Doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) rebels against King James II (Vernon
Steele) who has him deported from England to Jamaica as a slave. Once
there, he is purchased by Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) at the insistence
of his niece Arabella (Olivia de Havilland). Blood fights against
his slavery, becomes romantically involved with Arabella, and ultimately
saves the city.
During the 1920's, one of the most popular genres in silent films
was the swashbuckler, created by Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920 THE
MARK OF ZORRO. Following Fairbanks, most romantic leading men tried
their hand at the genre, and some, like Ramon Novarro and Ronald Colman,
made a number of notable silent swashbucklers. With the coming of
sound in 1927, the genre was discontinued for half a decade, perhaps
because clumsy early recording equipment confined action to the range
of the microphones. Not until 1934 did the swashbuckler return, with
Fredric March in THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI and Robert Donat in THE COUNT
OF MONTE CRISTO. Donat's film was such a hit that Warner Bros., then
notable mostly for the gritty realism of its gangster movies, decided
to produce a big-budget swashbuckler with Donat as the star.
Although some swashbuckler's were written directly for the screen,
many came from novels. Alexandre Dumas was the most popular source,
followed by Rafael Sabatini, often billed as his twentieth century
successor. At least four Sabatini novels had been turned into silent
films -- SCARAMOUCHE (1923) with Ramon Novarro, THE SEA HAWK (1924)
with Milton Sills, BRADLEYS THE MAGNIFICENT (1926) with John Gilbert,
and CAPTAIN BLOOD (1924) with J. Warren Kerrigan. Warners opted to
remake the latter as a sound spectacular with Donat in the title role
as the seventeenth century Irish buccaneer. Donat, however, frail
and subject to acute attacks of asthma, withdrew from the project
at the last moment. In some desperation, Warners looked for a replacement
and decided to gamble on a new contract player named Errol Flynn,
who had recently arrived from England.
Born in Tasmania, Australia, in 1909, Flynn had led an adventurous
youth in the South Seas, where he had played Fletcher Christian in
a low-budget amateur film called IN THE WAKE OF THE BOUNTY (1933).
The film had very limited distribution, but it encouraged Flynn to
stop drifting and to take up acting as a career. Accordingly, he went
to England, became a member of the Northampton Repertory Company,
and spent a year and a half developing experience on the stage, where
he even did the title role in OTHELLO, an unlikely piece of casting.
Spotted by a motion picture talent scout, Flynn was cast in MURDER
AT MONTE CARLO (1935), a low-budget British production, after which
Warners brought him under contract to Hollywood. There he played bit
parts in two low-budget thrillers, THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE (1935)
and DON'T BET ON BLONDES (1935).
Thus when Warners cast the twenty-six-year-old Flynn as the lead in
their most spectacular production of the year, they were gambling
on an unknown. Flynn's remarkable good looks, athleticism, cheerful
impudence, romantic dash, and flair for costume drama made him an
overnight sensation, however; few stars have created such an immediate
and intense impact on audiences.
Flynn was fortunate in that CAPTAIN BLOOD had a strong story, a literate
script by Casey Robinson, superior production values, and a first-
rate cast. The female lead went to nineteen-year-old Olivia de Havilland,
who had made her film debut that same year as Hermia in A MIDSUMMER
NIGHT'S DREAM. Cast in the supporting role of Levasseur, an evil French
pirate, was Basil Rathbone, who the year before, as the nasty Mr.
Murdstone in DAVID COPPERFIELD, had begun a memorable career as Hollywood'
s finest villain in costume films.
CAPTAIN BLOOD begins in 1685 at the town of Bridgeport. The Monmouth
Rebellion has just been broken at the battle of Sedgemoor, and a wounded
rebel is taken to the house of Dr. Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) for treatment.
Kirke's "Lambs," a troop of royal dragoons notorious for their brutality,
who are pursuing fugitives from the battle, arrest Blood's patient
and the doctor as well for harboring a rebel. The prisoners are tried
at the Bloody Assizes before the infamous hanging judge George Jeffreys
(Leonard Mudie). A bloodthirsty sadist, Jeffreys permits no defense
and invariably sentences the accused to the gallows. When Blood is
brought to the dock, he insists, "It's entirely innocent I am." Jeffreys
is used to having prisoners cringe before him and is enraged by what
he considers Blood's impudence. When he condemns him along with the
authentic rebels, Blood retaliates by diagnosing the terminal disease
from which the judge suffers and by predicting his imminent and agonizing
Blood does not die, however, for King James II (Vernon Steele) decides
that it will be more profitable to sell the rebels as slaves in the
American colonies than to waste them on the gallows. Thus Blood finds
himself aboard a convict ship bound for Jamaica (Barbados in the novel).
