...a great costume epic and quite a lot of fun.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"In like Flynn" became a catch phrase evermore.

And with the release of "Captain Blood" in 1935, Errol Flynn officially took over the reins from Douglas Fairbanks (who made his last film in 1934) as Hollywood's greatest swashbuckler.

Yes, "Captain Blood" has any number of notable distinctions, not the least of them being Flynn. After he appeared in several smaller roles, Flynn's arrival as Doctor Peter Blood made him one of the biggest stars of all time. The movie was made for relatively little money, but it went on to become what many viewers and critics feel is one of the greatest pirate adventures of all time. And the movie was the start for one of Tinseltown's most notorious, scandalous, and legendary figures of all time, which Flynn recounted in his 1959 autobiography, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways."

Casey Robinson adapted the screenplay for "Captain Blood" from the 1922 novel (based in part, no doubt, on the exploits of Sir Henry Morgan) by Rafael Sabatini, the fellow who gave us such other high romances as "The Sea Hawk," "Scaramouche," and "The Black Swan." Equally important, I think, the film began a long association between Flynn and director Michael Curtiz, the pair going on together to produce "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "The Perfect Specimen," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Dodge City," "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," "Virginia City," "The Sea Hawk," "Sante Fe Trail," and "Dive Bomber."

Interestingly, none of this might have happened if Robert Donat hadn't passed on the role of Dr. Blood, and the relatively unknown Flynn hadn't been chosen to replace him at the last minute. Donat went on to win an Oscar a few years later as Mr. Chips. Serendipitous for all involved, I suppose.

If there's any problem with "Captain Blood," it's a problem every actor should enjoy. Flynn is so energetic, so gallant, and so charismatic in the film that there really isn't anybody else in the picture memorable enough to hold a scene with him; meaning that neither the heroine, played by Olivia de Havilland, nor the villains, played by Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone, are strong enough to do the film justice. So, it's Flynn's film from beginning to end, and he handles it wonderfully.

The story begins in 1685, as Dr. Peter Blood explains to his housekeeper that he is a former professional soldier who "hung up the sword and picked up the lancet," became "a man of peace and not of war; a healer, not a slayer." But circumstances force him back into the fight when he's arrested for attending to a man wounded in a rebellion against King James II. Blood and many of his friends are convicted of treason and sentenced to slavery in the Americas. At Port Royal he's bought by Miss Arabella Bishop (de Havilland), the beautiful daughter of a rich, local landowner and slave driver, Colonel Bishop (Atwill). It's clear that the lovely and very single Miss Bishop takes a liking to the young rogue at first sight.

Naturally, it isn't long before Blood and his companions escape the island, capturing a Spanish ship in the process, and become pirates on the high seas. Blood's only regret appears to be his leaving the beautiful Arabella behind. "And thus," we're told in bold text, "Captain Blood began his career of piracy...with a ship, a handful of men, and a brain...carving a crimson career...until his name became the terror of the Caribbean...the pride and toast of every buccaneer of the brotherhood of the Coast...Blood!"

The second half of the film recounts Blood's exploits as a pirate, and, needless to say, an adventurous reunion with Arabella amid much derring-do. Blood proves as chivalrous as he is smart and daring, one of his cardinal rules being that neither he nor his men are ever to harm a woman. And we get to see Flynn fence with Rathbone (as the treacherous pirate, Levasseur), a prelude to their famous duel later on in "Robin Hood."

As for the technical aspects of the production, they vary widely. The music is first-class, having been arranged by the noted classical composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was just turning his attention to Hollywood in 1935 and went on to become one of the leading figures in film music. His score for "Captain Blood" is often grand and heroic, in the mold of Richard Strauss before him and undoubtedly an inspiration for John Williams to come. The sets, however, are mostly sparse, the film's cost apparently being kept to a minimum. Yet director Curtiz makes the most of them, with many of the indoor scenes reflective of the German Expressionist movement a decade earlier.

