Captain Blood is one of those movies that is so much of a classic, you feel like you’ve already seen it. But alas, we had not, and on a chilly night in early November at Spaulding Marine Center, we finally sat down to watch the 1935 swashbuckling classic. (The most we knew about Captain Blood, as it turned out, was that it made an appearance in one of our all-time favorite pirate-y, sailor-y movies, The Goonies [what Sloth was watching while chained in the basement].)
As we’ve said before, movies are best enjoyed with an audience. There is simply no substitute for the energy a crowd brings, especially the breed of sailing-movie aficionados at Spaulding, who cheered enthusiastically as the opening credits rolled.
As connoisseurs of movies — but of movies starting in the ’80s — we’ll admit that we sometimes had difficulty jibing with “old” films. That disconnect seems to be fading with time (re: age). We found Captain Blood instantly compelling. There was no way not to root for the hero, the enigmatic, dashingly handsome and savagely wry Errol Flynn in the title role. In the very first scene, as someone was knocking frantically on the door of Dr. Peter Blood, the maid asked “Who is it?” “That we’ll know when you open the door,” Blood quipped, then called the maid his “vinegary virgin,” drawing a whooping “ohhhh” from the crowd.
As in any good movie, we learn everything we need to know about our hero in the first few minutes: “I’ve been almost anywhere that fighting was in evidence. I fought for the French against the Spanish and the Spanish against the French. And I learned my seamanship in the Dutch Navy. But having had adventure enough in six years to last me six lives, I came here. Hung up the sword and picked up the lancet. Became a man of peace and not of war, a healer, not a slayer. And that I’m going to be as long as I’m on top of the sod and not under it.”
The greatest heroes are, without question, reluctant heroes.
After treating an enemy soldier, Blood was accused of treason against King James, and was threatened with hanging. His sentence was partially commuted, and he was sold into slavery in the Caribbean. While onboard the ship carrying him to the West Indies, Blood never failed to serve as a physician, which, in those days, seemed to consist solely of dabbing stricken patients with a rag.
Once Blood is in Port Royal and up for auction, que Olivia de Havilland as Arabella Bishop, the niece of the tyrannical Colonel Bishop. Her entrance — no matter at what point of the film — was impossible to miss, as it was forever accompanied by dreamy violins and soft-focused cameras giving her a gauzy, angelic aura.
Thus began the fabulous tension (romantic and otherwise) between Blood and Arabella. She purchased Blood as a slave, and wanted him to be grateful that she’d saved him. Blood steadfastly refused, but still their romance budded and burned.
At some point during Blood and Arabella’s long horseback rides through the country, we asked ourselves, isn’t this a pirate movie? It was at roughly the midway point in the film — as Blood and other slaves were planning to flee — that a Spanish man-o-war attacked Port Royal. The only escape, it seemed, was through a life of piracy, and thus began the swashbuckling.
We found the unraveling of the story compelling, but dramatically different from modern movies, which, in the last 20-plus years, are prone to use a non-linear narrative. A modern Captain Blood would have likely started with the pirates, then used flashbacks to describe how they arrived at their life of jolly roguery. We’re not criticizing the old Blood — far from it — but the difference in storytelling between old movies and new is profound.
Meanwhile, swash-swash, buckle-buckle. Blood and his crew pirated, and pirated well. They contracted their rules of conduct — something that was surprisingly common during the Golden Age of Piracy — and included a decree that no woman should be violated during the course of pirating operations. This drew a load huzzah from the women in the audience.
Meanwhile, Colonel Bishop sent Arabella to back to England on an extended holiday, but upon her return to the Caribbean three years later, her ship was captured by French buccaneer Captain Levasseur. In a delicious twist of fate, Blood convinced Levasseur to sell him Arabella and other English prisoners — and no, Blood did not miss the chance to revel in the irony.
Levasseur and Blood eventually drew swords in a wonderful fight to the cinematic death. The audience at Spaulding rooted wildly for our dashing hero, who was, of course, the victor. (Sacré bleu!)
Which brings us to Act Three: Redemption. Blood, mind you, was a reluctant hero and wrongly accused. He turned to piracy without regret. But his arc as a true champion of our hearts — especially to an audience in the ’30s — could not have been complete without some sort of return to grace.
After Arabella was less than grateful for her rescue (via purchase), Blood decided to return her and the other English prisoners to Port Royal. Approaching the island, they found French warships bombarding the city. In his pursuit of the pirate Blood, Colonel Bishop had left his dominion undefended, and the French seized on the opportunity.
Lord Willoughby, an English prisoner who had been accompanying Arabella, appealed to Blood’s sense of loyalty to his country.
“Captain Blood, are you an Englishman thinking of leaving when yonder an English town is being taken?” After some grandstanding, Willoughby informed Blood that there was a new king, William, and that His Majesty had offered Blood a pardon, and a commission in his Navy.
And so followed a most excellent battle at sea, which was capped by another brutally wry twist of fate. Blood managed to best Bishop worse than if he’d run him through.
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