There, at a slave auction, he insolently looks prospective buyers
up and down when they examine him as chattel. Arabella Bishop (Olivia
de Havilland), the niece of Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), is attracted
to Blood despite herself and buys him to save him from the hands of
a sadistic planter. For practical purposes, Blood is owned by Colonel
Bishop, who is brutal enough. Blood, however, has a stroke of good
fortune, for the governor (George Hassell) is afflicted with gout,
and his incompetent physicians are unable to ease his suffering.
Trying to help Blood, Arabella advises her uncle to make Blood's medical
skill available to the governor. He does so, and Blood soon becomes
so invaluable to the governor that the latter requires his almost
constant attendance. Soon other wealthy aristocrats request Blood'
s services, and before long the slave is dressed in a broadcloth coat,
has a horse at his disposal, and enjoys many of the benefits of freedom.
One day while returning on horseback to the Bishop compound, he encounters
Arabella. They engage in some badinage, and after thanking her for
her kindness, Blood gets carried away and kisses her. She slaps the
slave for his boldness, and he bows ironically to the lady who, after
all, owns him. Despite her indignation, however, it is clear that
she is not altogether displeased.
His easy lot notwithstanding, Blood chafes under slavery and plans
to escape, together with some of his fellow prisoners. He persuades
the rival doctors, whose livelihood is threatened by his skill, to
buy him a boat. The escape plans are thwarted, however, when one of
Blood's fellow prisoners, Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), runs afoul
of colonel Bishop, who orders him to be spread-eagled in the sun without
water. Blood returns from ministering to the governor, to find Pitt
enduring the torture. When he starts to give the sufferer water, Bishop
intervenes, and Blood denounces him as an inhumane tyrant. Blustering
with rage, Bishop says that he has been waiting for an excuse to punish
the impudent doctor and has Blood tied up in Pitt's place to be flogged.
At this moment cannon fire from the waterfront provides a timely
The cannonade comes from a Spanish ship attacking Port Royal. Bishop
and his force join the defenders, leaving the slaves virtually unguarded.
During the confusion, Blood and his fellow slaves escape from the
compound and make their way to the waterfront. The Spaniards have
landed and are pillaging the town. The slaves feel a momentary despair
when they find their boat burned, but Blood is then inspired to seize
the Spanish ship itself. The slaves climb aboard undetected, defeat
the few careless guards, and take over. When the Spaniards return
in triumph, Blood lets the captain and his boat crew come aboard with
the ransom, takes them prisoner, and then has one of his men who was
a former naval gunner sink the other boats.
The town has been saved, and Colonel Bishop comes aboard to express
his gratitude. He is dumbfounded to discover that the rescuer, elegantly
dressed in Spanish attire, is none other than his slave Peter Blood.
Bishop utters awkward thanks and assures the slaves that they will
be better treated thereafter. They have no intention of returning
to bondage, however; instead, they keep the ransom, heave Bishop overboard,
and set sail for the Spanish Main.
Now masterless exiles, they have no choice but to turn buccaneers,
with Blood as their captain. Blood refrains from attacking British
ships and wages war only with the Spaniards. The novel includes numerous
episodes of his piracy, including an elaborate attack on the city
of Maracaibo; the film omits all these and instead has a series of
quick cuts showing Blood and his crew boarding enemy ships. Blood
quickly becomes one of the most successful buccaneers on the Caribbean.
In the pirate headquarters at Tortuga, Blood makes his one mistake
when, somewhat drunk, he forms an alliance with the French captain
Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). They agree to divide evenly whatever prizes
The next ship that Levasseur takes is an English one, carrying Arabella
Bishop home from a visit to England. When Blood makes a rendezvous
with Levasseur, he finds that the Frenchman has taken Arabella prisoner
and plans on keeping her for himself. Blood challenges the arrangement
as a violation of their agreement, forces Levasseur to put Arabella
up for sale (the money to be divided among the crews), and buys her
himself. Frustrated and furious, Levasseur draws his rapier. The men
try to stop them, but Blood draws his own sword and engages Levasseur
in a duel. They fight down the beach and into the sea itself, where
Blood finally runs Levasseur through. He then takes Arabella and her
escort, Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson), aboard his ship, which,
Willoughby notes, is named the Arabella.
Although Arabella is more than grateful to Blood for rescuing her,
she rebuffs his romantic advances and calls him a thief and pirate.
