Wednesday 18 March 2015

Movie Review: Captain Blood (1935)

One of the original swashbuckling epics, Captain Blood offers an absorbing story about an English doctor turned pirate in the late 1600s.

It's the 1680s in England, and a revolution against King James II is underway. Doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is sitting out the rebellion, but is anyway arrested for treason while performing his humanitarian duty and tending to the injuries of a rebel. Blood is spared the death penalty and dispatched as a slave to Port Royal, Jamaica. He is purchased by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the niece of local military commander Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill). Blood puts his medical skills to use and earns some level of freedom by helping to treat the gout condition of the island's governor.

Blood and some of the other slaves including his friends Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander) and Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee) start to plan an escape from the island, but their scheming is disrupted when a Spanish war ship attacks the port. Blood and his cohorts are able to take command of the ship and set sail into the Caribbean, becoming the most feared pirates in the region. Blood accumulates wealth by sacking merchant ships, and tangles with French pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), but with the winds of change blowing through England, he has to again face his destiny in Port Royal.

Warner Bros. plonked virtual unknowns Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland into the starring roles of a $1 million epic, teamed them with director Michael Curtiz, and emerged with a timeless classic and one of Hollywood's most enduring screen couples. Captain Blood offers a rich story, patient build-ups, witty dialogue, an impressive scale, some gripping action and combat scenes, and plenty of heart.

The Casey Robinson script (an adaptation of a Rafael Sabatini novel) creates a charismatic and compelling central character who easily sustains the two hours of running time. In a remarkable display of mature film making, the first hour is invested in Blood's story before he became a pirate. This is time well spent, and Blood emerges as a rounded character, his background, motivations and beliefs carrying through to his days terrorizing the waters of the Caribbean.

Blood allows his mouth to frequently get him into trouble, a case of principle triumphing over convenience. His outspokenness also helps to get him noticed, which works for and against him in various situations. Blood helps to confirm that history is shaped by the brave, but they only earn their rewards after suffering as a result of their courage to stand for what is right.

Captain Blood excels at sub-plots and secondary themes to supplement the main protagonist. The relationship between Blood and Arabella is immediately electric, and the plot arcs beautifully to allow each to own the other. There are examples of camaraderie among Blood's men, a strong moral code even within the pirate community, and Blood takes to the sword to defend the virtues of women.

The film ends with a stunning naval battle, as Blood and his shipmates throw caution to the wind to reclaim their pride as citizens of a nation. Curtiz choreographs a spectacular 25 minute sequence of large war ships charging and trading fire at close quarters, resulting in mayhem, destruction and glory.

Flynn commands the screen with unconstrained charisma. Always a better actor than he was given credit for, Flynn has relatively few swashbuckling scenes and spends most of the film as a slave and a captive maintaining his dignity in the face of injustice. Once transformed into a pirate Flynn turns on his leadership wattage and it proves simply irresistible. De Havilland quickly establishes herself a worthy screen partner, her chin-up determination a perfect fit with Flynn's bravado.

Flynn and de Havilland would go on to co-star in a total of eight films, seven of them directed by Curtiz. It all started at the docks in Port Royal, with de Havilland offering $10 and buying herself a man.

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