On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK (Warner Brothers 1940)

Warner Brothers pulled out all the stops for their 1940 epic THE SEA HAWK. There’s dashing Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way across the Silver Screen once again, the proverbial cast of thousands, high seas action, romance, political intrigue, superb special effects, and a spirited score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The only thing missing that could’ve possibly made this movie better is Technicolor, but since Jack and his bros had already spent $1.7 million (equivalent to almost thirty million today) to produce it, why quibble?

Flynn is in fine form as privateer Geoffrey Thorpe, captain of the pirate ship Albatross, in service to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I. When they attack and plunder a Spanish ship carrying Ambassador Don Alvarez de Cordoba and his beautiful niece Maria, Captain Thorpe is reprimanded and told to lay off the Spanish. Spain, however, is building up their Armada with world conquest in mind, and Don Alvarez has been sent to conspire with the traitorous Lord Wolfingham. Thorpe and his crew have a plan to attack the Spaniards on land in The New World where they’re looting Native gold to finance their plot for domination. The Queen tells him no officially, but off the record gives Thorpe the okay. This leads Thorpe and company into a trap, captured, and sentenced by Spain to life imprisonment as Spanish galley slaves.

Of course Thorpe, being Errol Flynn and all, hatches an escape plan, and he and his men take over the Spanish ship after learning the Armada is headed for England. The valiant Thorpe returns to the motherland and engages in a deadly swordfight with Wolfingham, an action scene that rivals Flynn’s duel to the death with Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Flynn is quite the handsome rogue in this one, although the kicker here is he’s shy around women! An in-joke, to be sure! Anyway, he wins the hand of the fair Maria before returning to sea and his swashbuckling ways.

Beautiful Brenda Marshall plays Maria, at first repelled by Flynn’s buccaneer ways but soon falling for him. Miss Marshall starred in some memorable films (CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS, THE CONSTANT NYMPH, BACKGROUND TO DANGER), but her screen career lasted a mere five years. She retired after becoming Mrs. William Holden. Claude Rains lends his villainous presence to the part of the unctuous Don Alvarez. His co-conspirator Lord Wolfingham is none other than Henry Daniell, one of the screen’s great villains (CAMILLE, JANE EYRE, THE BODY SNATCHER ). Daniell is noted for his appearances in three Sherlock Holmes films, including a turn as Professor Moriarty in THE WOMAN IN GREEN. Flora Robson interprets Queen Elizabeth I a bit differently than Bette Davis in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (also starring Flynn); her speech at film’s end rallying her subjects to fight against the enemy is a not-so-subtle plea against German aggression in those days before U.S. involvement in World War II.

Other cast members are burly Alan Hale Sr. as Thorpe’s second in command Pitt, Una O’Connor as Maria’s servant, Gilbert Roland as Spanish Captain Lopez, and a veritable Who’s Who of Familiar Faces: David Bruce , Edgar Buchanan , Clyde Cook, Donald Crisp , Pedro de Cordoba, Ian Keith , J.M. Kerrigan, Frank Lackteen, Jack LaRue, Montagu Love, William Lundigan, Lester Matthews , Gerald Mohr, Nestor Paiva, Jay Silverheels , James Stephenson, Victor Varconi , and others too numerous to mention. It seems like everyone who wasn’t employed at the time took part in this one except Rin Tin Tin!

Master storyteller Michael Curtiz directs the film, his tenth and last with Flynn in five short years. Though the two weren’t exactly best buds (to put it mildly), their films together are among Hollywood’s finest. Korngold’s majestic score is certainly among the greats as well, adding to the pageantry and spectacle. Special effects were handled by Byron Haskin (later the director of WAR OF THE WORLDS) and Hans Koenekamp (THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS ), and for 1940 they’re pretty damn good! Howard Koch and Seaton Miller wrote the screenplay, and knew just when to insert some comedy or heat up the action. I’d love to see THE SEA HAWK on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen, but if I have to settle for the comfort of my living room, I’m okay with that, too. It’s one of the grandest of entertainments produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and one you definitely need to keep an eye out for!

All for One, Fun for All: AT SWORD’S POINT (RKO 1952)

France in 1648 is in upheaval: Cardinal Richelieu has passed away, the Queen is ill, and evil Duc de Lavelle is plotting to usurp the crown by forcing a marriage to Princess Henriette and murder young Prince Louis. The Queen summons the only persons that can help: her trusted Musketeers! But the quartet have either grown old or died, and in their stead come their equal-to-the-task children, Cornel Wilde (D’Artagnon Jr.), Dan O’Herlihy (Aramis Jr.), Alan Hale Jr (Porthos Jr.), and – Maureen O’Hara , daughter of Athos!!

AT SWORD’S PONT isn’t a great movie, but it is a fairly entertaining one, with lots of flashing swordplay, leaping about, cliffhanging perils, and narrow escapes. It kind of plays like a Saturday matinee serial, and there’s a lot of fun to be had, with Cornel Wilde a dashing D’Artagnon Jr, O’Herlihy a competent second fiddle, and Hale doing his usual good-natured lug thing. But it’s marvelous Maureen who kept me captivated throughout, her flaming red hair streaming as she battles side by side with the male Musketeers. She’s no slouch with that sword either; Maureen could buckle her swash with the best of ’em! 

The backstory behind the making of AT SWORD’S POINT may actually be more interesting than the movie itself. Republic first announced it would make the film in 1947, based on a screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. It ended up being filmed two years later at RKO, then sat on the shelf another two years. When it was finally released, Walter Ferris and Joseph Hoffman got the screenwriting credits, with Wisberg and Pollexfen credited for the story only. By this point I’m sure they didn’t care, having moved on to form their own Mid Century Productions, making low budget flicks from 1951’s MAN FROM PLANET X to 1961’s SECRET OF MONTE CRISTO. Why the movie sat so long is unclear; no doubt notoriously meddling RKO boss Howard Hughes had something to do with that!

The supporting cast offers fine performances from Gladys Cooper as Queen Anne and Blanche Yurka as tavern keeper and Musketeer aide Madame Michom. Robert Douglas makes a hissable villain, Nancy Gates a regal Princess, and Familiar Faces Tanis Chandler, Tris Coffin, Holmes Herbert, Lucien Litlefield, and Phil Van Zandt pop up as well. Director Lewis Allen has some good films on his resume (THE UNINVITED, SO EVIL MY LOVE, CHICAGO DEADLINE, SUDDENLY ), and keeps the action running along swiftly. Roy Webb’s jaunty main theme sounded suspiciously familiar to me – compare it to John Williams’ theme from 1978’s SUPERMAN and judge for yourselves!

AT SWORD’S POINT is an ‘A’ film in intent, but ‘B’ in execution. It’s hardly a classic of the swashbuckler genre, but it has it’s moments and can certainly be enjoyed on a mindless level. The bold Technicolor helps give it a big budget sheen, Maureen is both lovely and dangerous, Wilde is a heroic D’Artagnon, and it’s all harmless fun. It’s light and breezy and if you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, by all means give it a shot.