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Captain Blood: A Review

by Michael Cummins

Captain Blood
Peter Blood (Errol Flynn), Arabella Bishop (Olivia deHaviland), Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), Hagthorpe (Guy Kibee), Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson), Wolverstone (Robert Barrat)
Adapted by Casey Robinson from the novel by Rafael Sabatini.
Executive Producer Hal B. Wallis.
Musical Arrangements by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Directed by Michael Curtiz

1924 was a popular year for Sabatini as two of his novels were adapted for the big screen, The Sea Hawk by First National and Captain Blood by Vitagraph. Some years later First National and Vitagraph were purchased by Warner Bros. and consequently the rights to both The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood.

The popularity of costume pictures had died along with the silent era but the success of The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) proved that there was still a market for such pictures. Warner Bros. decided upon Captain Blood as their entry in the genre.

Robert Donat was the first choice for the title role, but problems with contractual arrangements made him unwilling to appear. Warner's next choice, Brian Aherne, too decided against playing the redoubtable pirate. Lili Damita, a French actress then important on the Warner Bros. lot, pushed for her young husband, a virtually unknown Tasmanian named Errol Flynn, to play the lead role. The director who had been assigned to the project, Michael Curtiz too pushed for Flynn to star in the movie, having already directed him during a brief (sixty second) appearance without dialogue in The Case Of The Curious Bride. After being tested in a key scene Flynn was immediately given the part.

He later said "So many people claim discovering me that I get lost getting discovered. Mervyn LeRoy claimed he did. So did Michael Curtiz. But in truth it was Jack Warner who made the decision. He had the guts to take a complete unknown and put me in the lead of a big production."*

The original choice of Jean Muir to play Arabella Bishop was changed to Olivia deHaviland, an eighteen your old actress who had just made a successful screen debut in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Though most of Sabatini's dialogue remains intact, the story was shortened considerably and altered to fit the new scenario by Casey Robinson. The plot is a straight forward one:

Peter Blood having already had a lifetime of adventure, lives the life of a country doctor in a small town named Bridgewater. While attending a noble wounded in the Monmouth rebellion, he is captured by the king's dragoons who accuse him of being a rebel too. Running afoul of the judge, the notorious Baron Jeffrys, Blood is sentenced to slavery in the West Indies.

On arriving in Port Royale he attracts the attention of a wealthy plantation owners niece, Arabella Bishop who buys him for ten pounds and sends him to work on her uncle Colonel Bishop's plantation. Blood's medical skills soon make him popular with the governor, a gout sufferer who receives little relief from the island's resident doctors.

Using some money Blood has extracted from the other doctors he, along with some other slaves, form a plan to escape and purchase a small boat towards that end. The plan is ruined when Spanish pirates raid the colony. Blood, however, using his resourcefulness, captures the Spanish ship and with his companions embarks on a life of piracy. Soon Captain Blood has become the terror of the Spanish Main.

Colonel Bishop, hell-bent on revenge for the treatment he has suffered at the former doctor's hands, assumes the position of governor of Jamaica and with his fleet of ships sets about the destruction of Blood.

The pirate meanwhile enters into a partnership with the notorious buccaneer Levasseur. Shortly after the partnership begins, Levasseur captures a ship carrying Arabella Bishop and an English diplomat, Lord Whilloughby who has been sent to the West Indies to seek out Captain Blood. Blood, who has been in love with Arabella since he was a slave on Jamaica, rescues Arabella by purchasing her from the buccaneer crews for twenty thousand pieces of eight. Levasseur, wanting the girl for himself, is enraged by this and duels with Blood. Blood slays Levasseur and takes Arabella back to his ship intending to return her to Jamaica.

When they reach Port Royale they find it under attack from two French ships. Lord Willoughby explains to a puzzled Captain Blood that France and England are now at war because the people have risen against King James and that King William of Orange has come to rule in the tyrants stead. Delighted by this news Blood accepts King William's pardon and a commission in his navy.

Blood now gives battle to the French, destroying one ship and capturing the other. A disgraced Colonel Bishop is relived of his post for going to hunt Captain Blood instead of guarding Jamaica. Blood is now united with his love, Arabella Bishop, and is given the governorship of Jamaica as a reward for his services.

