An intelligent, dashing, apolitical doctor tends to a wounded rebel during the English Civil War and finds himself branded a criminal and sold into slavery. But his courage, leadership ability, and swordsmanship enable him to reverse his fortunes by becoming the greatest outlaw pirate of the high seas!: Captain Blood. This 1935 movie was a mega-hit adaptation of a mega-hit novel by Rafael Sabatini. Many a wildly popular film has had minimal artistic merit, but in this case craft and entertainment value go hand in hand.
Warner Brothers gambled big financially on Captain Blood but even moreso by resting the movie on the shoulders of two little-known actors, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. Thus was born a screen pairing of which audiences could not get enough, leading to seven more films together that were rich in adventure, romance, and some comedy too. As the heroic Peter Blood, Flynn is passionate and athletic but also thoughtful and at times — particularly in his scenes with de Haviland — even vulnerable. This being the 1930s, de Haviland was given less to do, but she makes the most of it with charm, teasing humor, and a remarkable ability to non-verbally convey disabling sexual desire.
The film also benefits enormously from the literate dialogue in the adapted screenplay of Casey Robinson, and, the presence of a first rank director, Michael Curtiz, in the first of the 11 films he made starring Flynn. Curtiz handles so much so well in this movie, ranging from intimate romantic moments to epic battles with complex sets and hundreds of actors, that Captain Blood should be more often mentioned alongside Casablanca among his most significant achievements.
And though his character comes and goes a bit too quickly, Basil Rathbone delivers the goods as Blood’s frenemy, pirate captain Levasseur. He overacts zee Franch rrrrogue stuff a bit, but all sins are forgiven when he picks up a sword. Rathbone was a champion fencer in real life, and to the extent Flynn is credible as a duelist here, the credit goes to his coaching. Kudos to the rest of the supporting players as well, who are all credible in parts large and small.
The action scenes, especially the closing sea battle in Jamaica, are completely credible and thrilling (props to George Amy for outstanding editing). Even though special effects have come a long way since 1935 (e.g., in the magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) the cannon shots, swordplay, wooden ships, and iron men in Captain Blood are as vivid and vital as any Hollywood has ever portrayed.
Captain Blood would rank on any list of Hollywood’s greatest swashbuckling pirate movies, and has connections to another Sabatini novel whose adaptations would appear the same roll of honor twice: The Sea Hawk. The 1924 silent version included battle scenes filmed with massive sea-going models that were so astonishing that footage from them was recycled (with added sound of course) in subsequent films, including Captain Blood. The other connection is more obvious, namely that without Captain Blood making Flynn world-famous in 1935, there would never have been the equally good 1940 Flynn version of The Sea Hawk.
p.p.s. Dame Olivia de Haviland, incredibly, was with us until July of 2020. Late in her long life, she said that she and Flynn were in love but never consummated their relationship. It’s easy to imagine that the genuine, aching desire they experienced in real life was part of what made them such an irresistible pairing on screen.