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Action/Adventure Romance

Captain Blood

Swashbuckler: Lessons in Morality From Peter Blood, the Pirate

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.

Movies! TV Network | The Making of a Swashbuckler: Captain Blood

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.s. If you like this movie, you will almost certainly enjoy two other movies I recommend: The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

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.

Categories
Action/Adventure Romance

The Adventures of Robin Hood

If your life is giving you some family time, you and your kids can together enjoy a rollicking tale of derring do set in Merry Olde England: 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Famous as the film that made swashbuckling Errol Flynn a household name, it’s also historically important as Warner Brothers’ first foray into glorious Technicolor.

The plot is of course familiar and has been adapted dozens of times: When King Richard the Lionhearted leaves the country, his heartless brother John begins terrorizing the peasantry. The courageous noble Robin of Locksley voluntarily leaves his comfortable life to fight for the oppressed, becoming a daring outlaw who along with his Merry Men takes a personalized approach to progressive taxation. Along the way Robin wins the love of Lady Marian, who becomes a brave advocate for the downtrodden despite her blue blood.

This was a big budget film, with lavish costumes and sets designed to show off the possibilities of Technicolor photography. It’s also big in other ways: Huge battles, extended sword fights, heroic stunt work and full-blooded performances by the whole cast. For raw entertainment value alone, this is a Hollywood studio system classic, and was deservedly selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Despite being wracked with numerous health problems in real life (He died at 50 with the body of an old man), on screen Flynn is the apotheosis of the virile, roguishly charming man of action. He was working with his frequent director Michael Curtiz (Who also directed him in my recommendations Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk), who clearly knew how to get the most out of Flynn. Flynn gets outstanding support from the rest of the cast, including Claude Rains as a fey Prince John and Basil Rathbone as the dastardly Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Olivia de Havilland, who worked with Flynn on eight films, was cast more for her looks than talent in her early career, but she became a better actress over time. She’s good enough here at portraying Marian’s growing awareness of the plight of the poor and her own love of Robin. The actors in the smaller parts also do well, especially Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck.

This is a particularly good film for kids, not only because the exciting story is easy to follow but also because it embodies admirable values. I love all the ethical shading of film noir, but there is also a place for movies that teach uncomplicated moral lessons: The rich have an obligation to the poor, and good people must fight back when the strong exploit the weak. Roger Ebert, who loved this movie, said it beautifully: “In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance”.

Before closing my recommendation of this rousing classic, I leave you with two notes of trivia (1) The 1922 Douglas Fairbanks Sr. version of Robin Hood was filmed in Bidwell Park in Chico, California, and the Flynn version returned there for some of its shoot. (2) Much of the film was hilariously parodied in another of my recommendations, The Court Jester, with Rathbone sending up his own performance.