Borrowing the title from the seafaring novel by Rafael Sabatini, and nothing else, The Sea Hawk is really just a Hollywood version of some of the exploits of Sir Francis Drake. A lot of liberties are taken - it's Hollywood after all - to the point of naming Flynn's character Geoffrey Thorpe. Why? You're guess is as good as mine.
None of these little nit-picking details detract from the movie at all. Filmed on the heels of that other Errol Flynn pirate movie, Captain Blood (and in fact using some of the footage from same) The Sea Hawk is a feast for the senses and the eyes - even when it comes off as historically inaccurate... or down right corny.
The movie starts out with an ominous scene of King Philip of Spain discussing his plans to conquer the entire world. The visual punch is evident right away as a giant map on the wall is engulfed by the shadow of the evil King. He is sending his minister Don Alvarez (Claude Rains, appropriately untrustworthy) to England to meet with Queen Elizabeth and, as it turns out, a Spanish spy in her court. The Don is taking along his niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall, who comes off rather well in the soft focus lens, though frankly I was missing Olivia de Havilland), to be presented to the Queen and become her lady in waiting. Of course the young Dona has a duenna played by that usual minder of sweet young things Una O'Connor who, with Alan Hale, becomes comic relief.
Alvarez's ship is overtaken by Thorpe in his carrack Albatross (get it - like the Swan or Pelican of Drake... yeah). Of course there's some awesome boarding and sword play that is well staged and in some cases pretty authentic:
Except for those epee blades. Where's your hanger, Thorpe?
I'm not even gonna touch that one. Anyway, the Spanish ship is jam packed with English slave oarsmen. All of these are set free and marched directly past the indignant Dona Maria who looses some of her self-righteousness when she sees what her country and the Inquisition have been up to.
Soon enough Alvarez is protesting Thorpe's indiscretions to Queen Elizabeth herself. She calls her "Sea Hawks" in to be reprimanded and of course Thorpe is late. The Queen (English actress Flora Robson who chews scenery like I imagine the real Liz the First actually did) pretends outrage but then, when she gets Thorpe alone, reveals her disgust with King Philip and the Spanish in general. This allows Thorpe to tell the Queen of his plans to raid the annual mule train of treasure in Panama. Elizabeth is all for it, but advises that she cannot openly fund or condone the mission.
Meanwhile, Alvarez is meeting with Lord Wolfingham, the Queen's advisor and the spy for Spain. (Though Henry Daniell does a fine job in the role, both the first mate and I agreed that Vincent Price would have been a lot more fun to watch.) They're plotting the invasion of the Armada while, under their noses, Dona Maria is falling hard for Geoffrey Thorpe.
Thorpe sails for Panama but the mission has been leaked to Alvarez who hurries off to undo all Thorpe hopes to accomplish. The New World scenes are shot in sepia tone rather than straight black and white, which gives the action in the close, humid jungles of Panama a decidedly sticky and buggy feel. I'm itchy just thinking about it.
Of course Thorpe and his men are ambushed by an overwhelming Spanish force. Remanded to the custody of the Inquisition, the Englishmen who survive - including of course Flynn and Hale - are sentenced to life in a Spanish galley. No amount of chain will hold our hero, however, and the crew of the Albatross manage to escape their inhuman bondage and return to England. (Ladies, just FYI, there's a lot of shirtlessness in these scenes and you should know it ain't 300... not by a long shot.)
Thorpe reports plans for the Armada's strike on England to Queen Elizabeth and then he proceeds to dispatch Lord Wolfingham in an exquisitely well done dueling scene. He is reunited with Dona Maria - who disavows Spain forever. The Queen recalls all her disgraced "Sea Hawks" and gives a rousing speech about honor to country and what can happen when "...the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten to engulf the world". (Philip or Hitler? You decide.)
Despite it's melodrama, The Sea Hawk is a classic film. Even more than Captain Blood, this film allows Flynn to really shine and play to his strengths. Not since Robin Hood had he been this uncompromisingly charming and swashbuckling.
Of course we all know the December holidays are upon us. A pirate lover in your life would doubtless thank you for a copy of The Sea Hawk and if they don't, keep it for yourself. You won't be disappointed.