Captain Blood (1935)

Boy, the list of things I’d rather do than get into a sword fight with Errol Flynn.

Curiously, this is the second film from 1935 that we’ve watched this month, following Bride of Frankenstein. Good year for the movies. Our son has been watching a National Geographic documentary program called Draining the Oceans about shipwrecks, and loves the book in the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series about ironclads, so his imagination has been totally captured by pirates and privateers giving each other broadsides. So when his grandfather sent him a gift of his favorite film, 1935’s Captain Blood, I rearranged the schedule a little to make sure we could give this a spin.

Captain Blood was a big A-list picture for Warner Brothers, based on a classic novel, and given to the hugely talented Michael Curtiz to direct. It drops an Irish doctor into all of that court intrigue that plagued England in the 1680s, with one jerk after another taking the throne and deposing somebody else, and rounding up people who were loyal to the wrong party. Dr. Peter Blood had the misfortune of treating an injured rebel when the troops arrived, and soon he and many other rebels are sold into slavery in the West Indies.

To be honest, this is a long film and its first half really coasts along on Errol Flynn’s charisma, Michael Curtiz’s inventive direction, and Olivia de Havilland’s beauty. Right about the halfway mark, just when it looks like the slaves’ plans for escape are about to be thwarted, Spanish privateers storm Jamaica and the movie kicks it up about ten notches. I might have wished for eight or nine minutes from the first half to be trimmed, but every second in its second half is pure joy. The escaped slaves take the Spanish ship and set sail for freedom. Swashes get buckled, swords get unsheathed, rum gets drunk, and blood gets spilled. Basil Rathbone shows up as a French pirate captain, and if you don’t sit up straight when Flynn and Rathbone finally cross swords, you must be new to this sort of movie.

Our son conceded that the first half was a struggle for him as well, but he truly loved everything that came later, and was every bit as thrilled by the climactic naval battle as he was by any modern special effects movie. It really is a masterpiece of editing. Between miniatures, studio sets choked with extras in the ships’ rigging, and repurposed footage from 1924’s The Sea Hawk, they created a flawlessly effective battle. Of course I love watching something as old as this and finding it every bit as immersive and believable an experience as anything today’s effects could provide; it’s even better watching our son marvel at it all as well.

Warner’s DVD is out of print and it doesn’t appear that it has made it to Blu-ray yet, but the disc includes a tremendously neat little bonus feature. It’s presented by Leonard Maltin, who unfortunately gives away rather too much of what you’re about to see, but it’s meant to evoke what audiences might have experienced in their theaters when they went to see Captain Blood in December 1935, including a trailer for a wide release of the same year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also starred de Havilland, an end-of-the-year newsreel, an Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy one-reeler, a musical bit that we skipped, and an old Merrie Melody called “Billboard Frolics.” I honestly had no idea that the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes theme had lyrics! It’s not just the kid who learns a little something when we watch old movies!

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