DT Moviehouse Review: Captain Blood

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

Tagline: None


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:

captain-bloodI 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.

Annex - Flynn Errol Captain Blood_04This 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.

Captain-Blood-Errol-Flynn-movieIt 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.

errolflynnandbasilrathboneincaptainbloodCaptain 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).

captain-blood-16The 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.

Captain Blood pic 4The 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.

Best Dialogue/Line:

“It’s the world against us and us against the world!”

Best Scene:

CAPTAIN_BLOOD-14There’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

DT Moviehouse Reviews: The Adventures Of Robin Hood

Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog 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, here’s 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.


(1938) Directed by Michael Curtiz

Written by Norman Reilly Raine,SetonI.Miller, Rowland Leigh

Tagline: None originally (The Best Loved Bandit Of All Time! – rerelease)

What it’s about:

When Norman King Richard The Lionheart (Ian Hunter) is taken prisoner while returning from the crusades, his treacherous brother Prince John (Claude Rains) conspires with Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) to buy his way to the throne by hiking taxes against (and in the process, violently oppressing) the poor Saxon serfs. One loyal knight, peerless archer Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), organizes a revolt against the prince, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor with the aide of his merry guerillas Little John (Alan Hale, father of The Skipper from Gilligan’s Island), Will Scarlet (Patrick Knowles), and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), wooing the true king’s ward, Maid Marian (Olivia deHavilland) along the way.

Why I bought it:

I was raised on this movie. Sunday mornings in the Chicagoland area, WGN channel 9 had a show hosted by Frazier Thomas (a local TV personality and the creator of Garfield Goose) and later Roy Leonard, called Family Classics.  The list of great movies I was exposed to through Family Classics is about as long as Eel O’Brian’s arm.  Ben Hur, the George Pal sci-fi classics, the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies, A Christmas Carol, and most of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, but most vividly, this movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Errol Flynn in this and the aforementioned movies embodies my concept of a classic hero probably to this day. Upright and handsome, swift in action and wit, a daredevil who literally laughs in the face of danger. We first meet Flynn’s Robin Hood when he protects hungry Saxon serf Much The Miller (played by Herber Mundun), who shoots a deer on the royal lands to keep from starving and is nearly executed by the villainous Sir Guy. Sir Robin immediately claims Much as his servant to take the heat off of him, and Guy informs him killing the king’s deer warrants the death penalty. Robin coolly slips and arrow into his bow and draws down on Sir Guy.

“Really? Are there no exceptions?”

 But Flynn really shines when he carries the dead deer on his shoulders right into Prince John’s crony-filled dinner party at Sir Guy’s castle and plunks it down on his dinner table. The guy exudes confidence, even in a pair of Technicolor green tights and a feathered cap. He plops down in a chair, eats the Prince’s food, puts his feet on the table, and even manages to insult Sir Guy and the Lady Marian (Robin: I hope milady had a pleasant journey. Marian: What you think can hardly be important. Robin: Tsk. It’s a pity her manners don’t match her looks, my lord.), just in from London.

Playing Robin entirely as a swashbuckling smartass wouldn’t have enamored me to the performance. When Prince John announces his plan to declare himself Regent, Robin spits his food out on the table and wipes his hand on the cloth. (Prince John: What’s the matter? Have you no stomach for honest meat? Robin: For honest meat, yes. But I’ve no stomach for traitors. Prince John: You call me traitor? Robin: You, yes. And every man here who offers you allegiance.).

Melville Cooper, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains: Them’s fightin’ words.

This triggers the movie’s first action sequence, when one of the traitorous knights pitches a spear through the back of his chair. Robin kicks out of the chair, and proceeds to dodge and brawl his way through the party guests, getting up on the balcony at one point and killing four guards with arrows before making his escape.

To my five or six year old self, Robin Hood was amazing. Outnumbered about a hundred to one, he still jumps into his enemies without hesitation and comes out unscathed, proceeding to Sherwood Forest where he rounds up the peasantry and organizes an armed revolt ‘exact a death for a death’ and ‘to strike a blow for Richard and England.’

The archery scenes in the movie are all fantastic. No CGI arrows here. Just stuntmen taking real arrows to the padded chest and back (in one memorable scene, a bearded Norman guard pulls a screeching Saxon girl into his lap. The camera trucks in to a candle positioned on the table directly behind the guy. There’s a hiss, and Robin’s arrow streaks out of the night, puts out the candle, and buries itself in the would-be rapist’s back), and an arrow actually being split in the famous archery tournament.

Howard Hill as Owen The Welshman

The archery stunts are mainly performed by Hollywood’s patron saint of bowmen, Howard Hill, who appears onscreen as Owen The Welshman one of the archers in the tournament. He shot the arrow that splits Phillip of Arras’ bullseye arrow from nock to head to win the whole shebang. In DC comics, Hill is the idol of young Oliver Queen. In one story Queen actually meets Hill and Hill gives him the bow he used on Adventures of Robin Hood. Queen uses this bow throughout his career as the masked Emerald Archer, Green Arrow.

