The Sea Hawk (1940 film)

The Sea Hawk is a 1940 American black-and-white swashbuckling adventure film from Warner Bros. that stars Errol Flynn as an English privateer who defends his nation's interests on the eve of the launch of the Spanish Armada. The film was the tenth collaboration between Flynn and director Michael Curtiz. Its screenplay was written by Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller. The rousing musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is recognized as a high point in his career. The film was both an adventure and a period piece about Elizabethan England's struggles with Spain. It was also meant as a deliberately pro-British propaganda film to both build morale during World War II, and to influence the American public into having a more pro-British outlook. King Philip was seen as "an obvious" "allegorical Hitler". (The same theme had been visited in Alexander Korda's film Fire Over England, released three years earlier, before World War II actually started).[5]

The Sea Hawk
Directed byMichael Curtiz
Produced byHenry Blanke
Hal B. Wallis
Written byHoward Koch
Seton I. Miller
StarringErrol Flynn
Brenda Marshall
Claude Rains
Music byErich Wolfgang Korngold
CinematographySol Polito
Edited byGeorge Amy
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • July 1, 1940 (1940-07-01) (USA)
Running time
127 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,678,000[2]
$2 million (US)[3]
3,280,538 admissions (France) (1947)[4]

Colorized versions of The Sea Hawk were broadcast on American television and distributed on VHS tape in 1986. Only the black-and-white edited version (109 minutes) and the fully restored/uncut version (127 minutes), have been released in the DVD format. No plans have been announced to release the colorized version on DVD.


King Philip II of Spain (Montagu Love) declares his intention to destroy England, the first step to world conquest. He sends Don Álvarez (Claude Rains) as his ambassador to allay the suspicions of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) about the great armada he is building to invade England. In England, some of the Queen's ministers plead with her to build a fleet, which she hesitates to do in order to spare the purses of her subjects.

The ambassador's ship is captured en route to England by the Albatross and her captain, Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn). Don Álvarez and his niece, Doña María (Brenda Marshall), are taken aboard and transported to England. Thorpe is immediately enchanted by Doña María and gallantly returns her plundered jewels. Her detestation of him softens as she too begins to fall in love.

Don Álvarez is granted an audience with the Queen and complains about his treatment; Doña María is accepted as one of her maids of honour. The "Sea Hawks", a group of English privateers who loot Spanish ships for "reparations" appear before the Queen, who scolds them (at least publicly) for their piratical attacks and for endangering the peace with Spain. Captain Thorpe proposes in private 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 allows Thorpe to proceed.

Suspicious, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), one of the Queen's ministers and a secret Spanish collaborator, sends a spy to try to discover where the Albatross is really heading. Upon visiting the chartmaker responsible for drawing the charts for Thorpe's next voyage, Don Álvarez and Lord Wolfingham determine that he is sailing to the Isthmus of Panama and order Don Álvarez's Spanish captain to sail ahead to set up an ambush.

When the Albatross reaches its destination, the ship is spotted by a native who reports it to the Spanish governor. Thorpe's crew seizes the caravan, but fall into a well-laid trap and are driven into the swamps. Thorpe and a few other survivors return to their ship, only to find it in Spanish hands. They are taken to Spain, tried by the Inquisition, and sentenced to life imprisonment as galley slaves. In England, Don Álvarez informs the Queen of Thorpe's fate, causing his niece to faint. The Queen and Don Álvarez exchange heated words, and she expels him from her court.

On a Spanish galley, Thorpe meets an Englishman named Abbott, who was captured trying to uncover evidence of the Armada's true purpose. Through cunning, the prisoners take over the ship during the night. They board another ship in the harbor, where an emissary has stored secret incriminating plans. Thorpe and his men capture both and sail back to England with the plans.

Upon reaching port, Thorpe tries to warn the Queen. A carriage bringing Don Álvarez to the ship which, unknown to him, Thorpe has captured, also brings his niece. Don Álvarez boards the ship and is held prisoner, while Captain Thorpe, dressed in the uniform of a Spanish courtier, sneaks into the carriage carrying Doña María, who has decided to stay in England and wait for Thorpe's return. The two finally declare their love for each other, and María helps Thorpe to sneak into the palace. However, Lord Wolfingham's spy spots Thorpe and alerts the castle guards to stop the carriage and take Thorpe prisoner. Thorpe escapes and enters the Queen's residence, fending off guards all the while.

Eventually, Thorpe runs into Lord Wolfingham and kills the traitor in a swordfight. With Doña María's assistance, Thorpe reaches the Queen and provides proof of King Philip's intentions. Elizabeth knights Thorpe and declares her intention to build a great fleet to oppose the Spanish threat.



The portions of the film set in the Western Hemisphere are tinted sepia.[6]

The film was announced in June 1936 and would star Errol Flynn, then coming off his success with Captain Blood.[7]

Originally planned as an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel The Sea Hawk, the film used an entirely different story inspired by the exploits of Sir Francis Drake,[8] unlike the 1924 silent film adaptation, which was fairly faithful to Sabatini's plot (which was very similar to the plot of Captain Blood).

