Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review the Michael Curtiz classic Captain Blood.
Screenplay by Casey Robinson, from the novel by Rafael Sabatini
Directed by Michael Curtiz
What It’s About:
Condemned to slavery for treating a wounded rebel against King James, Irish surgeon Peter Blood (Errol Flynn), engineers his escape from Port Royale, Jamaica and sets out on the path of piracy, leading a crew of buccaneers made up of his fellow escapees. Along the way, he manages to romance the niece of his former owner, Araballa Bishop (Olivia DeHavilland).
Why I Bought It:
I previously reviewed The Black Swan here on this blog. Along with that film and The Crimson Pirate (with perhaps Victor Fleming’s iteration of Treasure Island a close contender), Captain Blood completes the trilogy of the most influential pirate movies ever made, and in my opinion, is the best. This is a movie that sets the tone for a genre, storming the public consciousness with a lusty “FORWARD M’HEARTIES!” It surely owes something to its silent predecessors (including its own original 1923 version – this was a remake), especially Douglas Fairbanks and The Black Pirate, but Captain Blood solidifies the much-imitated tropes of the handsome, swashbuckling captain, often wrongly accused or misunderstood, the lusty, drunken crew cavorting in Tortuga, the duel between the true hearted rapscallion and his cruel opposite number, and the resistant (usually well off) maiden who eventually succumbs to the main rogue’s initially bristly charms.
This is a movie of memorable firsts. It was the first American film of Tasmanian-born Errol Flynn, who was brought in as an unknown when Robert Donat declined the role. The strength of Flynn in this part can’t be understated. He’s hellishly charming (“Faith, I’m the sort of man you like, m’gal.”), funny, deceptively easy going, inspiring, and when he needs to be, ridiculously effective in the action sequences, every physical movement a punctuation of character, from an encouraging wave of the hand to a deadly thrust of a rapier. He’s Bond before Bond. Gibson before Gibson. A born action star before there was such a thing. He slips from easy charm (“Will you be back by breakfast?” “Who knows, my pretty one? Who knows?”) to righteous indignation (“What a creature must sit on the throne to let a man like you deal out his justice.”) with all the ease of a rapier coming free of its scabbard.
It was the first pairing of Flynn and his leading lady, the incomparable Olivia de Havilland. As I said in my review of The Adventures of Robin Hood, de Havilland is the only actress I’ve ever in my life felt compelled to write a fan letter too. She’s effervescent; in my mind, the epitome of silver screen grace and charm in the feminine. Far from the shrewish noblewoman or shrinking maiden, her initial encounter with Blood is as his purchaser, when in a fit of compassion, she outbids a cruel mine owner to save the dashing surgeon from a life of hard toil under a notoriously vicious slave master. This leads to some playful flirting, a retreat on her part, and an eventual reversal of fortune when, after she is captured in a raid by Blood’s rival Levasseur (expressly against the articles forbidding the mistreatment of women in their alliance charter), Peter kills her captor in an epic duel to the death, buying her back in blood.
Captain Blood has no main villain, but rather a succession of heavies that have to be overcome, from the tyrannical King James whom Blood unwittingly rebels against, the sadistic judge who sentences him to slavery, Arabella’s gruff, slave beating and pirate hunting uncle (Lionel Atwill), to the Spanish and French navies. But the most memorable in this cavalcade of antagonists is Captain Levasseur, depicted with oily magnificence by Basil Rathbone. Rathbone is the hedonistic and cruel evolution of Peter Blood. He’s the stick by which Arabella and everyone else judges Peter Blood; the stereotypical pirate villain, so iconic that Disney surely borrowed his likeness and mannerisms for their Hook in Peter Pan. Known mainly for his reserved and brilliant portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, Rathbone apparently relishes cutting loose here, playing the villain to the hilt (as he will again when put up against Flynn a second time in Adventures of Robin Hood).
The duel between Flynn and Rathbone on the beach over Arabella and the right to rule their pirate fleet is one of the classic onscreen clashes, deft and fast and appropriately italicized by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. It informs similar duels in The Princess Bride and the Pirates of The Caribbean movies, as well as in the unofficial rematch in Adventures of Robin Hood. Much of Captain Blood, with hindsight, feels like a practice run for Robin Hood. The supporting characters fulfill the Tuck, Will Scarlett, and March the Miller roles, and some of the gags show up again in Robin Hood (like the guy popping out to wallop somebody during the big fight). The death of the villain, spread across the rocks as the surf crashes across his staring face, is a classic moment in a movie full of classic moments.
The supporting players are all equally gush-worthy. The tragic Ross Alexander gives a good performance as navigator Jeremy Pitt, Guy Kibbee as gunner Hagthorpe, Donald Meek as an incompetent surgeon, Frank McGlynn Sr. as the bible quoting pirate, George Hassell as the gout-infected governor of Jamaica, and especially Forrester Harvey as the cowardly opportunistic carpenter, Honesty Nuttall, who shoots his own toe off after a skirmish to try and earn an extra share for a lost limb.
I understand some of the final battle sequence is lifted from the silent version of The Sea Hawk, but it doesn’t detract. It’s still pretty exciting stuff. The guy getting pinned to the rail by the grappling hook during the initial boarding action always got me as a kid, and I’ve seen it repeated a thousand times since.
I took the time to read the original Rafael Sabatini novel, back when I was on a screenwriting kick and wondering how close it was to the novel, and if it’d benefit from a remake. It wouldn’t. It actually cleaves pretty close to the source material, with a few minor exceptions.
“It’s the world against us and us against the world!”
There’s a funny bit where Blood is plotting their escape with the help of Honesty Nuttall, who, after agreeing to secure a laundry list of items, observes that it’s not too late for them to back out of the risky endeavor.
Blood: Nuttall, me lad, there’s just one other little thing. Do you think you could find me a good stout piece of timber? About so thick and so long?
Honesty Nuttall: Yes, I think so.
Blood: Then do so and lash it to your spine – it needs stiffening. Courage! We’ll join you at midnight.
Would I Buy It Again: You bet.
Next In The Queue: The Car