The Sea Hawk (dir. Stanley Curtiz, 1940) expresses a pre-World War II set of attitudes about national and racial stereotypes. An audience member, retired UGA law professor James Ponsoldt, pointed these out in a discussion following the film. Queen Elizabeth’s hesitancy to engage in direct combat with the Spanish—and the film’s insistence, through the heroics of its main character, played by Errol Flynn, on the importance of intervention directly addressed the political climate prior to the start of British and American involvement in World War II.
Perhaps because of the historical environment in which it was made, the film makes free use of stereotypes. Spanish sailors are shown as brusque, dishonest, and swarthy. They take prisoners off ships they defeat in combat and enslave them as oarsmen in the bottom of their ship, a deplorable existence of hardship and suffering. The Spanish Inquisition plays a role, and when Captain Thorpe and his men are captured, they stand trial before a board of inquisitors, all Roman Catholic priests, one of them with a faint Irish accent. The film plays loosely with numerous historical facts, including the dates of the Spanish armada, Queen Elizabeth’s life, and so on.
The Sea Hawks are a semi-official band of sea captains who defend English interests around the western world through privateering and downright piracy. They can act when English diplomacy hesitates, and they serve as agents of the Queen’s will even when she takes the official position of disavowing what they do.
The Sea Hawk is full-purpose entertainment. It has romance, action, sword fights, skulduggery, and heroism. It moves from Spain to England to Central America. The staging of the encounter of two ships—one a Spanish vessel and the other Captain Thorpe’s ship, is spectacular. Whether it is realistic, I don’t know (I suspect not entirely, if much at all). Flynn’s acting is just right for the role. He makes a great hero, and nothing about him compels you to look beneath the surface.