“CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935) Review
Based upon the 1922 novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, the story of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” centered around an Irish-born physician living in an English town, who finds himself in trouble with the Court of King James II after aiding a wounded friend who had participated in the Mounmouth Rebellion of 1685. The 1935 film, released by Warner Brothers and First National Pictures, featured the first collaboration between stars Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, and director Michael Curtiz.
When Jack Warner and studio production chief, first made plans to film Sabatini’s novel, they had planned for British actor, Robert Donat to portray the Irish-born doctor turned slave and pirate. But Donat proved to be unavailable and the then unknown Flynn ended up with the role. As everyone knows, not only did ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” prove to be a hit, the movie made instant stars out of Flynn and De Havilland.
Many years have passed since I last saw ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. Which would explain why I have never developed any strong feelings for this particular film, in compare to certain other Errol Flynn movies. After watching it recently, my opinion of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” has improved. Somewhat. Basically, I feel that it is a first-rate story filled with excellent characterizations, a strong narrative and some decent action. But I do not know if I can say that I love ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. The movie is not exactly Flynn, De Havilland and Curtiz at their best.
Once Peter Blood finds himself a slave in Jamaica, he plots with his fellow prisoners to escape the island via a ship. Before he can make his escape, Blood falls in love with his owner – Arabella Bishop, the niece of the planter he and his fellow slave work on. An attack by a Spanish pirate ship allows Blood and his friends to finally make their escape. They form a crew to become one of the most formidable group of pirates in the Caribbean. Blood eventually befriends a French pirate name Levasseur and the two become partners – an act that the Irishman comes to regret. The two eventually come to blows over Arabella, who has been captured by Levasseur. Accompanying Arabella is a royal courtier name Lord Willoughby with some interesting news for Blood.
One problem I have with the film is the lack of balance between the dramatic scenes and the action. Quite frankly, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” came off as a bit too heavy on conversation for a swashbuckler. I realize that screenwriter Casey Robinson was trying to stay faithful to Sabatini’s novel. But I suspect that this attempt may have slightly reduced the movie’s pacing – to its detriment. And most of the action sequences did not strike me as that impressive. Mind you, the sword duel between Blood and a French pirate named Captain Levasseur (portrayed by the always competent Basil Rathbone) over Arabella Bishop, Blood’s owner, struck me as impressive. Well . . . somewhat. Actually, I have seen better swordfights – especially those featured in 1938’s ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” and 1940’s ”THE SEA HAWK”. The most impressive action sequence in the movie featured Blood’s sea battle against two French ships attacking Port Royal in the movie’s finale. I have to give kudos to Curtiz for directing an action sequence that struck me as surprisingly realistic.
Another problem I had with “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was its portrayal of slavery in 17th century Jamaica. I found it amazing that most of the slaves in Port Royal were white. I am well aware that white slaves – or indentured servants – existed throughout the British Empire during that period. And I am also aware that those rebels convicted of treason against King James II during the Monmouth Rebellion, ended up as slaves in the Caribbean. But what happened to the black slaves in this movie? Jamaica and other British controlled islands in the Caribbean had received more African slaves than any other part of the Empire during the late 17th and 18th centures. I did managed to spot one or two amongst the slaves on Colonel Bishop’s estate. And he did have house slaves that were black. But at least one of them spoke with an American South dialect, prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. I realize that “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is a Hollywood film. But since most of the movie managed to either be historically correct . . . or at least close to being accurate, why did it fall short in its portrayal of Caribbean slavery?
On the other hand, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” featured some excellent dramatic scenes. And the best of the bunch featured Flynn. I was especially impressed by the scene that featured Blood and his fellow prisoners being sentenced to slavery in Jamaica by a very hostile judge, Blood’s hostile reaction to being purchased by Arabella, his discovery of the body of his friend Jeremy Pitt, the fallout between Blood and Lavasseur, the revelation by a royal courtier that the hated James II had been replaced by his daughter and son-in-law – Mary and William of Orange, and especially the last fight between him and Arabella before she is sent ashore to Port Royal near the end of the film. And Flynn was ably assisted in these scenes by De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander and Henry Stephenson.
Speaking of the film’s performances, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” possessed a number of good, solid performances by a supporting cast that included Guy Kibbee, Forrester Harvey, Frank McGlynn Sr. and Robert Barrat, who portrayed members of Blood’s crew. Also portraying a member of Blood’s crew was Ross Alexander. Many critics have claimed that if Alexander had not comitted suicide over a year following the movie’s release, he might have become an acclaimed screen actor. Quite frankly, I do not know. Alexander’s performance in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” seemed personable and competent, but I never really saw the magic. Although the cast members portraying Blood’s crew had their moments of humor, the prize for the funniest performance belonged to – in my opinion – George Steed as Jamaica’s Governor Steed, who suffered from a gouty foot.
Basil Rathbone only appeared in a handful of scenes in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” and was clearly not the main villain. But his performance as the lusty and avaricious Captain Levasseur was extremely memorable. More importantly, his Levasseur struck me as more human than his roles in both “ROBIN HOOD” and “THE MARK OF ZORRO”. I wish I could say the same about Lionel Atwill. Mind you, his performance as the brutal Colonel Bishop was solid, but there were times when it came across as unoriginal.
Olivia DeHavilland was superb in her first leading role as Arabella, the brutal Colonel Bishop’s niece and Peter Blood’s owner. Her character did not have a great impact upon the plot – aside from her capture by Levasseur leading to a duel between him and Blood. But her Arabella was no limpid damsel-in-distress, whose only role was to be the object of Blood’s desire. DeHavilland projected a great deal of energy, fire and wit into her performance. No wonder she and Flynn had such a strong screen chemistry.
But no matter how good the cast was, the real star behind “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was the Tasmanian born Errol Flynn. Jack Warner and Hal Wallis took a great chance in casting him in the lead, considering that he was a virtual unknown. And that gamble paid off tenfold. This is the fifth Flynn movie I have watched in great detail. To this day, I do not understand the old prevailing view that he was not much of an actor. Peter Blood was his first major role as a film actor and if I may be frank, Flynn gave one hell of a performance. Aside from a hammy moment when Blood finally declare his love for Arabella, Flynn’s acting was very natural. And like DeHavilland, he portrayed his character with a great deal of fire, energy and more importantly, anger. Flynn’s portrayal of the hot-headed Peter Blood is probably one of the better debut performances in Hollywood films.
Other reviewers of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” have commented favorably on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Honestly? I did not find it that memorable. In fact, I cannot remember anything about it. Just a lot of horns and strings. I am not carelessly putting down Korngold’s talent, because I was very impressed by his “ROBIN HOOD” score of three years later. I simply cannot say the same about his “CAPTAIN BLOOD” score. However, I was very impressed by the movie’s cinematography shot by Warner Brothers’ own Ernest Haller and Hal Mohr. I have mixed feelings about Anton Grot’s art direction. Granted, I was impressed by the sets for the Port Royal sequences. But the art design for the English sequences resembled fake set designs for a play and the sets for Blood’s ship lacked the claustrophobic feel of a real ship.
Granted, “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is not perfect. It has flaws that include an uneven pacing, questionable action sequences and an unmemorable score – at least for me. In fact, I have seen better blockbusters that starred Errol Flynn during that period. But I must admit that it is still a first-rate movie, even after 74 years. And it made for a dazzling debut for the Australian actor.