English slaves imprisoned aboard a Spanish galleon rejoice when dashing pirate captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) sails to their rescue. Spanish aristocrat Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) is less impressed when Thorpe and his men help themselves to Spanish treasure. Yet the Don's beautiful niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) stirs passion in Thorpe's heart. As a show of gallantry he returns her precious jewels and she falls in love with him. Upon returning to England, Thorpe charms his way back into the good graces of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson). Nevertheless, on the advice of Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), the Queen looks to forge an alliance with King Philip II of Spain promising an end to all piracy. At her majesty's request Thorpe embarks on a secret mission unaware his enemies have lain a deadly trap that will have dire consequences for England.
In the years before the USA entered the Second World War many exiled European filmmakers active in Hollywood did their part to alert American filmgoers to the plight of those facing the Nazi threat. None more so than Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz whose masterpiece Casablanca (1942) quite literally saved lives. His swashbuckling historical adventure romps with superstar Errol Flynn proved just as valuable as propaganda. The Sea Hawk marked their tenth collaboration despite star and director mutually loathing each other. Adapting the well-regarded 1915 novel by Rafael Sabatini, which first reached the screen in a more faithful silent film version in 1924, screenwriters Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch threw out most of the plot and drew inspiration instead from the sea-faring exploits of Sir Francis Drake. The film draws parallels between the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis whilst reinforcing the notion of England as a bastion of freedom, decency and courage exemplified through the nation standing alone against tyranny. In doing so the film glosses over Thorpe's piracy as he gently reminds Maria her jewels were stolen from foreign lands in the first place.
When the King of Spain (Montagu Love) talks of redrafting the map of the world till it resembles a map of Spain, it is not hard to see Curtiz is alluding to another would-be conqueror active in Europe in 1940. The main thrust of the plot concerns Thorpe's efforts to rouse Elizabeth I to the fact Spain is already at war with the world, much as the world in 1940 proved slow to awaken to the threat of Adolf Hitler. By painting Lord Wolfingham as a self-serving weasel the film stands as a riposte to those that favoured appeasement. Curtiz paints on a broad canvas but finds space for small moments of poetry (e.g. the scene with Maria at the docks gazing forlornly as Thorpe's ship sails away while he somehow senses her presence) and whimsical comedy including the antics of a lovable monkey that likely inspired the more sinister one in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The set-pieces are grandiose and hugely exciting with flawless set design and miniature work along with a thundering score from the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold. However, Curtiz adds some welcome grit to the fanciful swashbuckler genre when Thorpe and his men are trapped in a sweltering swamp and drop dead one by one, only to end up as galley slaves aboard a Spanish ship.
In support of Flynn, Curtiz assembled the usual rogues gallery with Alan Hale and Claude Rains back on comedy sidekick and smarmy villain duties respectively. The one notable absentee was Flynn's regular leading lady Olivia de Havilland who rejected the role of Dona Maria. Brenda Marshall may not sparkle quite as brightly as de Havilland but is neither the weak link critics often make her out to be. She and Flynn make an attractive screen pairing and it is quite amusing to see his rakish hero melt into a knock-kneed schoolboy in her presence. While the script lifts a lot of motifs familiar from past Flynn-Curtiz swashbucklers it presents them with panache, wit and energy. The formula had yet to grow stale while Flynn's gleaming charisma burned brightly still. He is great fun here, whether crossing blades with the enemy or trading banter with Flora Robson's formidable Elizabeth I. Naturally he saves the day though the film stops short of having him single-handedly foil the entire Spanish armada. He could probably do it, though.