In 1935, Hollywood still had the look of a place that was generally untouched by the still on-going Great Depression. From glitzy and glamorous musicals full of lavishly costumed extras and mechanically rotating sets, to sweeping adventures on the high seas, the films of the early to mid 1930s ran the gamut of expensive genres.
Michael Curtiz’s 1935 film, Captain Blood, was one of those. To this day, it is one of the most exciting films to ever buckle the swashes. (That’s a thing, don’t you know…buckling swashes. All the cool kids do it.)
The film is based on the then popular book by Rafael Sabatini called Captain Blood, His Odyssey. The book was published in 1922, and post-war European were in the perfect mindset for a novel about a rebellious doctor turned pirate who basically stuck it to the convoluted and confusing Monmouth Rebellion-era government that had betrayed him. And it is one of the greatest pieces of historical adventure fiction ever written—if not the very best. (So says I.)
Curtiz could not have picked a better novel to adapt to the big screen. It had already been done once before in 1924, but sadly, only a small portion of that version has survived. Just as post-war Europe was the perfect target audience for Sabatini’s novel starring the quintessential good-hearted, moral rebel Captain Peter Blood, Depression-era audiences flocked to the theaters for what would have been the perfect distraction from their difficult lives.
Captain Blood was at the same time social/political commentary and pure escapist entertainment. Buried beneath the dashing hero’s exciting sword fights and the winning of fair maiden’s heart was Sabatini’s commentary on the war he’d just lived through. A war in which people had seen and suffered worse than in any war that had come before it. It was a war that had left millions disillusioned with their governments and humanity as a whole. Basically, Sabatini said, “Here! Have a guy who gets screwed over by his government and becomes a pirate to steal from them while also having a strong moral center!” And the public ATE. IT. UP. Both the book and the film. “It’s the world against us, and us against the world!” Blood bellows to his crew at one point. No doubt audiences in the Depression-era related to that line in a big way.
Just like in the book, the film starts during the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 England. Doctor Peter Blood, played by dashing Australian heartthrob Errol Flynn, would rather tend to his geraniums than involve himself in the rebellion for either side, in spite of the fact that his entire town is calling him a coward for not joining in the efforts to fight for the Duke of Monmouth. A few of the rebels show up at his home, injured after a skirmish with the king’s men. Blood is caught treating their wounds and is arrested for treason along with the rebels, made to stand trial in which he’s sentenced to death by hanging. Instead, by order of the king, he and the rest of the accused are sent to the Caribbean colonies to be sold into slavery because it’s much cheaper than hanging them all. (Who actually has the time and money to hang every rebel in England, wot?)
Blood is sold to work on Colonel Bishop’s plantation upon arrival in Port Royal, Jamaica and of course he spends his time being snarky at his “masters” like any other witty protagonist of an adventure film does. That is, until a Spanish ship squadron attacks Port Royal. This presents the perfect opportunity for Blood and his fellow slaves to escape, hijacking one of the Spanish ships and making their way to the West Indies to sign articles, as it were, and become dastardly pirates. I use dastardly loosely, because of course they have a Code they follow, even as they become famous and successful pirates. Captain Blood and his crew become infamous, and their success is unrivaled.
And so the fun begins…There are amazing sword fights, of course, and huge ship battles that still give me the chills when I watch them. Captain Blood still has some of the best cinematography of any action adventure film from the first half of the 20th century. And it’s even better than some films in the second half of the 20th century, in spite of the smaller budget Curtiz was given to film.
The main thrust of the film, however, isn’t the battle scenes, or Peter Blood’s truly awful haircut (oops!)…Instead, it focuses a great deal on his romantic tension with Arabella Bishop, the niece of the man who ends up buying Blood at the slave auction. Olivia de Havilland, only 19 years old at the time, was draped in absolutely stunning outfits that looked more suited for the ballrooms of London rather than the humid plantations of Jamaica. The book was written in 1922, right after the English women’s suffrage movement found success, and Arabella Bishop is portrayed as an independent woman who is both strong and beautiful, with a sharp wit and quick mind. She doesn’t fall prey to Captain Blood’s charms as much as he falls prey to hers, having to work to earn her respect. She’s more intrigued by him than anything, until she finds herself legitimately falling for him when he proves he’s a good man.
A lot of this is lost in the film, unfortunately, in spite of de Havilland presenting Arabella with a stubborn strength that fully matched Blood’s. The layers in the romance of the novel just aren’t there because the film was only allowed 119 minutes. People paid to see the sword fights and the canon balls ripping through the hulls of the ships, and the beautiful dresses and the beautiful Errol Flynn running about on the railings of ships and grinning and Huzzah-ing. They wanted to see Flynn and de Havilland’s chemistry, and that is what the film gives its audience. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland had sizzling chemistry in Captain Blood, their first film together, which is why they continued to work together for a total of 8 films, including The Adventures Robin Hood (1938), in which Errol gets another winning haircut (I’m lying, it’s awful again).
Arabella does look pretty, and she certainly doesn’t take any guff from Blood, who is just as cheeky and proud as he is sexy—Erm, I mean…charming? Yeah, that.
The film also takes away the semi-love triangle Sabatini had in the book, in which a legitimately kind young man named Lord Willoughby befriends Arabella during her journey from London. While they strike up a friendship during the long journey in close quarters, it is also evident that Willoughby feels something more than mere friendship towards his pretty, smart companion. In the film, Lord Willoughby is kind, but he is also old and doughy. Like an uncle. In the book, Willoughby is the optimistic foil to Peter Blood’s cynical nature. This characterization of the two men is lacking in the film, just as it loses a lot of Arabella’s three-dimensionality. Granted, this was necessary to keep the film from being 3 hours long.
Not to mention the biggest change the film made from the novel—a change that really detracts from Peter Blood’s strengths as a character. French pirate Levasseur, a proud, unruly pirate captain who signs a contract of partnership with Blood, goes behind Blood’s back to kidnap Mame. D’Ogeron, breaking the articles agreed upon: no woman is to be kidnapped and brought onboard a ship against her will. Blood finds out Levasseur has done this and he intercedes, resulting in a duel to protect Mame. D’Ogeron. Blood does this for no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do. The film would have had to add an extra 30 to 45 minutes in order to fit Mame. D’Ogeron’s role into the storyline, so instead she is replaced by Arabella and the duel is fought for the fair maiden’s heart. Again, this is perfect for a film audience, even if it does make Blood more of a two-dimensional hero.
Director Michael Curtiz faced a lot of challenges, including a rushed time schedule and the fact that Warner Bros. shrunk the budget, which meant blending footage of miniature models of ships and with ship battles taken from other films. But a lot of Sabatini’s superb dialogue from the book was directly copied and pasted into the script, making Captain Blood arguably the best Sabatini screen adaptation of that time period. There were a few others, including The Sea Hawk (1940), Scaramouche (1924 and 1952), and The Black Swan (1942). The performances of Flynn and de Havilland are inspired, and Basil Rathbone stole every scene he was in as the French pirate Levasseur.
In all, the film really is a masterpiece. From the cinematography and the beautiful performances to the rip-roaring pirate battles and sword fights, Captain Blood is one of the best action adventure films ever made. It’s truly a spectacle to behold. Check out the original trailer for a peek at its excellence!
And if you find yourself needing a really good book to read, one with action and adventure, a really fantastic romance, and truly wonderful characters, not to mention a good amount of historical accuracy…definitely read Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, His Odyssey. Trust me. You won’t regret it!
~ Karen Valenzuela, @VictoriaNoir89