheme to infiltrate a Spanish-held island stronghold. The Queen says she doesn’t want to know; she also doesn’t stop him. Unfortunately, other parties learn of Thorpe’s plans and the stakes escalate.
By the time it was filmed, Flynn had become a big star, and the only thing kept from the book was its title. Writers Howard Koch (“Casablanca”) and Seton I. Miller (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”) played to Flynn’s strengths, which included plenty of swashbuckling action and a modicum of romance. Flynn and co-star Henry Daniell as the traitorous English Lord Wolfingham deliver a dynamic sword fight near the end, similar to the duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone in “Robin Hood.” A rock-solid action adventure, “The Sea Hawk” is as good as any “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel – and better than most.
Warner Archive’s new 1080p transfer (1.37:1 ratio) is a good step up from the 2005 DVD release found in the “Errol Flynn Signature Collection.” “Sea Hawk” looks sharp, with good contrast between deep blacks and white highlights, all the better to enjoy Flynn’s chiseled jaw, dimples and sparkling eyes – and Curtiz’s complex longshots of boarding scenes and duels. Excellent detail, depth and clarity combine to make “Sea Hawk” a gorgeous black-and-white film.
The only miss comes in the sepia-toned sequence on the tropical island, where Thorpe and his crew are captured. The intent was to contrast England and the high seas with the island’s oppressive heat. The experiment from Curtiz and cinematographer Sol Polito dulls the picture instead. There’s no improving this source material.
Dialogue and effects are very good on Warner’s 2.0 mono soundtrack, but the star is the Oscar nominated original score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It is superb, a longtime favorite of classical stations and cinemaphiles everywhere. No one buckles swash like Korngold, who also earned Academy Award nominations for his work on “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939), in which Flynn starred with Bette Davis.
Director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Sol Polito use a sepia-wash over "The Sea Hawk's" tropical scenes. It may have been inspired by the effects in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), where the black and white film transforms into color when Dorothy lands in Oz. Instead, the sepia softens "The Sea Hawk's" picture from set to actor.
Warner’s two bonus features, all in Standard Def, are carried over from the film’s earlier release. “Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies” includes an introduction by Maltin; a preview for “Virginia City” (1940), starring Flynn, Miriam Hopkins and Randolph Scott; a newsreel; a short, “Alice in Movieland”; and cartoon, “Porky’s Poor Fish.”
“The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action” has film critics and historians, including the late Robert Osborne of TCM, who talk about how the film was made. It’s a terrific slice of Hollywood history.
“The Sea Hawk” has great production values, despite its predictable story. Heroes gonna win; villains gonna lose. The actors are a treasure trove of Hollywood greats including Claude Rains as Don José Alvarez de Cordoba, the Spanish ambassador. He also played Captain Louis Renault in “Casablanca.” Alan Hale, Flynn’s on- and off-screen pal, plays Thorpe’s first mate, Carl Pitt. Hale frequently upstaged Flynn, especially as Little John in “Robin Hood,” and the star loved it.
This classic from the Warner Archive Collection is a perfect find for those who love swashbucklers and their adventures.
— Kay Reynolds