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Captain Blood (1935): The Swashbuckling Nerd

This post is part of the Swashathon! A Blogathon of Swashbuckling Adventure, hosted by Fritzi at Movies, Silently. Read the other adventure-filled posts in this event HERE!

When Fritzi announced the Swashaton and I noticed the 1935 film Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, was still available, I quickly claimed it.

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Based on a Rafael Sabatini novel, Flynn (in his first major role), de Havilland, a surgeon unjustly sold into slavery during the Monmouth revolution who later becomes a notorious pirate–what’s not to love?

It’s not as if I’d never seen it. I had. Many years ago, and I remember loving it.

My opinion of the movie has changed a little bit since then.

Maybe it’s because the point of this blogathon is swashbuckling. Captain Blood has one of the longest first acts of any movie I’ve ever seen, and nobody swashes any buck until a good hour into the movie.

That’s not to say the first hour of the movie is not engrossing. It is. Dr. Peter Blood (Flynn) is summoned by his friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander) to attend to a man who has been fighting in the Monmouth Revolution. We are treated to a long exposition dump where Blood explains to his maid that he has no desire to fight because he spent many years fighting abroad, and wants a quiet life raising (get this) geraniums.

It’s kind of a clunky scene, which surprises me, since Michael Curtiz is the director, and I’ve rarely met up with a Curtiz movie I didn’t at least like, if not flat-out loved.

At any rate, Blood is caught tending to the rebel and immediately arrested. When brought before the judge, all the men around him plead guilty. He decides to pop off his mouth about how he is not guilty. The judge is unimpressed, even when Blood diagnoses him from across the room with a terminal disease.

Instead of hanging them for treason, the king is persuaded to send the lot to the West Indies as slaves. Arriving in Port Royal, Blood catches the eye of Arabella Bishop (de Havilland), niece of Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill). Upset when her uncle refuses to buy him (because, once again, he gets a little too mouthy for his own good) she buys him herself to save him from mine work. Then she’s miffed that he’s not properly grateful.

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Arabella didn’t do him much of a favor. Life as a slave for her uncle is no better than working in the mines. Blood lucks out when he is brought in to treat the governor of the island and succeeds in relieving him of pain from gout. He’s such a good doctor that other doctors on the island are soon without work. He strikes a bargain with them to help him escape Port Royal in a boat.

Fate steps in when a ship full of Spanish buccaneers arrives at Port Royal. While they sack the town, Peter and his fellow slaves seize their ship and begin a successful life as pirates. Their success is credited to Blood being smart as well as brave.

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Because the governor in Port Royal is unable to contain pirate activity in the region, he is replaced with Colonel Bishop, who becomes obsessed with capturing Blood and his crew. On a trip back from England with one Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson), Arabella’s ship is captured by Blood’s pirate colleague Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). Levasseur had recently agreed to a “you’re the brains, I’m the brawn” type of partnership with Blood, which even Blood realizes is going to end badly.

Up to this point there has still been minimal swashbuckling action–until Blood discovers Levasseur has possession of Arabella. Although he claims he will ransom her, Blood perceives Levasseur means to keep her for himself.

FINALLY, we get a sword fight.

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It’s a pretty good one, too, considering at this point in his career Flynn was still uncomfortable with sword fighting, but Rathbone was not, which helped make it better than it might have been.

(Before Rathbone shows up I kept thinking I must have dreamed seeing his name in the credits. His role is little more than a cameo, but, as usual, it’s a memorable bit.)

Now in possession of Arabella (who is–oh, how ironic!–miffed to be “owned” by Blood) and Lord Willoughby, Blood and his men are amused to find out Willoughby was on a mission to persuade them to join the king in a fight against the French. They categorically refuse, until they find out the king who made them slaves, James II, has now been deposed by King William III and Queen Mary. They gladly agree to the terms of their pardons and speed off to save Port Royal, which is under siege by two French ships.

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So it isn’t until the third act of the film that we get a big pirate battle scene, and it’s a dilly, a nice pay-off for waiting so patiently through the first two thirds of the movie. Blood and his men defeat the French and save Port Royal. He and Arabella finally admit their love for each other. As a reward for his bravery, Blood is made governor of the island.

Watching the movie now it’s hard to believe Flynn had a pretty bad case of nerves during the first part of filming. Luckily, Curtiz gave him the chance to redo some of the early filming once his confidence grew. In the end, Flynn takes command of the movie as well as Blood takes command of his crew. While the movie is flawed, it certainly cemented Flynn as a rising action star, and kicked off one of Hollywood’s most successful romantic lead partnerships.

I just wish it was a tad more swashy.

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19 thoughts on “Captain Blood (1935): The Swashbuckling Nerd

  1. Look forward to watching this one. It’s funny how so many swashbuckling classics are actually quite light on the elements that supposedly make them ‘swash’ – when I came to write about The Count of Monte Cristo I found exactly the same thing. I guess it’s more to do with embodying a certain spirit!

    1. It could be we’re conditioned by modern pop culture to expect a whole lot of action in “action-y” genres. Good point about embodying a certain spirit. That probably matters more than anything else.

  2. I loved this part from your post: “…wants a quiet life raising (get this) geraniums”. That line, in the movie, always makes me laugh.

    Yes, it’s hard to imagine Flynn being nervous during filming. It just doesn’t show! But, I guess that’s why he was a paid, professional actor.

    Great post, as usual. 🙂

  3. You have a point about waiting a long time for the buckles to swash. But picture this. You and your little brother are going to the movies in 1935 to see some pirate movie, when you really wanted to see a romance story with Garbo. And then Errol Flynn flashes his dashing self on the screen. Plot might go out there window. Imagine the swoons of the ladies when they first say THIS movie. Enjoyed your post very much. And Flynn was commanding in his first featured role.

  4. Thanks so much for joining in! I went through a huge Rafael Sabatini thing when I was a teen and so I actually read the book and its sequels before I saw this film. I too was disappointed in it as many of the swashing elements (most notably an extended cycle of vengeance with a Spanish captain) were cut, likely for length. A real shame.

    1. Phew, I thought I would be flayed alive (or at least made to walk the plank) for pointing out the surprising lack of swash.

      Speaking of the sequels, my mom likes to tell the story of how I was taken to see The Son of Captain Blood (starring Flynn’s son Sean) when I was a wee child. She said I came back from the movie very excited and talking all day about Captain Blood! I would have covered it for the blogathon, but apparently it’s pretty much unavailable.

      Thanks for hosting this great blogathon!

  5. I’ve never seen this (or many other Flynn films — I really need to rectify that), but it strikes me as having an accurate depiction of us Brits: we’ll fight amongst ourselves tooth and nail… until the French come along, then we’re all on the same side!

  6. It’s interesting to see how Flynn’s lack of confidence could mirror the character’s situation as a doctor sold into slavery, don’t you think? And, indeed, at the end Flynn is totally confident! It is a great movie!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    1. I’m always amazed when I read about actors who have stage fright or struggle with a lack of confidence. It’s so impressive when they overcome it to the point that the audience never notices it.

  7. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. I found it enjoyable throughout, and can forgive the exposition, because they’re basically introducing not just the character, but Flynn himself, to audiences, and I didn’t find it dragged the movie down. It’s one of my favorites of Flynn’s, and his chemistry with de Havilland is also a major factor. Nice write-up nonetheless, even if I like it more than you.

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