Judge Maurice Cobbs watches Errol Flynn show Johnny Depp how it's supposed to be done.
"Up the riggings, you monkeys! Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that's carrying us all to freedom!"—Dr. Peter Blood
Warner Bros. has earned a most deserved reputation for giving their classic releases the royal treatment as a matter of course—a practice that some other studios, like Paramount or MGM, could benefit from adopting as well. The good folks over at the WB have made it a practice to deck their classics out with a variety of excellent extras, and Captain Blood is no exception. With movie trailers, fun musical shorts, newsreel footage and even a cartoon, Warner Bros. goes the extra mile in giving DVD fans a taste of the complete classic movie experience in their own homes. Bravo!
And what an experience Captain Blood is! A roaring adventure tale from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood is chock full of cannons and swordplay, heroism and treachery, war and romance, a beautiful heroine, and an impossibly handsome hero so lusty and full of vigor that it's difficult to catch your breath as the movie careens from one thrilling scene to the next.
Facts of the Case
Errol Flynn's first starring Hollywood role casts him in the part of 17th-century Irish physician Dr. Peter Blood, a former soldier who "hung up the sword and picked up the lancet" but is wrongfully convicted of treason against King James II and condemned to slavery in the Caribbean after treating a wounded rebel. Blood's defiance catches the eye of the beautiful Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress), niece of the cruel plantation owner Col. Bishop (Lionel Atwill); she purchases Blood, but he eventually escapes with several of his fellow slaves and forms a band of dreaded Caribbean pirates. Soon, he finds himself in a partnership with another pirate, Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone, The Mark of Zorro) and at war with the colonial government of Jamaica. "And thus, 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!…Blood!…BLOOD!"
The phrase "they just don't make 'em like this any more" has never been so accurately used as when it describes Captain Blood.
Few adventure films move along at such a rapid clip—filled to capacity with action and adventure and romance and betrayal and revenge, Captain Blood creates even greater impact because of the incredible screen appeal of the two leads. Errol Flynn practically explodes off the screen; granted, at this point in his career, he is carrying the role of Dr. Peter Blood more through charisma and bravado than through acting skill, but the raw talent is undeniable, if unrefined. If Captain Blood were made today, it would have likely been injected with a crippling dose of irony—destroying the heart of the movie. But Flynn can deliver lines like the one quoted above in The Charge with so much enthusiasm and sincerity that it is not difficult to see how his men would be willing to follow him to Hell and back. What an incredible find for Warner Bros.! Flynn represents the best of both worlds: His smoldering sex appeal was irresistible to women (even without his trademark moustache), and his dazzling heroism gave the men a healthy dose of action. Hard to believe that for Warner Bros., casting Flynn in his first lead role was considered to be a risk.
The very young and very beautiful Olivia de Havilland is perfect casting opposite the rollicking Flynn—so perfect, in fact, that the pair would be teamed together numerous times more, in memorable films such as They Died With their Boots On, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and of course The Adventures of Robin Hood. The two are electric together, and never so much as in Captain Blood. Arabella winds up purchasing Blood for 10 pounds—has any woman ever gotten more value for her money?—and of course there's a romance brewing before too long. An interesting romance, it's sort of a role reversal; remember, in this situation, it's the woman who's in the position of power. If there's a crime here, it's that Olivia simply isn't given enough to do with her character, so the fact that she manages to do so much in such a limited amount of time is indicative of her abilities as an actress.
Basil Rathbone also makes the most of a very limited and rather sketchy character (so much of this movie is carried off by charisma!) as he brings his own style and swagger to the treacherous pirate king Levasseur. Let's face it: We love Rathbone when he's good (as in the Sherlock Holmes series), but when he's bad, he's exceptional. For this role, Rathbone discovered fencing, and enjoyed it enough to take it up seriously as a sport. Forrester Harvey (The Invisible Man, 1933), as Honesty Nuttall, adds comic relief in a role that might have been filled by Alan Hale (and would be in subsequent Flynn adventures). Ross Alexander (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935) adds the part of Jeremy Pitt to his all too short list of screen credits; a handsome and talented actor, he would tragically commit suicide two years after Captain Blood at the age of 29. Able contract players like Lionel Atwill, Guy Kibbee (The Bad Man of Brimstone), and Henry Stephenson (Down Argentine Way) round out the cast, but none of the supporting actors manage to shine as brightly as the two leads. Which is no criticism of their talents, only a recognition of the incredible screen presence of Flynn and de Havilland.
Director Michael Curtiz leaps into Captain Blood with the passionate intensity that he brought to all of his projects, and here, the action hardly ever lets up, on the land or on the sea…if there's one thing this movie is not, it's boring! Curtiz evokes a dreamy sort of reality with his hypnotic, graceful camera flow and masterful direction; so many of the shots reminded me of the old sort of pen-and-ink drawings or sepia wash illustrations that you used to find in adventure books like Treasure Island or Kidnapped. This feeling is only encouraged by the rather sparse sets, which Curtiz uses to advantage, adding the proper tone and atmosphere to the story with moody, stretching shadows. Although Curtiz's dictatorial personality did not mesh well with Flynn's more free-spirited nature, you can't argue with results, especially results like this movie…The Sea Hawk, and Dodge City, and The Charge of the Light Brigade, among others. Adding to the sweeping excitement of Captain Blood is the rousing action score by legendary film music composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold; his robust themes emphasize the robust characters and action on the screen, and it's hard not to feel a tingle of excitement right from the opening fanfare.
Captain Blood looks good, but not spectacular, probably more the fault of the source print than the transfer. There are noticeable flaws, such as the occasional spottiness, brightness shifts, and assorted other glitches that plague the older classic movies. However, these detract little from the enjoyment of the film, and in fact, some may consider these little flaws added touches of nostalgia. Likewise, the sound is perfectly adequate mono, at least as good as it was in 1935, and probably a lot better; the dialogue, sound effects, and Korngold's score all come through with punch.
As I mentioned earlier, Warner Bros. has made going the extra mile a standard practice for their classic movie releases with "A Night At The Movies"; this time Leonard Maltin kicks things off with the theatrical trailer for A Midsummer Night's Dream, followed by a vintage newsreel describing the impending execution of the man convicted of the Lindberg baby kidnapping and murder, Bruno Hauptmann; FDR's pledge to keep America "unentangled and free" from the trouble in Europe; the airplane crash that killed Will Rogers and Wiley Post; and other news items of interest. Also included are a musical short featuring Johnny Green and His Orchestra and a comedy short with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy called "All-American Drawback." And of course a cartoon; this time, it's a bit of Merrie Melodies silliness called "Billboard Frolics."
Our favorite film historians, such as the affable Robert Osborne and the avuncular Rudy Behlmer, offer a little insight into the production of Captain Blood as well as its stars and director in the 23-minute featurette "Captain Blood: A Swashbuckler Is Born." And just for fun, they've also tossed in the Lux Radio Theater version of Captain Blood, produced by Cecil B. De Mille and starring Flynn, de Havilland, and Rathbone and hosted by Herbert Marshall. Trying to condense this story into an hour may seem like folly, but it's actually carried off quite nicely. Just remember to use Lux toilet soap "to protect daintiness."
So, I hope you're all clear on what a buccaneer is. It's a heck of a lot to pay for corn, is what. (Heh. I got a million of 'em.) Anyway, Captain Blood offers up rousing adventure and romance with a grin and a flashing sword and tongue in nary a cheek. Excellent!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1939
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