Everything is here in "Captain Blood" for a rousing adventure--a dauntless hero, dastardly villains, a beautiful damsel in distress, sword fights, and battles at sea, all the while Curtiz pushing the story along with the precision of a Prussian military tactician and the warm incandescence of a French Impressionist painter. The result is a great costume epic and quite a lot of fun.

By the way, what's a buccaneer? A high price for corn. (Just wanted to see if you were still with me.)

The picture quality is only so-so for an older Warner Bros. film transfer to DVD. The original, black-and-white, fullscreen print was not put through a complete, frame-by-frame restoration because it shows occasional brightness shifts and more than a few lines, flecks, and age spots. They are not severe, but they are enough to remind us that we are watching a good but not perfect copy of the film. Likewise, object delineation is somewhat soft, and B&W contrasts are only average. The transfer itself seems excellent, though, with any possible added grain a matter of little consequence.

The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital reproduction of the original 1.0 monaural sonics. It seems a bit crude by today's state-of-the-art standards, but understand the movie was made only a few years after the introduction of sound to motion pictures. Yet it's as good as it got in 1935. The frequency response is understandably limited; the overall tone is a tad harsh, in music especially; and there is a very minor background noise, hardly noticeable.

The disc comes decked out with a healthy set of extras. First, Leonard Maltin hosts a "Warner Night at the Movies," a segment that tries to replicate a typical evening's entertainment at the movie house in 1935 by providing a vintage newsreel; a ten-minute musical short, "Johnny Green and His Orchestra"; an eleven-minute comedy short, "All-American Drawback," with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy; an early Merrie Melodies cartoon, "Billboard Frolics," in very early color; and a theatrical trailer for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." After that, there is a twenty-three minute featurette, "Captain Blood: A Swashbuckler Is Born," with commentary on the making of the movie by film historians Rudy Behlmer and Robert Osborne, author Bob Thomas, and others. Then, there is an audio-only bonus, the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "Captain Blood," with the film's stars. It was produced by Cecil B. De Mille, and it is hosted by Herbert Marshall; it's fifty-eight minutes long and divided into twenty-two chapters. Finally, there are thirty-two scene selections for the movie itself, plus a "Captain Blood" theatrical trailer.

In addition, if you buy "Captain Blood" in the boxed set, the "Errol Flynn Signature Collection," you also get the bonus disc, "The Adventures of Errol Flynn." Made in 2005, this eighty-six minute documentary covers everything about Flynn's life from his first screen test in Australia to his death by heart attack in 1959 at the age of fifty. The documentary is narrated by actor Ian Holm and contains numerous film clips as well as interviews with several of Flynn's ex wives; his daughter Deirdre Flynn; director Vincent Sherman; film historians Rudy Behlmer and Robert Osborne; producer Hal B. Wallis (archival); actors Richard Dreyfuss, Olivia de Havilland, Burt Reynolds, Joanne Woodward, Paul Picerni (archival), and David Niven (archival); writer Delmer Daves (archival); and many others. It hurries past the more lurid aspects of the actor's private life and rightly concentrates on his film legacy.

Parting Thoughts:
You may or may not agree that "Captain Blood" is the greatest pirate adventure of all time, but with Errol Flynn in the title role there's no denying it's one of the greatest. He makes the film work, every bit as much as Johnny Depp made "Pirates of the Caribbean" work. Without Flynn, "Blood" would probably have been just another silly, ho-hum potboiler. With him, it's a remarkable work of high adventure, charm, and romance. And it's got enough action to keep the attention span occupied of even a die-hard MTV watcher.

"Captain Blood" is available individually or in the six-disc boxed set mentioned above that also includes, chronologically, "Dodge City" (1939), "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939), "The Sea Hawk" (1940), "The Died With Their Boots On" (1941), and the documentary "The Adventures of Errol Flynn."


Film Value