Errol Flynn was only a small contract player for Warner Bros. going into Captain Blood but the swashbuckler propelled him to stardom.
The film takes us to England 1685 where Irish doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is just performing his duties as a doctor. Next thing you know, he is being arrested for treason against King James II (Vernon Steele). But rather than follow through with the death sentence from Judge Jeffreys (Leonard Muddie), the king decides it is better to transport Blood and other rebels to the West Indies and sell them into slavery. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Blood.
Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland) purchases Blood shortly after his arrival in Port Royal. He already has an escape plan in mind although one can tell that he’s grateful for Arabella recommending his physician services. In any event, Blood and other prisoners take advantage of a Spanish attack by taking control of a ship and end up becoming pirates. Over the next few years, Blood becomes very good at what he does while his reputation as a captain grows. Arabella’s uncle, Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), ends up as governor because the previous one couldn’t keep the pirates in control. It’ll lead to a fun callback later on!
After a few years, Arabella travels back from England along with Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson). A rival buccaneer, Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), decides to hold them for ransom. Bad idea. Next thing you know, Blood and Levasseur are dueling with each other. Scenes like this one are exactly why Flynn becomes a star of the screen. In spite of their past, Flynn takes both Arabella and Lord Willoughby to the docks. Unfortunately, things are not how they left the port. It’s under attack by French ships so Captain Blood rises up to the opportunity. He soon learns II is no longer king and William III is offering them pardons and a Royal Navy commission. Anyway, he leads the crew in battle and following their win, he is appointed as the new governor. The look on Colonel Bishop’s face when he learns Captain Blood is the new governor!
This wasn’t the first swashbuckler for the studio. However, it was a remake of a previous silent film. After all, swashbucklers were starting to become popular and it gave them an opportunity to remake a silent film. In what has become something of a trend in films starring Flynn, they borrowed footage from the earlier silent. For this film in particular, it’s the footage from the battle at sea.
Say what you will about director Michael Curtiz and his attitude towards actors but he was more than reliable behind the camera. He would go onto direct Flynn in 12 films although Flynn’s personal life off set did not always make the actor easy to direct. And yet, you’re watching an actor propel into superstardom as a result of Captain Blood. Meanwhile, this was the first of seven or eight films to star both Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
One of the big achievements for the film is a stirring symphonic score from composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Initially reluctant, the composer decided to sign on after seeing footage. The abbreviated time frame meant borrowing from others so he preferred an arrangement recording rather than credit for the full score. Regardless, the score earned him an Oscar nomination.
With the film earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Academy members wrote Curtiz in for Best Director since his name wasn’t on the ballot. Other Oscar nominations for the film included Korngold’s score, Casey Robinson’s screenplay, and Sound Recording. Nominations worked very different in the Academy’s early years than they do now.
Captain Blood didn’t just propel Errol Flynn to stardom but the swashbuckler helped bring back the period costume adventures that had been missing in action since the transition to sound.
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
SCREENWRITER: Casey Robinson
CAST: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Lionel Atwill, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander, Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, Robert Barrat
Warner Bros. released Captain Blood in theaters on December 28, 1935. Grade: 4/5
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