Captain Blood (1935)
Written by Casey Robinson
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Michael Curtiz was born Manó Kaminer in 1866 Hungary. His parents were Jews, his father a carpenter, and his mother an opera singer. They were lower-middle class and had times where it was a struggle to put food on the table. Curtiz loved the theater as a child and even constructed a tiny stage in his family’s basement when he was 8 years old. After high school, he joined a traveling theater troupe and performed throughout Europe. At age 26, Curtiz took his first theatrical directing gig and even fenced on the Hungarian Olympic Fencing team that year. Just a couple years later, World War I would pull young men into a brutal conflict, including Curtiz. From there, he was carried to a burgeoning film scene in Germany, where Curtiz truly learned the craft. In 1926, he came to the United States and began directing for Warner Brothers. That filmmaking partnership would span 28 years and 86 films, some of which are the most acclaimed films of the era. With 1935’s Captain Blood, Curtiz would see his star soar and the best work of his career just beginning.
Based on a 1922 novel, the story begins in 17th century England as Pitchfork Rebellion occurs. Doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is arrested after attending to a wounded rebel and sent to the West Indies to be sold into slavery. Once in Port Royal, Jamaica, Blood is bought by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Haviland), the niece of local military commander Colonel Bishop. Blood uses his medical expertise to gain more privileges and unrestricted movement than his fellow slaves. This allows him to concoct a plan to help himself and a band of men to escape their imprisonment.
During a nighttime raid by the Spanish, Blood realizes their ship would make a perfect escape vehicle, so the men rebel. Unable to return to England, Blood becomes well-known as a pirate in the Caribbean. He forms a tenuous partnership with the treacherous French Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). This working relationship is challenged when Colonel Bishop’s attacks on their pirate fleet send Arabella into the clutches of the treacherous Frenchman. Blood must decide whether he will be a scurvy sea dog or become a noble hero on the high seas.
For moviegoers that enjoy swashbuckling on the screen in films like The Princess Bride or The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, they owe a debt of gratitude to Curtiz and Captain Blood. There’s a framework being refined here (the 1935 talkie was a sequel to a 1924 silent film) that will shape everything to come in the action-adventure genre. This movie would also profoundly influence Curtiz’s later work, particularly The Adventures of Robin Hood, where he once again cast Errol Flynn in the title role and is packed to the brim with sword fights. To be fair, Douglas Fairbanks was the first big-screen swashbuckler in silent cinema, and he certainly paved a path, but Flynn is the type of actor that the industry shaped an entire archetypal role around.
The picture is not perfect, and the budget shows in the obvious soundstage sets in many scenes. The film is two hours long, and I don’t know if the plot has enough meat on its bones to justify that, causing the picture to drag in the middle. There are also two frustrating montages where we see glimpses of Blood and his crew starting their pirate careers, and I really wanted to know that learning process. How do you become a pirate? However, the two stars, Flynn & DeHaviland, are perfectly charming, and the supporting cast is full of entertaining character actors.
A wonderful theme runs through the film about the oppressive economic systems controlling the world under imperialism. Blood enacts wealth redistribution on his ship, having all the loot put in a pile and doled out in shares, with extra going to anyone who lost a limb in the last encounter. It’s amusing to know that Flynn was so nervous about playing the role of Blood he was shaking on film and had to be coached by Curtiz for this first significant role. Anecdotes like this show how slick the current studio system is with actors who seem brewed in a tank to be action stars in perpetuity. It’s nice to know that once upon a time, the screen heroes were just regular people worried about being embarrassed on screen. Captain Blood would be nominated for Academy Awards and propelled Curtiz to even bigger projects.