Now everybody knows the story of Robin Hood, how he proceeds to rob from the rich and give to the poor, how he romances Maid Marian and gets his butt whipped by Little John in a quarterstaff fight, thereby gaining his lieutenant. The Robin Hood story is pretty pervasive.

This movie is the reason. It informs every depiction of Robin Hood from 1938 onwards. To be fair, its look was inspired by NC Wyeth’s illustrations of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood and Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 silent action outing of the same name.

But there’s something about Technicolor that brings The Adventures of Robin Hood indelibly into the collective unconsciousness. It’s like The Wizard of Oz in that regard. People who have never seen this movie think of Errol Flynn in green tights when they think of Robin Hood.

Like Wizard of Oz, there’s an inherent four color goodness to The Adventures of Robin Hood that I find appealing. The bad guys are suitably dastardly, and they get their comeuppance. When the Norman Maid Marian seeks out the men of Sherwood to warn them about Robin’s pending execution, the thing that convinces the Saxons to trust her is simply Friar Tuck asking her to swear by her love for the Blessed Virgin that she’s telling the truth. She swears, and the whole room breathes a sigh of relief. That’s all it takes.

And I have to talk about Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian Fitzwater.

In doing that, I have a confession. I’ve written exactly two unabashed fan letters to celebrities in my entire life.

The first was to The Muppets when I was six, inviting them all to come stay at my house. They sent me back an autographed group photo and a handwritten note thanking me for the invitation, signed by Kermit.

The second was to Olivia de Havilland.

Every hero needs a reason to fight beyond the greater cause, and Robin’s is Maid Marian. De Havilland was my first ideal for feminine grace and beauty growing up. She’s just effervescent in the role of Marian, charming, lovely, intelligent (and open to change – she goes from a loyal Norman to sympathizing with Robin’s cause) strong without being crass. A lot of the time writers can’t seem to conceive of strong women without putting a gun or a sword in their hand, basically writing them as men. Marian at one point is the damsel in distress, but she’s also instrumental in saving Robin when he’s arrested after the archery tournament, and decries John’s policies even in the face of her own execution.

I’m an avid admirer of Ms. de Havilland’s career. Besides doing great turns in Gone With The Wind and Captain Blood, she avoided the obscurity of other aging starlets later in her career by taking on some heavy, interesting roles in movies like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Snake Pit and the incredible Lady In A Cage (where’s she’s stuck in a personal elevator and terrorized by a young James Caan in his chilling debut performance as a violent sociopath).

I’ve also got to mention a pair of minor but brilliant performances in the persons of Much The Miller (Mundun) and Una O’Connor’s Bess (Lady Marian’s maid), both funny (‘You’ve never had a single sweetheart in all your life? I’ve had the bands on three times!’) and at turns heroic. Much’s intervention in the assassination really turns out to be one of the most important deeds in the movie.

And Lady Marian’s horse? That’s Roy Rogers’ famously brilliant steed Trigger.

Best bit of dialogue:

He fights like three of us too.

Obviously this movie has great lines to spare, but the one that never fails to crack me up is when, after recruiting Friar Tuck (following an awesome sword duel with the deceptively fat clergyman – by Our Lady of The Fair Swordsman!), Will Scarlett rides up to the gathering and dismounts, doing a quick double take at the presence of the portly newcomer.“It’s alright, Will, he’s one of us,” says Robin.

“One of us? He looks like three of us,” Will quips, to the uproar of the Merry Men.

Best scene:

Hands down the climactic duel between Sir Guy and Robin at Prince John’s would-be coronation.

Up to this point, Sir Guy has come up short and been outshined by Robin in every endeavor, but as soon as they go to blades, Basil Rathbone displays his real-life fencing ability to the nth degree. For most of the fight he actually gets the better of Flynn, nicking and cutting him up maybe five times.

The fight takes them all over the castle, down into the dungeons, and incorporates most of the scenery. They kick over tables, pitch chairs and candelabrums at each other, and basically put on a helluva show. 

The duel in Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the best in cinematic history, right up there with the ones in Captain Blood, The Princess Bride (which is a clear homage to the Flynn/Rathbone matchings), Highlander, The Mark of Zorro, and any of the Star Wars films. You can clearly see its influence in everything that came after.

The rousing, triumphant (and deservedly Oscar winning) score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold perfectly compliments every ring of steel on steel, every feint and leap in the entire movie, but especially in this scene, right up to the final stab and fall.

Would I buy it again? Yes.

NEXT IN THE QUEUE: The Agony And The Ecstasy