Stung, he reminds her that he has just bought her as she once bought
him and that he could force her to his will. Instead, he sets sail
for Port Royal, intending to take her home at the risk of his own
freedom. Lord Willoughby observes to Arabella that Blood is incredibly
As they approach Port Royal, they are startled to find the town under
attack by three French warships. Lord Willoughby appeals to Blood'
s patriotism to get him to attack the French, but Blood says he has
no loyalty to a tyrant like King James. When Lord Willoughby informs
him that James has been deposed and replaced by King William, however,
Blood pledges his loyalty and orders his ship to attack. Where is
Colonel Bishop, Willoughby wonders, and Blood replies with a laugh
that he can answer that question: Bishop has deserted his post to
go searching for Blood. Outnumbered three to one, Blood has his ship
fly French colors. He thus sails between two enemy ships and rakes
them both with a broadside, while they cannot fire back lest they
shoot into each other. The third ship, however, outguns the Arabella.
With his ship sinking under him, Blood grapples with the Frenchman,
leads a boarding party, and takes the ship.
As a reward for saving the city, Lord Willoughby appoints Blood governor
of Jamaica. When Bishop returns, he is arrested for deserting his
post during time of war; he must appeal for mercy to the new governor,
who is about to marry Arabella and cheerfully greets the stupefied
Bishop as "Uncle."
CAPTAIN BLOOD was a landmark film in a number of ways. It launched
Flynn on his career as the most notable of screen swashbucklers and
confirmed the resurrection of the swashbuckler as a popular genre
for the next thirty years. It had the first original background score
by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, said by many to be the finest of all film
composers, who would go on to score seven Flynn films in all, some
of the themes of which went into Korngold's VIOLIN CONCERTO and SYMPHONY
IN F. It was the first of eight films teaming Flynn and de Havilland,
one of the most popular pairs in film history, and it was also the
first of eleven Flynn films directed by Michael Curtiz.
CAPTAIN BLOOD has never been remade. Sabatini wrote two sequels, CAPTAIN
BLOOD RETURNS and THE FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, that consist of short
stories telling of Blood's additional adventures during his piracy
before he becomes governor of Jamaica. Following this concept, Louis
Hayward resurrected Blood in two unmemorable films, THE FORTUNES OF
CAPTAIN BLOOD (1950) and CAPTAIN BLOOD, FUGITIVE (CAPTAIN PIRATE,
1952). In 1962, Flynn's son Sean tried to follow in his father's footsteps
with THE SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, a mediocre Italian-made picture costarring
English actress Ann Todd as Arabella, the mother. Sean Flynn had a
brief and moderately successful film career before going as a journalist
to Vietnam, where he was reported missing in action; he is presumed
CAPTAIN BLOOD was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture
but lost to MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. It nevertheless holds up admirably
after forty-six years and is the best film about buccaneers yet made.
Release Date: 1935
Hal B. Wallis for Warner Bros.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cinematographer: Hal Hohr
File Editor: George Amy
Art direction - Anton Grot
Special effects - Fred Jackman
Music - Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Costume design - Milo Anderson
Run Time: 119 minutes
Peter Blood - Errol Flynn
Arabella Bishop - Olivia de Havilland
Levasseur - Basil Rathbone
Colonel Bishop - Lionel Atwill
Jeremy Pitt - Ross Alexander
Hagthorpe - Guy Kibbee
Lord Willoughby - Henry Stephenson
Wolverstone - Robert Barrat
Dr. Bronson - Hobart Cavanaugh
Dr. Whacker - Donald Meek
Cahusac - J. Carrol Naish
Don Diego - Pedro de Cordoba
Governor Steed - George Hassell
Kent - Harry Cording
Baron Jeffreys - Leonard Mudie
King James - Vernon Steele
Honesty Nuthall - Forrester Harvey
Reverend Ogle - Frank McGlynn
Andrew Baynes - David Torrence
Captain Hobart - Stuart Casey
Court Clerk - E.E. Clive
Lord Sunderland - Halliwell Hobbes
New York Times: December 27, 1935, p. 14
Newsweek: December 28, 1935, p. 24
Time: December 30, 1935, p. 16
Variety: January 1, 1936, p. 44
Named persons in Production Credits:
Hal B. Wallis
Studios named in Production Credits:
Black and White
Action/Adventure, Drama, Historical
Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Picture - Cosmopolitan Warner
This is Errol Flynn's first film.
CAPTAIN BLOOD., Magill's Survey of Cinema, 06-15-1995.
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