Saturday, September 27, 2014

BOOK / MOVIE: Captain Blood (1935)



                “Captain Blood” is a swashbuckling film based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini which was published in 1922.  The movie was directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”).  It starred an unknown actor named Errol Flynn.  Warner Brothers took a big chance with him at a time when most big budget movies  were star-driven.  Very risky for a movie that cost $1 million dollars!  The studio settled for Flynn when several big names were unavailable and Flynn kept acing the screen tests.  They matched him up with an almost as unknown actress named Olivia DeHavilland.  It was a match made in Heaven and they went on to make eight movies together.  The movie was a big hit and started the second wave of swashbucklers which provided escapism from the Great Depression.  It was a critical success as well and received Academy Award nominations for Picture, Director, Writing, Sound, and Musical Score.

                The movie opens with an actual historical event.  When James Stuart became James II, his rule was challenged by the illegitimate son of Charles II.  James, Duke of Monmouth, invaded England in 1685 and attempted to overthrow the king, but his disorganized and untrained force was soundly defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor.  In the movie, a doctor named Peter Blood (Flynn) is called upon to succor a wounded lord and is arrested as a conspirator.  Sabatini used the actual memoirs of a doctor named Henry Pittman.  He argues his innocence at the mass trial of rebels (based on the actual Bloody Assizes run by chief judge Jeffreys), but is sentenced to slavery in the West Indies along with many of the rebels who avoided being hanged, drawn, and quartered.  This was the punishment for some 800 rebels including Pittman.

                Blood and his ocean-crossing colleagues are auctioned off in Port Royal.  His feisty reaction to the teeth-analyzing military commander Bishop (Lionel Atwill) catches the attention of Bishop’s neice Arabella (De Havilland).  Because Blood is able to cure the governor’s gout, he is exempt from the harsh work on the plantation.  It also allows him to plot escape by purchasing a boat.  The fortuitous sacking of the town by pirates allows Blood and his comrades to upgrade to the pirates’ ship.  In the process, Blood earns the undying hatred of Bishop and he has to suspend his budding romance with Arabella.  Historically speaking, there obviously was no romance although Pittman did escape by boat.  However, he did not become a pirate. 

                Blood embarks on a life of piracy (loosely based on Henry Morgan) and brings him into alliance with the stereotypically roguish Levasseur (Basil Rathbone).  Flynn and Rathbone have the first of their cinematic duels.  The reunion of Blood and Arabella does not go smoothly as she calls him “a thief and pirate”.  Who you calling a thief?  Being a gentleman pirate, Blood decides to dump this ingrate back at Port Royal.  When they arrive, the town is being attacked by two French warships.  Blood says screw you and leaves the town to its destiny.  Well, that’s what a dastardly pirate would have done.

                I had never seen this movie before.  I was inspired to watch it as I had finished the book and decided to compare the two.  I did not have much expectation for it since I had recently tried to watch Flynn’s “Against All Flags” and could not get through it.  Naturally, I figured Flynn’s first major movie would be unpolished.  I was wrong.  “Captain Blood” is a thoroughly entertaining film.  Few actors have started their careers as auspiciously as Flynn.  He oozes charisma from the start.  De Havilland does not take a back seat to him, but does not ooze – she’s a lady!  Their chemistry is worthy of the multiple pairings in their futures.  The supporting cast is strong with Rathbone the standout, of course.  There are lots of familiar faces from the Warners’ contract players.  A couple of them provide some comic relief that would best be described as cute. 

Curtiz does a great job directing, especially since he had to coach the novice Flynn.  He was to make something of a career doing this as they made several more movies together (in spite of the fact that they despised each other).  The cinematography evidences Curtiz’ penchant for moving the camera around and concentrating on lighting to enhance scenes.  Most noteworthy are the several scenes that feature shadows on the walls of backgrounds.  Deep focus is also used often.  This works well in the spacious interior scenes.  The outdoor scenes were filmed on soundstages which gives the film a curio look.  The duel took place on Laguna beach. 

 The aspect of the film that struck me the most is the musical score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  Amazingly, the composer wrote the music in just three weeks.  And yet he set the template for future swashbuckling scores.  The music matches the scenes perfectly.  After watching the movie, I questioned whether there had been any parts of the movie where there was no music.  I checked and indeed there were a few moments with no music in the background.  Normally, I am harsh with movies that use music too much to steer our emotions.  I have no complaints here. 

The action scenes are well done.  The duel is not one of the great ones, but it was the first between Flynn and Rathbone and they were able to build upon it for movies like “Robin Hood”.  The sea battle is grand.  It was done with models, but those models were up to 18’ from stem to stern.  I’ll take that over CGI.  Some of the footage was “borrowed” from “The Sea Hawk” (1924).  The boarding is very frenetic and pretty violent for a 1930s movie.  It’s no shame that “Master and Commander” did it better.  Thankfully, the deaths are not silly.

So how does it compare to the book?  The movie is a very good condensation of the novel.  It streamlines the book well.  The book has a much busier plot.  The movie pares the novel down to two villains.  In the book, there is another Ahab obsessed with Blood (Estaban) and one nefarious French admiral (Rivarol).  The movie discards the love rival Lord Julian.  There are several adventures that did not make the cut including a bang-up section involving a raid on Miracaibo that includes a fire ship.  What the movie does include is pretty close to the book.  There are some tweaks.  For instance, in the novel the slave Peter is the wooer of Arabella and she is the rude one.  The duel with Levauser was over a different woman than Arabella.

“Captain Blood” is an example that the best book / movies are ones that have a symbiotic relationship.  You watch the movie then the book adds more to the story.  The movie sticks to the ambiance of the book and chooses wisely what plot points to include and does not mess with the scenes much.  Any changes are done to improve the entertainment value of the film or because of time constraints.
          Book  =    B
          Movie =  A


  1. I have been meaning to read Sabatini's books, since they were made into several excellent movies, including Scaramouche, I think, so thanks for the recommendation. I am a huge fan of Errol Flynn's swashbucklers, not so much his westerns, they are a bit too formulaic. Offhand I can not think of one of Flynn's movies where he has a sword that I did not enjoy.

  2. I agree about Flynn's movies. That's why I was surprised I did not like "Against All Flags". "They Died With Their Boots On" is one of my least favorite war movies because it is so laughably inaccurate. Even Flynn can not save it.

  3. As Macaulay states that most of the soldiers who fought for Monmouth were Puritans it amuses me to watch this movie and imagine that the ship is crewed by Puritan pirates.


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