HIS SWORD CARVED HIS NAME ACROSS THE CONTINENTS – AND HIS GLORY ACROSS THE SEAS!
In the mid-1930s, swashbuckling turned out to be lucrative in Hollywood. After the success of a few movies on that theme, Warner went back to their silent era and figured that a movie they made back in 1924 (which is now lost, except for 30 minutes) could work as a remake. This new version of Captain Blood was a hit – but the studio did take a considerable risk in having two relative unknowns in the leads.
England, 1685. During the Monmouth Rebellion, an attempt to overthrow King James II, physician Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is one of many innocent men arrested and convicted of treason. However, instead of being executed the prisoners are sent to the West Indies where they are to be sold as slaves. In Port Royal, Peter is sold to Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of the local military commander, Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill). Peter begins a troubled relationship with Arabella, resenting her and the King’s regime, but he’s also attracted to her, and tries to find ways to escape his current situation, helping the governor overcome his gout. Peter and his fellow slaves see their chance when Port Royal is attacked by a Spanish ship…
Meteoric rise for Flynn
Flynn’s rise as a movie star was truly meteoric; the same year he had made his film debut playing a corpse, but Warner liked his screen tests enough to trust him as Captain Blood. de Havilland had also made her screen debut in 1935; the role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream was enough to cast her as Flynn’s love interest, a collaboration that would continue in seven more films and make them the hottest romantic movie couple of the late 1930s. Flynn in particular is ideal as Captain Blood, a swashbuckling hero fighting slavery and royal injustice in what is truly a classical setup, romantic fiction based on historical facts – he’s compelling, and even lived through a bout of malaria while making the movie.
This one must have thrilled boys in the 1930s and director Michael Curtiz makes sure there’s plenty of action leading into the climactic naval battle between England and France near the end; impressively and explosively staged, and the filmmakers expertly use footage from a silent film, The Sea Hawk (1924), without any obvious inconsistencies. Everybody benefited from being associated with Captain Blood, including Curtiz who became the studio’s leading director after this film. He makes the audience feel like we’re on a grand buccaneering adventure at sea, even though that’s just Laguna Beach standing in for the Caribbean.
It’s also fun to see Basil Rathbone as a rival pirate captain, the French Levasseur, a role the actor allegedly found uncomfortable. He doesn’t play a huge part, but does get to duel with Flynn as a warm-up before the superior Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), the Curtiz-Flynn-de Havilland-Rathbone collaboration to beat them all.
Special mention should go to Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He was the Austrian-born composer who initially had no interest in writing music for a movie about pirates, but changed his mind and composed his first fully symphonic film score, which has become one of the early influential classics in Hollywood history. That theme is hard to get out of your head and, as I wrote in my Adventures of Robin Hood review, must have inspired John Williams years later.
Captain Blood 1935-U.S. 119 min. B/W. Produced by Harry Joe Brown, Gordon Hollingshead. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay: Casey Robinson. Novel: Rafael Sabatini. Cinematography: Ernest Haller, Hal Mohr. Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Cast: Errol Flynn (Peter Blood), Olivia de Havilland (Arabella Bishop), Lionel Atwill (Colonel Bishop), Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander, Guy Kibbee… Donald Meek.
Trivia: Robert Donat, Leslie Howard, Fredric March and Ronald Colman were allegedly considered for the lead role. Followed by The Son of Captain Blood (1962).
Last word: “I was 18 and [Flynn] was 25. To say I was disturbed — and in those days you were supposed never to show your feelings to a man! We rehearsed some scenes one day, and then we went to the commissariat for lunch. I was so shy, I couldn’t even sit at his table. But then we walked back to the stage together. We were alone, and he asked me, very seriously, ‘What do you want out of life?’ I said, ‘I want respect for difficult work well done.’ I was so young, I just said it. But then I asked him, ‘What do you want?’ and he said, ‘I want success!’ I guessed he meant wealth and fame. He was so vulnerable and so willful. And I had such a crush. If I’d been a little less innocent I’d have been in trouble.” (de Havilland, L.A. Weekly)