Your RDA of Irony

The Pedantic Guide to the Movies

A few weeks ago someone asked me my opinion of the Sea Hawks.  Of course, he was referring to the football team but–in my historical monomania–I began discussing the Errol Flynn swashbuckler of that name.  Looking for suitable scripts for its gorgeous, dashing star, Warners Brothers had bought the film rights to the best-selling novel, a pirate epic by Rafael Sabatini.  The original novel tells of a kidnapped noble, sold into slavery, who becomes the leader of a pirate fleet and the scourge of the Mediterranean. Warners Bros. only kept the title; its version would tell of an Elizabethan privateer who protects his beloved Queen and England from the growing and imminent menace of Spain.

“The Sea Hawk” premiered in 1940 and any semblances in the film to contemporary characters and events were magnificently intentional.  In the film’s opening scene, Philip II in Spain rues how his plans for world domination are defied and stymied by “”this puny rockbound island as barren and treacherous as her Queen.”  While Spain is preparing an invasion armada, Philip is counting on his collaborators in the Elizabethan court to keep England lulled and disarmed.  “With England conquered, nothing can stand in our way. Northern Africa… Europe as far east as the Urals… then the New World: to the north, to the south, west to the Pacific… over the Pacific to China and to the Indies will our empire spread. One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will have ceased to be a map of the world. It will be Spain.”

Rest assured, Errol Flynn discovers the invasion plans and warns England in time.  A grateful (and infatuated) Queen Elizabeth knights the valiant privateer and then rouses the English fleet to defend freedom against tyranny. 

Of course, we clearly see the historical parallels and have no problems with the film’s obvious bias.  You don’t have to be objective when you are in the right.  Yet, when the film premiered, the prevalent mood of the American public was isolationist.  It was Europe’s war, not ours.  I was curious as to how film reviews at the time discussed the pro-British stance of “The Sea Hawk.”  This is what I found.  “Time Magazine” ignored the issue, preferring to regale its readers with anecdotes about director Michael Curtiz’s thick Hungarian accent.   The New York Times, however, did make note of the plot’s parallels.  While dismissing “The Sea Hawk” as an overblown trifle, Bosley Crowther added,

But count on the Warners to inject a note of contemporary significance. This time, it seems, Queen Elizabeth is undecided between a policy of appeasing Philip of Spain or building a fleet to oppose his growing Armada. A certain Lord Wolfingham, in the sheep’s clothing of one of her counselors, is doing a bit of fifth-column work within the castle for the Spanish ambassador, while her loyal subjects beg to build a fleet. But it is only after Geoffrey Thorpe, one of her most daring and dreaded sea rovers, has done a desperate turn on the Spanish Main, has been caught and impressed in galley slavery, has escaped and captured an enemy ship and come bounding home to inform her that the Spanish are coming that Elizabeth senses the peril. Quite an interesting parallel. Get it?

Yes, you smarmy Ivy Leaguer, we get it.  And London was about to get it, too.  As Crowther snipes, Warners Bros. was the interventionist, Democratic studio of Hollywood.  Jack Warner was not actually a liberal, but he felt compelled to be the political opposite of Louis B. Mayer.  (Even as late as 1941, Mayer wanted MGM to avoid controversy and “be even-handed about the Germans”.  Perhaps Mayer was hoping for a private shower at Auschwitz.)  Yet, even Warners Bros. made one concession to isolationist sentiment.  For the American release, “The Sea Hawk” ends with the hero’s knighthood; the Queen’s call to defend freedom was edited out. 

Nonetheless, films from Warners Bros. would continue to flout our official neutrality.  In the film “The Sea Wolf” you know that Edward G. Robinson is a monster because he reads Nietzsche.  (And which kultur was so fond of the syphilitic philosopher?)  Isolationists in Congress demanded an investigation of certain studios and individuals, wanting to know if they were the paid agents and propagandists of Britain.  The hearings were scheduled for December, 1941.  For some reason, the hearings were called off.  

So, why am I writing about “The Sea Hawk”?  Of course, I really don’t need a reason to be pedantic but “The Sea Hawk” is going to be broadcast this Saturday night on Turner Classic Movies.  Despite Bosley Crowthers’ opinion, the film is excellent–with an incisive and eloquent script, superbly acting–particularly the 38 year-old Flora Robson as Elizabeth, and with one of the greatest musical scores in Hollywood history.  (Composer Erich Korngold left Germany in a hurry but remembered to take generous amounts of Brahms and Wagner.)  Of course, Errol Flynn is unhumanly glorious.  Furthermore, Turner Classic Movies will be showing the uncensored version, concluding with the rousing call-to-arms by Elizabeth.

Even if you can’t see it this Saturday, you couldn’t find a better use for your DVR.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:

  1. Nancy Kullman says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ll be out celebrating my dad’s 95th birthday, but I’ll set my DVR right now, It’s been a while since I’ve seen swash, buckle or political content hidden therein.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Happy birthday to your father. He likely saw “The Sea Hawk” when it was first released!


  2. Leslie Jo says:

    With a name like Korngold, it has to be good!

    Hi, Eugene!

    It is I, Leslie, who married into the Korengold family in 1986. In fact, I had “Korengold 86” ironed onto the Blackhawks sweater my mother-in-law gave me for my birthday many moons ago. I still wear it when I am lucky enough to go to a game, and tell people the significance of the number is that it’s the year I was traded to the Korengolds.

    I called WTTW years ago for some reason or another and, when I said my last name, the poor guy on the other end of the phone sounded extremely shaky when he asked me if I was related to THE Erich Korngold. Since it is believed to be true amongst the Korengold Clan, I replied, “yes.” I think he fainted. Others int he Clan believe we were horse thieves.

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply