Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales drags Johnny Depp back out to sea, the site of his greatest popular successes. The logic being that if we liked him as a pirate once, maybe we'll like him again if he goes back to piracy. Sometimes this works better than it did in this case.

When the pirate movie Captain Blood made a giant overnight star out of Errol Flynn in 1935, Warner Bros. did exactly what you would anticipate that a major Hollywood studio with a hot property would do: they tried to copy it. By early 1936, the studio was actively developing a new adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel The Sea Hawk (which had been made into a movie by First National, a company later absorbed into Warner Bros, in 1924) as a second nautical adventure for their star, and I presume all of the other members of the Captain Blood team: director Michael Curtiz, leading lady Olivia De Havilland, menacingly suave Brit Basil Rathbone. The script wasn't working, however, and Flynn was dropped into several other adventure movies, several of them with Curtiz and De Havilland: 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood is certainly the best and best-known, but there are others: The Charge of the Light Brigade from 1936, Dodge City from 1939.

In the meanwhile, the idea of a follow-up Flynn pirate movie kept bubbling, and eventually, Seton I. Miller came up with a brand-new story based in the flimsiest possible way on the life of Sir Francis Drake, English privateer of the late 16th Century and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. The final draft, the very first screen credit for Howard Koch, was given back the title The Sea Hawk, despite having absolutely no connection to Sabatini other than the central presence of a figure who pillages ships at sea. And thus did Flynn finally return to a life of piracy in the summer of 1940, four and a half years after Captain Blood, his ninth star turn under Curtiz's direction in that span.

The Curtiz/Flynn collaboration is one of the most instructive in the history of the studio system. In Captain Blood and Robin Hood, the two men worked together - and were both indispensable - in the creation of two of the best adventure movies that have ever been made. And two of the most successful, which is why producer Hal B. Wallis kept pushing them together despite their mutual antipathy. In short order, this antipathy (and probably, to be fair, boredom) led to the duo's films turning into ever-increasingly dull affairs, made with Curtiz's no-nonsense mechanical flair and not much else. The Sea Hawk is a fascinating muddle, picking up and discarding plotlines, locations, and genres as it goes along, and it's not nearly up to the standard set by Captain Blood. And yet it's also easily the best of the late Curtiz/Flynn films, sandwiched in the middle of 1940 between Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail (for which De Havilland was brought back), both of which are tired-out shells. In The Sea Hawk, Flynn himself is obviously a bit done with the whole damn thing, but the movie itself at least has plenty of life, in no small part because of how extremely weird it is.

When I say "weird", what I mostly mean is that we have, for certainly the first and possibly the last time, a pirate adventure that's also an Elizabethan political thriller. And frankly, despite the title and the magnificently-staged sea battles (including, if I am not very much mistaken, at least a couple of shots from the 1924 Sea Hawk), the politics are much closer to the film's heart than piracy is. The year is 1585, and the halls of power in England are full of quietly urgent freak-outs: what the hell is Spain up to? We know, because we saw the opening scene, in which King Phillip II (Montagu Love) announces his intention to wipe England from the map, but Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) remains anxious to avoid leaping to any such conclusion, unwilling to commit herself to war until it becomes inevitable. She is, however, more than happy to sponsor the "Sea Hawks", a handful of captains and their ships striking against the Spanish treasure fleet coming from the Americas. The greatest of all these sea hawks is a certain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), captain of the good ship Albatross.

When first we meet Thorpe, he's in the middle of an act of privateering: he and his crew have swept into the English Channel to take a Spanish ship carrying ambassador Don Alvarez (Claude Rains, history's least-convincing Spaniard) and his half-English niece DoΓ±a Maria (Brenda Marshall) to Elizabeth's court. This creates an international incident, forcing the queen to make all kind of concessions that she'd have preferred to have avoided. It also creates an incident in Maria's nether regions, as her initial revulsion at the dashing pirate quickly shifts to fascination and thence to lust. Thorpe reciprocates, naturally, but first he must travel to Panama on a super-secret mission to steal Spanish gold. Unfortunately, Don Alvarez and the treacherous English Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) find out about it, and are able to sabotage the mission, leading to Thorpe and what remains of his crew ending up as slaves in a Spanish galley. And all while Spain is secretly planning to throw the Armada at the English navy!

The Sea Hawk has a lot of movie in it, from the pomp and politicking of Elizabeth's court, to the romantic melodrama, to the sea battles, to the sepia-tone adventure through the Central American jungle. It's also fairly uneven, though its lows are still reasonably high. The biggest problem comes in the love scenes, of which there aren't all that many; my suspicion is that the romantic angle was downplayed when De Havilland refused, or was unavailable, or just plain wasn't asked. Marshall was by no means a major star, and The Sea Hawk is almost certainly the best-known of her vehicles; she's not at all bad, but there's nothing really in her performance that any other actress on the Warner lot couldn't have done just as well. In almost precisely the same role that De Havilland played in Captain Blood, Marshall lacks the iron outrage and nervous romanticism that made even the barely-tested 19-year-old De Havilland such an obvious candidate for star status. Flynn's not giving her anything else to work with, either; even at his most bored (which this isn't), he could still turn on charm like nobody's business, but he apparently decided that he only wanted to do that in his scenes with Robson's Elizabeth.

Which works out really well, actually, and in fact the court scenes are close to being the best part of The Sea Hawk. This was a year after the last of the truly great Curtiz/Flynn/De Havilland films, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and one gets the sense that Curtiz, in particular, wishes he was still making that film: or maybe it's just that Robson is so excellent in the role (which Bette Davis played in the '39 film) that she brings the scenes around her up to the same level of enthusiastic irritation and political insight. At any rate, the scenes at court are fleet and terribly enjoyable, benefiting from the lavish production (this was an extraordinary expensive film by Warner's standards, at $1.7 million), and the presence of not just Robson and Rains, but Donald Crisp, and even an unusually subdued and cunning Una O'Connor).

The only thing that betters them, in fact, is the Panama layover, the one point where The Sea Hawk both strongly resembles a pure pirate movie, in which Flynn appears to be enjoying himself, and in which Curtiz has put real effort into what he's doing. A sequence of the privateers returning to their eerily empty ship is on par with any other sequence in Curtiz's career, perfectly stretched out between wide shots of the ship and medium shots of Flynn's troubled, thoughtful expression.

In between the extremes, The Sea Hawk is a thoroughly enjoyable, if distinctly overstuffed swashbuckler. It suffers from lacking a Rathbone-type bad guy (I'd be hard pressed to say that the film even has "a villain" in the sense that word is used to describe narratives) to give focus to Thorpe's actions and provide some sense of manageable stakes. As it is, we have here a film about stopping the Spanish Armada that ends before the Spanish Armada has even launched (with a showstopping speech about British strength in the face of foreign tyrants that manages to feel less dated than most such gestures in WWII-era films). The pleasure is just in watching Flynn swing a sword, in watching full-scale ships swing into each other, in the costumes, in the mostly bright and sparkly performances, and in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's rousing score, which I think I'd rank just behind The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood in his collection of wonderfully bombastic adventure scores. None of these things feel like they've been hung onto a single spine, and for that reason alone, I'd be inclined to call The Sea Hawk a bit of a letdown. This was the same year that 20th Century Fox did their own fake Flynn/Curtiz swashbuckler in the excellent The Mark of Zorro; it's too bad that the original recipe couldn't produce something better. Still, for all its imperfections, The Sea Hawk never drops below being giddily watchable, and in its peaks, this is as exciting as any other Hollywood adventure of the '40s.