Though a great deal from the book is missing here, if one considers it, it would appear very difficult to fit other major incidents into the screenplay-e.g. Baron de Rivoli, Mame. D'Ogeron-and still retain a flowing, structured narrative. The film, as is, runs at one hundred and nineteen minutes; any additional episode from the book would mean a further thirty minutes running time and would seriously effect the story and pacing. As much of the workable story is retained and altered slightly to fit, the main alteration being that Blood duels Levasseur for the love of Arabella, rather than out of chivalry and decency as for Mame. D' Ogeron in the novel.

The main strength in Sabatini's writing is dialogue and it is because Mr. Robinson does what is essentially a cut and paste adaptation leaving the dialogue intact, that Captain Blood is arguably the best of all the Sabatini novels brought to the silver screen.

With very little previous acting experience Errol Flynn amazingly captures the spirit of Sabatini's seafaring rogue. He delivers some rather weighty dialogue with style and enough feeling to make the swashbuckler come to life. So too does he excel in the action scenes, be it leading his men onto the French flagship or fighting the lone duel with Levasseur.

Olivia deHaviland, though she has little to do, brings a radiating beauty and intelligence to the picture in her few scenes. Her perfect features and comely smile bring a balance to what is essentially a man's film, though the strength of her character is enough to rival that of Captain Blood's.

On the flip side, the villains are equally well portrayed, Lionel Atwill's Colonel Bishop is essentially a bumbler whose nastiness and rashness will have him stop at nothing in his attempts to capture Blood. Basil Rathbone shines in his three scenes as Captain Levasseur. Talking with a heavy French accent his ruthless buccaneer is a perfect anti to Blood. While preparing for the duel sequence, Rathbone became seriously interested in fencing and continued to be instructed by Hollywood fencing master Fred Cavens who acted in that capacity for this picture.

The supporting cast, comprised mainly of Guy Kibee, Henry Stephenson and Ross Alexander, are also solid in their respective roles. Ross Alexander who played Captain Blood's friend and navigator Jeremy Pitt, tragically commited suicide two years later.

Director Michael Curtiz does a perfect job of bringing all the elements together, his unflinching style with the camera is visible throughout, though it really comes to life in the action scenes.

The film truly comes to life almost one full hour into the picture when Blood and his cohorts break free from their bondage. The movie breaks free at this point also. A montage sequence brimming with emotion and hope marks the birth of Captain Blood.

After the former slaves band themselves together as brethren of the coast, another montage sequence follows overlaid by lurid titles courtesy of Casey Robinson. Lasting about one minute, it depicts Blood's exploits that have made his name the most feared and renowned in the Caribbean. Here, and in the final battle scene, footage from The Sea Hawk (1924) and the silent Captain Blood, has been spliced in to give the proceedings a more authentic look. The main reason for this is that the ever cost conscious Warner Bros. felt that casting two unknowns in the lead roles was a big enough gamble and the cost of constructing full sized ships would be an unnecessary extra monetary risk. It is for this reason that all ships were built in miniature. Even Port Royale was a model. Curtiz did a very clever job of disguising these limitations. The final battle scenes are a clever mix of model work, footage from the earlier movies and specially filmed shots of the 1935 cast.

Composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold's beautiful score gave the proceedings an extra touch of the dramatic. Korngold originally turned down the project saying that pirates were not within his range of interest. On seeing some of the film in production he changed his mind and set about composing his sweeping music. The modest Austrian insisted his credit be "Musical Arrangements by Erich Wolfgang Korngold" as he only had time to compose ninety percent of original music.

The film's shooting schedule was also lengthened because as Errol Flynn gained more confidence in the role it was felt that earlier scenes should be refilmed to match the newer material.

Warner Brothers produced many social dramas in the thirties; the studio was famous for them during this period. Therefore, Captain Blood was an excellent choice for filming. It combined action and romance as well as the commentary on the evils of slavery and intolerance. The film unsurprisingly was an enormous hit, making Errol Flynn and Olivia deHaviland overnight stars. They would go on to star in seven more pictures together, Korngold would score six more of Flynn's movies and Curtiz would direct another eight.

Much of the cast would be reunited the following year for the Lux Radio Theatre's audio version of the Sabatini novel. For the novel's author Captain Blood was something of a triumph too. To this day people discover the author through this movie. I myself did. This 1935 filming of Captain Blood: His Odyssey, the majority will agree is the most entertaining and stylish of Sabatini movies.

* Extract from My Wicked Wicked Ways, Errol Flynn Copyright Putnam 1959

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Last updated 29 March 2008. Article copyright 1999 by Micheal Cummins. Illustrations in the public domain. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.