King Phillip II of Spain (Montagu Love) plans world conquest, funded by New World pillage. Standing in his way are British privateers, chief among them Captain Thorpe (Errol Flynn). Phillip bids his ambassador to England, Don José (Claude Rains) to ask Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) to disband the privateers, under threat of war. He is joined in this effort by traitorous Elizabeth advisor Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), who hopes to be made King of England once the Armada sails triumphant across the English Channel. Wolfingham is opposed by loyalist advisor Burleson (Donald Crisp), who advocates building a fleet to oppose the Armada.
Elizabeth scolds the privateers in public, but shrewdly supports them in private, particularly since the Crown gets a slice of the booty. The latest Spanish treasure appropriated by Thorpe includes brunette beauty Doña Maria (second-billed Brenda Marshall, a stand-in for usual Flynn co-star Olivia de Havilland), the niece of ambassador Don Joseé, and her middle-aged English companion Latham (Una O'Connor).
Because it's a movie, she promptly falls in love with the dashing Thorpe, following an appropriate interval of passionately despising him.
Alas, their love cannot be consummated, since Thorpe is off on yet another looting expedition against the Spanish. He is accompanied by heavyset comic relief first mate Pitt (Alan Hale), aged Tuttle (Clifford Brooke), and other less interesting sailors. Remarkable highs and lows follow, culminating in the heroic delivery by Thorpe of Armada plans to Elizabeth despite the best efforts of Spanish spies to stop him.
How others will see it. This rousing epic probably didn't play well in Spain, portrayed sinisterly here. Apart from those aware that Seville has no port, as it is inland, viewers have much to enjoy, especially a cast littered with faces familiar to classic movie fans.
The romance between Marshall and Flynn is pure formula, but the action is rousing, particularly the final reel sword showdown between Flynn and Daniell (guess who wins?). Those few who dislike handsome world-conquerer Flynn will enjoy seeing him reduced to galley slave status, however briefly. The imdb.com user ratings are consistently high, and the formula adventure and romance was nominated for four Academy awards, all in technical categories, a nod to the film's costly production values.
How I felt about it. The Sea Hawk was filmed at a time when England was again in peril from a world power. Instead of the Spanish Armada, the enemy was the German Luftwaffe, which was bombing London every night. Thus the script of The Sea Hawk was modified. The film's opening features the sinister shadow of King Phillip II over a map of the world, who boasts that it will soon be a map of Spain.
The wrap-up has an even more obvious reference to then-current events. Queen Elizabeth warns that "when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the Earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soul on which we exist."
The Virgin Queen exercises the Royal prerogative of run-on sentences, and calls upon American film audiences to rush to the aid of the beleaguered Brits. Which they did two years later, following further Hollywood propaganda in films such as That Hamilton Woman, and, more explicitly, Best Picture Oscar winner Mrs. Miniver.