Apparently there’s a book called The Sea Hawk. This movie is based on that book and by that I mean that it’s based on that book’s title. The story in this Errol Flynn pirate vehicle is really based on Sir Francis Drake and his crazy adventures with the Sea Dogs. Clearly, a bunch of Sea Hawks is much more manly than the Sea Dogs, which sound more like a group of horny swimmers than charming rogues who delight in putting those Spaniards and their silly helmets in their place.
It’s the Sixteenth Century and the seas are the battleground where a struggle for man’s very soul is playing out. Well, it’s at least a battleground where some English pirates take every chance they get to shove it up some Spanish hind end by sinking their boats and stealing their treasure.
The first twenty minutes is pure pirate action in the best sense, complete with boats colliding, cannons going off, chunks of wood flying through the air and lots of guys swinging around on ropes. When I saw Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) ordering the crew around, locked in mortal combat with those Spanish turds, while bodies piled up and masts collapsed all around him, I found myself excited that this was the restored version of the movie that ran in excess of two hours. Unfortunately, that opening sequence would be the last pirate action you would see in this one.
Once Thorpe has taken everyone aboard the Spanish ship prisoner, we run into the love interest, a Spaniard played quite ineptly by Brenda Marshall. I was really surprised until I realized I had no idea who Brenda Marshall was except that she’s pointlessly snotty and Thorpe is pointlessly smitten.
The movie scored some points when the girl got mouthy with Thorpe about what a scummy pirate he was to be taking people prisoner and stealing their treasure only to have Thorpe retort that he wasn’t the one with all the English galley slaves or all the stolen Aztec treasure! Buccaneer burn!
Back in England the queen has been harassed by these Spanish wusses into calling a meeting of the Sea Hawks. Things get off to a bit of a rough start when Thorpe is late because his pet monkey gets loose in the palace. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this movie didn’t develop the character of the monkey nearly enough. With him playing around in the queen’s make up and doffing the little hat he wore at every opportunity, I felt like we had a lot of untapped potential with that rascally little fella.
Elizabeth tells the Sea Hawks to cut it out and that she needs to see Thorpe in private so that she can really tell him off. Thorpe immediately details some harebrained scheme he has that involves going down to Panama and ripping off a bunch of Spanish gold. He is convinced that the Spanish are secretly plotting to attack England with an armada of ships and that the English need to get some bling-bling together to build their own armada to fend them off.
The queen thinks that Thorpe’s plan is crazy and doesn’t have a chance in hell of working, so she approves it, but she will disavow all knowledge of him and his plot if he is caught.
As is so often the case in these million-to-one-shot missions, there’s a mole in the government and Thorpe gets ambushed in the swamps of Panama and ends up in leg irons with his pirate pals on a Spanish ship.
In the kind of coincidence that only happens when you’re Errol Flynn, this just happens to be the boat that is transporting the secret documents from the King of Spain to the mole saying that Elizabeth is a big ugly hooch and that it is going to be so sweet to see the look on her mannish face when he drives a galleon right up onto London Bridge and forces all those dingy-teethed Brits to call each other amigo instead of bloke or chum or mate or whatever they say.
There’s the expected break out by Thorpe and his crew and a return to England where he reunites with his gal pal and battles the mole in a climatic sword fight. He puts a lot of oomph in the last sword fight, jumping around, chopping up candles, tipping over furniture, and stabbing people before breathlessly presenting the queen the evidence of the impending invasion.
The movie has nice action sequences, notably the early ship battle, the escape from the galley ship, and the final sword fight. Director Michael Curtiz utilizes a surprisingly fluid style for the time period letting the camera pan across the action and even uses a very effective overhead shot when Thorpe is surveying his apparently empty ship shortly before being ambushed.
Though short on standard pirate antics and interesting characters, Flynn puts this movie on his back with his innate charm when given the opportunity and is good enough to make you wish this movie was a little better than it was.
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