Adaptations of the novel were written by Richard Neville and Delmer Daves before Seton I Miller wrote a basically new story called Beggars of the Sea based on Sir Francis Drake. Sabatini's name was still used in promotional materials however as it was felt it had commercial value. Howard Koch then reworked Miller's script while still keeping the basic structure and story.[1][9]

The speech the Queen gives at the close of the film was meant to inspire the viewing British audience, which was already in the grip of the Second World War. Suggestions that it was the duty of all free men to defend liberty, and that the world did not belong to any one man (an obvious insinuation of Hitler's wish to conquer Europe), were rousing.

The 2005 Warner Brothers DVD release includes a 1940 Movietone News newsreel of the Battle of Britain, the short "Alice in Movieland," the Looney Tunes cartoon "Porky's Poor Fish", and a 20-minute featurette "The Sea Hawk: Flynn in Action" about the film's production.


The music was written by composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. When The Sea Hawk opened in theatres, a commercial recording was not contemplated. It was not until 22 years later, in 1962, that a bit of music from the film was released on an LP called Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Ten years later Charles Gerhardt and Korngold's son, George, included 6:53 minutes of The Sea Hawk score (newly recorded) in RCA's album The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. As of today there are numerous re-recordings containing portions of the score. A complete re-recording was issued in 2007 by the Naxos label, recorded with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus led by William T. Stromberg and reconstructed by John W. Morgan.


Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times of 10 August 1940,

"Of course, [the film] is all historically cockeyed, and the amazing exploits of Mr. Flynn, accomplished by him in the most casual and expressionless manner, are quite as incredible as the adventures of Dick Tracy. But Flora Robson makes an interesting Queen Elizabeth, Claude Rains and Henry Daniell play a couple of villainous conspirators handsomely, there is a lot of brocaded scenery and rich Elizabethan costumes and, of course, there is Brenda Marshall to shed a bit of romantic light. And, when you come right down to it, that's about all one can expect in an overdressed 'spectacle' film which derives much more from the sword than from the pen."[10]

Time magazine of 19 August 1940 observed,

"The Sea Hawk (Warner) is 1940's lustiest assault on the double feature. It cost $1,700,000, exhibits Errol Flynn and 3,000 other cinemactors performing every imaginable feat of spectacular derring-do, and lasts two hours and seven minutes...Produced by Warner's Hal Wallis with a splendor that would set parsimonious Queen Bess's teeth on edge, constructed of the most tried-&-true cinema materials available, The Sea Hawk is a handsome, shipshape picture. To Irish [sic] Cinemactor Errol Flynn, it gives the best swashbuckling role he has had since Captain Blood. For Hungarian Director Michael Curtiz, who took Flynn from bit-player ranks to make Captain Blood and has made nine pictures with him since, it should prove a high point in their profitable relationship."[11]

Box Office

The film had been in planning since Errol Flynn's success in the swashbuckler epic Captain Blood.[12] According to Warner Bros records, the film was Warners' most expensive and most popular film of 1940. It made $1,631,000 domestically and $1,047,000 foreign.[2] Upon release in 1940 the film was among the highest grossing films of the year, and in several states (including Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia) it was the highest grossing film of the year, and in several others (including Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas) it was the second highest grossing film of the year, only coming behind Rebecca. The film Northwest Passage, starring Spencer Tracy, came in sixth place nationally, but came in third place in Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, just behind The Sea Hawk.[13]

1947 Re-release

The film was re-released to great popularity in 1947.[9] It was one of the most popular films that screened in France that year.[4]


The film was nominated for four Academy Awards:[14]


  1. Behlmer, Rudy; Balio, Tino, eds. (June 15, 1982). "Introduction". The Sea Hawk. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-0299090142.
  2. Warner Bros financial information in The William Schaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 20 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  3. "WHICH CINEMA FILMS HAVE EARNED THE MOST MONEY SINCE 1914?". Supplement: The Argus Weekend magazine. The Argus. Melbourne. 4 March 1944. p. 3. Retrieved 6 August 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  4. "Box office figures for 1947 France". Box Office Story.
  5. Hixson, Walter L. (2003). The American Experience in World War II: The United States and the road to war in Europe, Volume 1 of The American Experience in World War II. Taylor & Francis. pp. 30–34. ISBN 9780415940290.
  6. "AFI|Catalog - The Sea Hawk". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 4, 2019.
  7. "WARNERS TO SHOW 60 FEATURE FILMS: 1936-37 Production Schedule Announced at Convention in Progress Here. GREEN PASTURES' LISTED Seven Other Stage Successes to Be Screened -- Adaptation of 'Anthony Adverse' Ready". Amusements. The New York Times. 4 June 1936. p. 27.
  8. Kael, Pauline (May 15, 1991). 5001 Nights at the Movies. Henry Holt and Company. p. 660. ISBN 0-8050-1367-9.
  9. Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer * Clifford McCarty, The Films of Errol Flynn, Citadel Press, 1969 p 93-96
  10. New York Times Review. Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  11. Time Review. Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  12. McNulty, Thomas (2004). Errol Flynn: The Life and Career. McFarland & Company. p. 101. ISBN 9780786417506.
  13. Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 20 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  14. "The 13th Academy Awards (1941) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-13.
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