The series of naval pictures of the thirties continue with ”Captain Blood”, the swashbuckling adventure film of 1935.
This is the quintessential afternoon pirate film of my childhood. What more iconic image than Errol Flynn, the pirate, swinging in the rigging as he boards the enemy ship? This film falls solidly into the same category as “Robin Hood” a few years later in a type of movies perfected by Douglas Fairbanks a decade before.
Forget about realism or even consistency. If you dwell on that this film is one long groan. Never has the life of the pirate been as rosy pink and the setting as cartoonish. This is a Hollywood fairy tale with a good solid happy ending. As far as I can tell only a single person actually dies (and he deserved it for potentially violating women, mind you – not that he actually did it) and when the villain is caught the merry band of pirates throw him into the water to survive rather than hanging him. Considering the amount of canon fire and hand to hand combat there are remarkably few casualties.
No, this movie is far more family friendly, with dashing heroes, fair maidens and plenty of funny (lame?) sidekicks. Everything is a tad overdone, including the acting, for max entertaining value. And it is entertaining. It is fun and exciting, with a good pace and sufficient storyline to be interesting. Once I decided to ignore the anachronisms and lack of realism I genuinely enjoyed watching it.
Errol Flynn with his Prince Valiant haircut is every bit the hero. He is the embodiment of gallantry, stoicism, backbone and can-do spirit. He will stand up against injustice and protect the innocent and he will fight to get his way, all the while proclaiming and laughing as if he is speaking to a theater audience. That is the kind of acting that works better if you are 12 years old than if you are 40. But if we for a moment pretend to be hopelessly naïve you just will not find a more dashing swashbuckler. And to his benefit, he is laughing less than in “Robin Hood”.
Warner Brothers gives us an entire hall of fame of actors in this film. We get Basil Rathbone as the colorful and frankly more believable pirate captain Levasseur, Olivia de Havilland as the fair-maiden Arabella and Guy Kibee who for once is not a dirty old man with money but a dirty old man with cannons. Plus a lot more. In fact the scale of this movie is staggering for its period. So many elaborate sets and colorful characters.
My favorite sets are those involving the ships. “Mutiny on the Bounty” may be more realistic with its taste of salt water, but boy, are the ships of “Captain Blood” magnificent! Those tall ships make my heart jump and blazing full sail on the high seas they carry the dreams of any boy. So much more pain to see them locked in battle chopping each other to splinters. Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Ohoy!
It is curious how the pirate of the Caribbean has become such a staple theme. I wonder where it comes from. I have lost count of the films and stories made on this theme and as a teenager I was playing Pirates! on my computer with great vigour. A romantic air has always surrounded these bandits, who are more often described as romantic heroes with a soft spot for damsels in distress and an overriding code of honor that seemed at odds with the entire pirate business. It is tempting to find the source of this image with the free spirit nature of the pirate and “Captain Blood”, the movie, in particular, but I think it goes back a long time before that.
While pirates have been the scourge of the high seas since antiquity and as a matter of fact still are, they did receive glory during early colonial times when governments in Europe equipped rouge captains with letters of marque to do “authorized” piracy. Some of these captains became heroes of their country, most notably Francis Drake, and the nature of their practice was thereby overlooked by the greater good they were doing for their country and king. For the victims I doubt there was much of a difference.
If you want to spend an easy afternoon and do not mind taking off the critical glasses you can do a lot worse that watching “Captain Blood”. Maybe as a double feature together with “Robin Hood”. Bring some popcorn and soft drinks.