Australian Errol Flynn made a splashy Hollywood debut in 1935’s CAPTAIN BLOOD, a big, sprawling epic about pirates of the Caribbean. But this captain’s no Jack Sparrow, he’s a virile man of action who leads his crew from slavery to salvation and wins the hand of beautiful Olivia de Haviland in the process. Director Michael Curtiz was given an almost million dollar budget for this one, and he pulled out all the stops, with large-scale battle scenes and the proverbial cast of thousands.
It’s the year 1685, and England is going through a rebellion to depose tyrannical King James II. Doctor Peter Blood is summoned by his friend Jeremy Pitt to help some men wounded in battle. They’re interrupted by the King’s men, who arrest and charge them with high treason. The rebels are held for three months under brutal conditions before being sentenced to hang. But King James has a more dastardly idea, and sends Blood and the rebels to the West Indies to be sold into slavery. The men are shipped to Jamaica, where they’re bought by the cruel Colonel Bishop at twenty pounds per man to work in his sugar mill. The impudent Blood almost gets condemned to labor in the mines, but Bishop’s niece Arabella takes a liking to him and buys Blood for herself, for a measly ten pounds. Blood is resentful of the smitten young lass, who also helps him get a position as doctor to the island’s incompetent, gout ridden Governor, while the rest of the rebels suffer torture and whippings courtesy of her sadistic uncle.
Blood and his men plan an escape, which is suspected by Bishop, who flogs Jeremy. When the good doctor tries to comfort his friend, Bishop intercedes. He’s about to receive the same treatment when cannon fire rings out. The city of Port Royal is under attack by Spanish pirates, and the rebels escape during the battle. They commandeer a Spanish ship, and decide to become pirates themselves, a “brotherhood of buccaneers” beholden to no country. Now-Captain Blood leads his crew of privateers in an onslaught of looting and kidnapping, while the hateful Bishop is appointed new governor, vowing revenge.
In the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, Blood forms a partnership with devious Frenchman Levasseur. Meanwhile, Arabella returns from a trip to England with envoy Lord Willoughby. Levasseur and his men capture the ship and hold them hostage, with the pirate planning to keep Arabella for himself. Blood and his men arrive and, in a reversal of fortune, he buys Arabella as his slave. Levasseur protests, and the two captains engage in a swordfight won by Blood. When Arabella rebuffs Blood for his pirate ways, he orders the crew to return her to Jamaica, despite the fact that the English fleet is at Port Royal. The ship arrives at the harbor only to discover French warships, and it’s then that Willoughby explains England and France are at war. He offers Blood’s crew a pardon and commission in the Royal Navy, which they scoff at until hearing the scoundrel King James has been deposed, and England’s now ruled by good King William III. Blood and his men raise a captured French flag and sail into Port Royal, engaging the warships in a blazing sea battle. Victorious, Captain Blood wins the heart of fair Arabella, and Willoughby appoints him new governor of Jamaica, much to Bishop’s chagrin!
Warner Brothers took a huge gamble in casting newcomer Flynn to star in this lavish production, but it paid off and made Flynn a name to be reckoned with in Hollywood. He remained so for the next twenty years, despite his “wicked, wicked ways” as a notorious womanizer, drinker, and secret heroin addict. His costar was fairly new to the screen at the time, too. Nineteen year old Olivia de Haviland had made three films prior to the role of Arabella Bishop, and the teaming of Flynn and de Haviland made sparks fly. The duo did eight films together, including the outstanding THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in 1938. Errol and Olivia were made for each other onscreen, though the demure de Haviland didn’t approve of Errol’s real-life philandering. She was “the girl who got way”, but they did remain friends through his life.
CAPTAIN BLOOD features a cast of Hollywood’s best, including that master villain Lionel Atwill as the evil Colonel Bishop. Basil Rathbone portrays Levasseur, and the movie features that great duel between Blood and the Frenchman. This was the first screen swordfight pitting Flynn against Rathbone (both were accomplished fencers), and would be elaborated on in ROBIN HOOD. Ross Alexander (Jeremy) was being groomed for better things at Warners, with featured parts in large films and starring roles in B’s like BRIDES ARE LIKE THAT and HOT MONEY. But the unfortunate Alexander was a closeted homosexual whose first wife (in what was known as “a marriage of convenience” back then) killed herself. Struggling with depression, debt, and a potential gay sex scandal, Alexander committed suicide in 1937, tragically ending what was once a promising career. There are plenty of others from the Familiar Face Brigade onboard, such as Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, Donald Meek, J Carrol Naish, Leonard Mudie, E.E. Clive, and Matthew “Stymie” Beard.
The rousing score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, one of Hollywood’s pioneers in film music. The Romantic composer won an Oscar for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and wrote the film music for ANTHONY ADVERSE, THE SEA HAWK, and KING’S ROW before turning to symphonies and operas in the late forties. Casey Robinson’s screenplay is full of wit and action, and was a write-in candidate for the Oscar that year. Some of Robinson’s other works were DARK VICTORY, NOW VOYAGER, THE SNOWS OF KILAMANJARO, and 1962’s THE SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, starring Errol’s own son Sean Flynn. CAPTAIN BLOOD is based on the novel by the prolific Rafael Sabatini, whose historical adventures were popular in the early 20th century. Sabatini’s works were brought to the screen numerous times, with SCARAMOUCHE, THE SEA HAWK, and THE BLACK SWAN among the more well-known titles. There’s action, adventure, and romance galore in this movie, and a charming debut by Errol Flynn. The language, the swordplay, and the sexy screen team of Flynn and de Haviland all combine to make CAPTAIN BLOOD one of the most entertaining swashbucklers to grace the Silver Screen. The only thing that could improve this film is if it were shot in color. Don’t let that stop you from watching, because CAPTAIN BLOOD is just as glorious in black & white, a great Hollywood movie that can be enjoyed over and over again.