' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Captain Blood

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Great Movies: Captain Blood

About 45 minutes in our valiant hero Doctor Peter Blood, who has been made a slave down Jamaica way, is threatened with a whip by his plantation's owner, villainous Colonel Bishop. "Nothing can save you now!" bellows Bishop as he rears back the whip and at that precise moment, without warning, as if on cue, cannonfire sounds and a lookout shouts "Pirates! Spanish pirates!" And so it is. Nothing could have saved Peter Blood....well, except for pirates. Spanish pirates. And Peter Blood gets a smile and says - actually says out loud - "What a timely interruption this is! And what may come of it the devil himself only knows!" When was the last time you saw a movie where the main character addresses a deus ex machina out loud and without irony? This scene breaks every single rule of screenwriting. Every single one. Yet, I love it. God help me, I do love it so. It summarizes the longtime, unique, momentous relationship I have with this 1935 Michael Curtiz swashbuckler that launched the brief, volatile, celestial career of one Errol Flynn.

Long before the kids of today saw Captain Jack Sparrow and his other Bruckheimery scaliwags loot and pillage their way through Port Royal and eat, drink and be merry in Tortuga, Peter Blood (Flynn) and cohorts were the scourge of these infamous outposts. Well, on second thought, scourge might be too strong a word. Captain Blood and friends were less bloodthirsty buccaneers than benevolent bandits, dignified debaucherers. Once on the run these men form a noble code and stick to it. Rules are rules, not guidelines, not in 1935 on the Warner Brothers backlot, which is to the say the most important code was The Production Code and they stuck to it, come hell or high water.

The background: Peter Blood is an Irish physician in England, content to stay out of the rebellion that seeks to overthrow King James, "a healer, not a slayer." But one dark night a few rebels summon the good Doctor Blood to treat a wounded comrade which he does willingly. "My business was with his wounds, not his politics." But English soldiers storm his practice and arrest him on the charges of aiding and harboring rebels. At his foregone trial he declares his innocence leading to one of the film's many breathless exchanges:

-"Your duty, rogue, is to your King."
-"I thought it was to my fellow man."

Not in the eyes of the court. And so Peter Blood and his fellow convicts are sentenced to be hanged, only in a twist of fate - the movie's first and not its last - they are spared death and instead sold into slavery in the English colony of Port Royal, Jamaica. Once there it seems certain Blood's gentemanly contradictory nature will get him bought and banished to a life of hard labor in the salt mines of a devious dude named Dixon. Enter: Olivia de Havilland as Arabella Bishop, the niece of the colony's governor. Rather than allow this handsome devil to fall victim to a salt mine sentence she swoops in to purchase him. Quite likely this is the only Meet Cute in cinematic history centered around the purcashing of a slave, which might seem in poor taste if not for two inarguable reasons.

This was the first of eight cinematic couplings of Flynn and de Havilland, an ongoing onscreen relationship that was, in the words of John Lichfield, "the most quietly conflagrational in the history of movies." Indeed, the first time de Havilland's Arabella glimpses of Flynn's Blood her eyes sparkle in such a way to suggest it was not necessary for the actress to fake her way through these scenes. No real life memories need be conjured to convey romance. She smiles when she sees him and she smiles when she talks to him and she smiles when she walks with him. No need to tell Arabella to put on a happy face, not even when the situation is dire and frowns abound for never before and never since has a movie character so often smiled when onscreen.

Second, de Havilland proves, as always, she is not some senseless strumpet and out-foxes her own uncle by getting the good doctor Blood off the plantation (uh...never mind the other men) and conscripting him into service of Port Royal's Governor, suffering severely from the gout and fed up with the "ill begotten blunderers" posing as his current physicians.

Ah, but even with his good fortune Peter Blood yearns for freedom and plots escape with his fellow prisoners that at first comes undone but re-awakens via the aforementioned "timely interruption" of Spanish pirates, which allows for Blood and his band of mirthful charletons to hijack a Spanish warship and nobly save the town of Port Royal before turning their attention to a conquest of the high seas which in the outlaw outpost Tortuga leads Blood to make a pact with a fellow buccaneer, the French Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), agreeing to equally divide whatever booty they may take. Of course, 4.7 seconds upon making this pact Captain Blood forlornly says to himself that he regrets making this pact. So....why did he make it?

Duh. Because Captain Levasseur had to intercept the ship sailing from Port Royal to England with (guess who!) Arabella Bishop and her escort Lord Willoughby aboard so that dastardly Captain Levasseur could take her a prisoner and/or prize and upon seeing her at a scenic island rendezvous, Captain Blood, ever clever, tells Captain Levasseur this was not in the spirit of their "sharing" arrangement, convinces him to put Arabella up for auction at which point Captain Blood purchases her. This would be wicked good fun all in the having come full circle to him now having purchased her except, of course, buccaneer squabbles do not end so amicably and, thus, Levasseur draws his rapier, Blood draws his and so commences the first occasion of Errol Flynn getting to stab Basil Rathbone in the heart. (If no one in cinema today can smile as splendidly as Olivia de Havilland, then no one in cinema today can die as dramatically as Basil Rathbone. That's to say, no one. Seriously, man, do Method actors let themselves get stabbed in the heart by a rapier to know what it's like to be stabbed in the heart by a rapier?)

And so Blood points his ship back toward Port Royal which, as it happens, has come under attack by the French, what with Colonel Bishop out and about and on the prowl for Captain Blood himself rather than protecting the colony, and upon learning from Lord Willoughby that King William has deposed tyrant King James upon the throne Captain Blood agrees to once again save Port Royal which he, of course, does by implementing a strategy Russell Crowe's Captain Jack Aubrey would rip off, oh, about 120 years later in "Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World" which leads to a crazy awesome concluding scene that is as much screwball as swashbuckler in which Captain Blood is named Governor of Port Royal with Arabella at his side....well, actually, literally, on his lap.

A couple years ago there were rumors flying about a possible "Captain Blood" remake, probably in an attempt to cash in on the whole "Pirates of the Caribbean" craze, and it seems these rumors, from what I can tell, burned out and this is good if for no other reason than we have no actors in the here and now comparable to Errol Flynn. I'm not suggesting we don't have actors who are better than Flynn, because we do, but we have no actors who can do the precise things which Flynn did so well. When he and his marauders make off with the Spanish ship, Captain Blood hollers "Up that rigging, you monkeys! There's no chains to hold you now! Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that's carrying us all to freedom!" and he as he says it he looks back toward the Port from which they have just escaped, longingly, for Arabella Bishop. It is a moment of absurd melodrama that he convincingly sells with the greatest of ease. It would crumble in the hands of any present day actor. Thank God Flynn worked in a cinematic era that knew not of irony.

Oh, I can't say as an avid film lover that I despise any and all irony. I mean, I lived in the 90's, man. Irony was all the rage and it screwed up a lot people, like the people who watch, hmmmmmm, let's say "Captain Blood" and think the damn thing's so ludicrous for being so (egads!) earnest. There are a few movies you watch very early in your life and, whether you know it or not, these experiences will shape your cinematic beliefs for all time. An earnest romantic, that's me, which is to say I am eternally grateful I saw "Captain Blood" when I did. I often feel that if I were Captain of this celluloid ship I would maroon Irony and give it a pistol with one shot.

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