Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movies: "Climb the Mainmast You Monkeys!"

I'm going to go straight out to the end of the mainsail crosstrees and say that "Captain Blood" is the greatest pirate movie ever made. Its only rival to my mind is DeMille's silent version of "The Buccaneer" with Friedrich March as Jean Laffite (although the 1950 version with Yul Brynner in the role is no slouch), but I'm just a tad bias there. Errol Flynn is the definitive swashbuckling hero. He is all handsome poise and manly flair without a single dangling bead or drop of eyeliner to muck up the picture. That man was a stud.

For those of you who have not experienced the sheer popcorn and soda for a nickle delight that is "Captain Blood", I will first of all say shame on you. Go put it in your Netflix queue right now. Seriously, I'll wait.

Back? Good. You'll be glad you did that, trust me. Anyway, I'll give you a brief rundown of the plot just because its kind of silly to do a review without telling you what the movie is about. The plot itself seems a little overdone now. In all honesty though, the joy of "Captain Blood" is not necessarily in its plot, it's in the exuberant, "I dare you to call me a ham" acting of every last one of the people in the film. It's in the wonderful camera work and direction by Mr. Casablanca himself, Michael Curtiz. Most of all, it's in the fun of being able to watch two virtual unknowns turn into stars right before your eyes. How often does that happen these days?

Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is a physician in England in 1685. The movie makes it clear upfront that Blood has "dropped the sword and picked up the lancet" so we won't be surprised later when he's a fencing master. Oh yeah, and he's also Irish. He's kind of a tall, handsome, agreeable version of Doctor Stephen Maturin from the O'Brian novels, but we'll talk about him another time.

A simmering revolution is going on in the farmlands of the country as the Protestant people are upset with their Catholic king James II for being, well, Catholic. William and Mary are in exile in Holland and the people make their displeasure known by attacking the English army guerrilla style. A local skirmish causes injury to one of the rebels, and the Doctor is summoned to stitch up the wounded man. The army finds the rebels and Blood is accused of treason for giving "harbor, succor or comfort to a rebel". Despite his plea of "Its right innocent I am", guilt by associations gets Peter Blood a death sentence. In the nick of time, somebody figures out that British colonies in the Caribbean need hands to work the fields and so off Blood and his new pals go to life as slaves in Port Royal Jamaica.

Upon landing, the prisoners are subjected to a slave auction. The Governor is there, despite his horrible gout, as are plantation owners Dixon and Bishop (Lionel Atwill). We are informed that Dixon is the worst kind of master from the get go, but Bishop doesn't seem much better. Along for the ride is Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the landowner's strong willed and beautiful niece. The usual auction fun ensues and, when Blood is too Spartacus for Bishop, Dixon steps up to buy him. Arabella saves the day. Having her own money, she buys Blood and keeps him from the clutches of Dixon.

The movie got some bad "insider" press before it was released by Warner Bros. for the amount of torture shown on film. The slaves, who would in actuality have been indentured servants, are treated to some grim miseries including flogging and branding. The first branding - done by Dixon to a runaway - is juxtaposed with the Governor whining to his incompetent physicians about his unbearable gout. If you think about it too long, it is pretty nasty and a lot closer to reality than movie goers in 1935 probably wanted to get. I like that though, and I think it probably took some doing for Curtiz to be able to avoid having to edit the thing all to hell.

Through her charm, Arabella manages to get Dr. Blood to treat the Governor and, before you can say "lay off the fat", he can walk again. This scares the pink pants off the two local doctors, who eventually supply Blood with his own ship. He plans to sail off with his fellow slaves and never see Jamaica again. Of course the plot is discovered, more brandings and beatings are implied or witnessed. When it's Peter's turn for a scourging, Spanish raiders show up and plunder the island. Peter and his boys hurry down to the docks only to find that their ship has been burned. No worries! We'll take the Spaniard galleon! And kick Spanish ass while we do! Huzzah!

Doctor Blood is now Captain Blood and he and his crew terrorize the Caribbean. He's notorious now but he is thoughtful about his treatment of prisoners and ladies in particular. Oh, Errol! Anyway, Port Royal is ransomed by the British and Arabella takes a vacation to England. On her way home, in a freaking aircraft carrier with staterooms the size of a generous loft, her ship is taken by the notorious French pirate from Tortuga, Captain Le Vasseur (Basil Rathbone). Rathbone is just as awesome as Flynn here, coming off with the threatening menace of an Edward Teach and the suave, ladies' man air of a Jean Laffite. I'd have a hard time choosing between Le Vasseur and Peter Blood frankly. Needless to say, Arabella doesn't.

Blood rescues his lady love and the two pirates duel over her on a very recognizable beach in Laguna, California. But who cares? The fencing is impeccable and when Le Vasseur is stuck in the gut he crumples to the sand, the waves washing over his dead body without Rathbone so much as flinching. They just don't make 'em like they used to.

William and Mary return to England and take the throne, the big battle at sea, against the French no less, is won and Blood returns triumphant to Jamaica to claim the Governor's mansion and the hand of his saucy lady love Arabella. The End.

The DVD has a ton of special features including discussion about the score, the original novel by Rafael Sabatini and the cast. All in all, its one of the best ways to spend a Saturday night with the family. And I'm sorry Mr. Depp, Errol Flynn is still the best pirate ever. Period.


Timmy! said...

You're absolutely right, Pauline. As far as swashbucklers go, there is no one else who comes close to Flynn (on or off the silver screen)...

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Just so. There is a reason we still say "In like Flynn". Huzzah indeed!