This Distracted Globe random header image

Captain Blood (1935)

March 28th, 2007 · 2 Comments

Captain Blood poster.jpg

In England, 1685, open rebellion has greeted the ascension of the unpopular King James to the throne. Dr. Peter Blood (Errol Flynn, in his debut as a leading man) is summoned in the night to attend to the wounds of a rebel fighter. A war veteran and former seaman in the Dutch navy, Peter has “had adventure enough in six years to last me six lives” and prefers practicing medicine to fighting.

Swept up by authorities, Peter is imprisoned for three months before being found guilty of treason. He asserts his innocence, maintaining that his duty was to the man’s wounds, not his politics. “Your sacred duty, rogue, is to your king!” growls the judge, who condemns him to hang. Peter and his fellow prisoners are spared when the King realizes he can turn a profit selling them as slaves.

Shipped to Port Royal, Jamaica for sale, Peter turns his barbed tongue on brutal plantation owner Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill). The colonel wants nothing to do with the insolent rogue, preferring to see him shipped to the mines, but his regal daughter Arabella (Olivia de Havilland) likes what she sees and bids for him herself.

Captain Blood pic2.jpg

Peter is taken off work detail and put to use doctoring the foot of Port Royal’s governor. He uses the appointment to secure a vessel and plot an escape with his fellow slaves. Unexpectedly, a Spanish galleon attacks the town. Peter leads the men in commandeering the ship, repelling the Spaniards. But Peter is torn between his freedom, and his love for Arabella. He sails to his freedom.

Forging the men into a crew, Peter becomes Captain Blood, a menace on the high seas. After pillaging treasure, he settles on the island of Tortuga, “Where easy money consorted with easy virtue.” He accepts an ill-advised partnership with a hard-fighting, hard-gaming French rascal, Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). When Levasseur captures Arabella, the men go from partners to enemies.

In 1934, the Legion of Decency had been formed in an attempt to monitor morality in the movies. The studios discovered that by returning to the genre of costume epic – made popular by Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920s – they could avoid censorship issues. Treasure Island became a hit for MGM, and Warner Brothers scored with an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Captain Blood pic3.jpg

Warner Brothers acquired a novel by Raphael Sabatine called Captain Blood, which had been filmed already in 1924. It was envisioned as a vehicle for Robert Donat, but he turned it down. Clark Gable, Ronald Colman and George Brent were considered, as was a 25-year-old contract player from England named Errol Flynn. The studio not only took a chance on Flynn, but 18-year-old Olivia de Havilland, a contract performer who had yet to be cast as a leading lady.

Directed by Michael Curtiz and adapted by Casey Robinson, Captain Blood not only features two of the best starring debuts in Hollywood history, but is without question the greatest pirate movie ever made. Shot almost entirely on soundstages, featuring miniature ships, it clearly lacks the production value of Waterworld or Pirates of the Caribbean, but it has something those high seas spectacles lack. Elegance.

Casey Robinson’s screenplay features terrific historical context and depth. In pirate movies, we typically meet our hero already on the high seas, acting “piratey,” and the stories immediately surrender any type of character development to cartoon buffoonery. Errol Flynn is introduced as an urbane man, a thinking man, and we witness how injustice and imprisonment drive him after pirate’s booty.

Captain Blood.jpg

No real derring-do even occurs the first hour. The script builds camaraderie between the men, explores the 17th century British colonial empire, and develops the relationship between Flynn and de Havilland. The pair have a natural chemistry that is unmatched in motion pictures, even by Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars trilogy. To illustrate how good, this became their first of eight pictures together, something that would be inconceivable today.

Michael Curtiz brings a fantastic energy, imagination and visual sheen to the movie, and a huge debt to the picture’s box office success is a sweeping orchestral score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Basil Rathbone has a small role, but demonstrates why he was at the time, the best swordsman in Hollywood, in a standout duel against Flynn, shot on the rocks of Three Arch Bay in Laguna Beach, California.

Captain Blood was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 1935 was the last year that Academy members were permitted to write in candidates overlooked in the official ballots, and Curtiz, Robinson and Korngold were all write-in nominees, demonstrating how big an impression the film made on their peers. Flynn & de Havilland shot to overnight stardom, but what struck me is how much fun the flick is, even 75 years after it was made.

Captain Blood pic 4.jpg

Tags: Based on novel · Golden Age of Hollywood · Sword fight

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Stacey // May 13, 2007 at 11:37 pm

    Wow. I stumbled upon this blog after doing a google search for Jennifer Connelly. This blog rules, great movie choices imo. First the Sure Thing, now Captain Blood, and Adventures of Robin Hood? You’ve even had a couple quite interesting 80’s flicks I’d like to check out. I have been interested on seeing Sword and the Sorcerer for a while and I’m more inspired to check it out now. Anyway, I agree that Captain Blood is an amazing flick. Errol Flynn’s star quality and charisma is off the charts. It’s so easy to see why this film made him an overnight superstar. You can really believe that those men would follow him to the ends of the earth. And Olivia is positively radiant. She just glows. Their chemistry really does leap off the screen. And I agree it’s a fantastic pirate movie, with action, adventure, AND character development. Great character actors as well. Love this movie! Only pales slightly as action/adventure in comparison to the other Curtiz/Flynn/DeHavilland vehicle, Adventures of Robin Hood, which I see you’ve also reviewed!

  • 2 Neil // Jun 18, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    CAPTAIN BLOOD is a swashbuckling joy. Aside from the film, the DVD also features the 23 minute feature about the making of the film and how two stars were made overnight. Errol and Olivia made a great team and the chemistry is evident right from the start. You can’t watch that auction scene without recognizing it!! And Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score gets the whole story off to a rousing start. Incredibly entertaining all the way through.

Leave a Comment