Friday Film Review: Captain Blood
Captain Blood (1935)
Captain Blood (DVD 2005 Turner Entertainment Co and Warner Bros Entertainment)
I had so much fun doing my last Friday Film review that I decided to comb through my DVD collection and see what else might be suitable. Captain Blood is one of the epic pirate movies which set the standard for Hollywood historical action films for years to come. I first saw this as a teenager. I loved it! And then I discovered it was an adaptation from a book so I hunted that down and, wait a minute!, the author, Rafael Sabatini, wrote lots of similarly styled books. I was in heaven then. So not only did I fall in love with the movie but I ended up getting years of reading enjoyment out of it. Not a bad bargain.
Peter Blood, bachelor of medicine, is caught up against his will in the attempt to overthrow King James II (boo hiss). Called out to tend to a wounded rebel, Blood cares little for the man’s politics until he too is swept up by the King’s soldiers and sent to jail to await trial with the rest of the rebels. There he’s condemned and faces death until the King decides to make use of this free labor by sending the traitors to be sold as plantation slaves in Jamaica.
There Peter Blood is bought by a pretty young woman, Arabella Bishop, when Blood’s pride almost condemns him to be bought by the worst slaver on the island. Not long after that, the town is attacked by the Spanish and, in a turn of fate, Blood and his fellow slaves take the chance to capture the Spanish galleon and head to sea, thus becoming outlaws. With no other choice open to them, the former slaves are forced into piracy. In Blood, they’ve found the perfect leader for he had once sailed under a famous Naval captain and many of his crew were in the English Navy.
But Blood sails with a heavy heart since he now believes that Arabella is forever lost to him while she is saddened to learn of what he’s done with his chance of freedom. Three years later, fate throws them together again after Arabella, returning from England with the new English envoy to the islands, is captured by one of Blood’s associates. Just as he was once bought, now he buys her from the wicked Captain Levasseur only to end up in a duel to the death to claim her.
Arabella’s cutting comment to Peter that he’s now a “thief and a pirate” is so true to her character. She tells it like she sees it. But secretly, she has been in love with Peter all along and when she imagines what he’s done over the years, she’s heartbroken at this waste of such a good man. It’s not until they’ve spent a little more time together, and she sees what danger he’s willing to put himself in for her sake and for England, that she sees how much he’s restrained himself over the years, and all for her memory.
As Peter then tells Arabella, he senses that his long journey is finally near its end. But will he be able to claim her heart, which almost everyone but he can easily see is already his, or will a final sea battle be the end of Captain Blood?
Olivia de Havilland is a her luminous, lovely best. She’s one of those wonderful mercurial actresses who can play beautiful or plain (watch her in “The Heiress”). Here she’s a fresh faced young woman who is intelligent, has a sense of humor and can handle herself in a crisis. It’s no wonder Peter Blood finds himself attracted to her, against his will, before he finally gives in and puts his heart on his sleeve, though his men think it’s just his ironical sense of humor, by naming his captured ship after her.
Errol Flynn rocketed to stardom because of this film and it would have been unbelievable if he hadn’t. This is Flynn at his charismatic best. The camera loves him, he’s got the starring role, great lines, a fantastic swashbuckling fight scene – how could he have missed? Even yelling lines that weren’t in the script due to the fever he was suffering from during the filming, he captures the eye of the viewer and dominates his scenes.
Flynn and de Havilland start their long partnership here and together they shine. They can play the adversaries who we know will fall in love and they play them well. It’s easy to see why each falls for the other and why, three years later when they finally meet again, each has, unconsciously, waited for the other. Their last scene, when they finally admit the truth of their hearts, is wonderful.
Another actor who begins a relationship with Flynn and de Havilland is Basil Rathbone. He’s the evil Capitaine Levasseur and the one who duels with Peter Blood for the fair Arabella across surf drenched beach and up and down rocks. When I say I want swashbuckling in my pirate books, THIS is what I mean. Rathbone was known as one of the best fencers in Hollywood and Flynn’s natural athletic ability allowed him to put on a good show. No, it’s probably not technically that difficult a fight but it’s filmed well, filled with signature close ups and fun to watch.
Michael Curtiz directs and managed to coach Flynn past his initial nerves and into the position of Hollywood superstar. Watch for his signature use of shadows and camera angles. The film has a fantastic, rousing score which opens the movie and plays behind the fight scenes. But Korngold, who managed to score the film in only three weeks, also includes a tender refrain for Peter and Arabella’s delayed love. From the first drumroll and fanfare, it sweeps the scenes along and helps convey all the emotions the director wants us to feel.
The movie is a pared down version of the book but given the amount of fun stuff Sabatini gives Blood to do and accomplish, there would be no way to include it all short of a many episode miniseries. But I don’t think anything major was left out and as it is, the movie is a bit more romantic than the book since a lot of the intervening years, when Peter and Arabella are separated, is cut down.
Lots of the secondary characters from the book are here including Jeremy Pitt, Hagthorpe, Ogle, Wolverstone, the incompetent doctors, the dread Baron Jeffreys of the Bloody Assizes and of course Colonel Bishop. Though filmed in California, and with only scale sized ships, it has the appearance of being in the Caribbean and under full sail.
The region 1 DVD I have is black and white, features spoken dialogue in English and French and comes with English, French and Spanish subtitles. There’s a nice “making of” featurette which goes into a lot about the period in which the film was made, the casting, the direction, the music and the dueling, among other things. I believe there is also a region 2 version.
While maybe not their best film pairing, Captain Blood is the first real American glimpse of Flynn and de Havilland and it’s a delightful one. This is the film which showed Warner Bros it had two new stars and which caused the studio to feature them together several more times. And over 70 years later, it still holds up beautifully and still charms me whenever I watch it. A-