In Like Flynn: CAPTAIN BLOOD (Warner Brothers 1935)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Get Buzzed With THE SWARM (Warner Brothers, 1978)

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The 1970s were the decade of the all-star disaster movie, and nobody made ’em like Irwin Allen. The Master of Disaster opened the floodgates for this genre with 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, following quickly with the red-hot 1974 mega-hit THE TOWERING INFERNO. Soon Hollywood was unleashing one disaster film after another: EARTHQUAKE, AVALANCHE, SKYJACKED, and so on. But Allen was a sci-fi guy at heart, having made his mark with TV shows like LOST IN SPACE, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE TIME TUNNEL, and LAND OF THE GIANTS. Combining the two seemed natural for Allen, so together with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, they concocted THE SWARM.

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A missile base has been mysteriously attacked, killing the communications crew. General Slater (Richard Widmark) rides in on a chopper, leading the troops. Brad Crane (Michael Caine), a Ph D entomologist (studier of bugs), is on base for reasons unknown, so the General holds him prisoner. A “moving black mass” on the radar screen reveals a giant cloud of “millions of bees”, that attacks some military helicopters, which crash and burn (lots of crashing and burning in this one!) Meanwhile, the sleepy little town of Marysville is holding their annual flower festival, where we’re introduced to a love triangle between two elderly gentlemen (Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray) and a spinster schoolteacher (Olivia de Haviland,,,,hey, what’s SHE doing here!!)

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The President places Crane in control of the bee problem, to the chagrin of General Slater. Crane assembles a crew of experts including immunologist Dr. Krimm (Henry Fonda) and Dr. Kildare, I mean Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain). There’s a military doctor, Captain Anderson (Katherine Ross), on board, too, and of course she and Crane get all googly-eyed and lovey-dovey during the movie’s course. Slater assigns his assistant (Bradford Dillman) to keep an eye on the scientist. The rest of THE SWARM is a bunch of set-pieces for the action. Killer bees attack picnickers! Killer bees attack Marysville! Killer bees attack a train! Killer bees attack a nuclear facility!! The military attack the killer bees, burning down half of Houston in the process! Killer bees retailiate and attack the military! Finally (thank God!), Crane comes up with the answer to stop the bees from attacking by luring them to sea via sonic waves (shades of INVISIBLE INVADERS!!), where the military blows the swarm to kingdom come with missiles!!

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Allen directed THE SWARM himself, and he pretty much lets the actors do what they want, which is to overact and collect their paychecks. Those slo-mo shots of bee attacks are ludicrous, not frightening at all. Stirling Silliphant’s script is paint-by-numbers hokum, a far cry from his Oscar-winning IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, not to mention his classic TV series ROUTE 66. Besides those I cited earlier, we get what amounts to cameo roles from Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Cameron Mitchell, and Donald ‘Red’ Barry. Sadly, this was Fred MacMurray’s last film appearance.

THE SWARM came at the tail end of the disaster cycle. Allen made a couple more (BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, WHEN TIME RAN OUT) before returning to television. The all-star disaster epic was spoofed by 1980’s AIRPLANE!, and is revived every now and then (ARMAGGEDON, of instance). I guess if your interested in playing Spot the Star, you might enjoy this film. Otherwise, I suggest you find another way to get your buzz on than watching THE SWARM.

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