NAUTICAL MOVIE GREATS CAPTAIN BLOOD
Monday June 1st, 2009
This was a Christmas TV regular and Saturday morning cinema treat when I was a kid (over 30 years old back then but still packed a punch). The film that catapulted everyone’s favourite notorious movie lover into mega stardom might never have been as thrilling as it was if it wasn’t for Robert Donat’s failure to turn up at the start of shooting. Warner’s then asked Brian Aherne to take the titular role but he point blank refused. It was an eleventh hour decision driven by panic and budgetary necessity that drove the studio to ask a little known (and cheaper) Australian actor, Errol Flynn to tackle the role. It was to prove a decision that was to prove a goldmine for Warners, Mr Flynn and several other members of the cast and crew.
Hungarian director, Michael Curtiz was the ultimate journeyman eventually directing over 170 movies before his death in 1962. His trade had previously been genre movies, mainly crime, noir and horror but boy was he good at churning out hits. Captain Blood moved him up a notch and he would go on to collaborate with Flynn and co-star Basil Rathbone on the definitive merry men movie ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ three years later. Rathbone apparently disliked Flynn and legend has it that during the duelling scene he reminded his co-star he was being paid considerably more for his part before wounding him deliberately, leaving a permanent scar. Of course by the time Robin Hood came along the tables had turned, Flynn was the biggest star in Hollywood. Curtiz actually made a dozen more films with the antipodean heartthrob.
The story (based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini) revolves around English gent Dr Peter Blood being sold into slavery after being wrongly accused of treachery. In a bid to escape his watery imprisonment he steals a Spanish galleon and becomes Captain Blood ‘scourge of the high seas’. However his career as the ultimate pirate comes to an abrupt halt when he chooses to rescue Port Royal from a French attack.
This was one of Warner’s first big budget movies, coming in at over $1 million. But the gamble paid off in dividends and not only did Flynn become an international box office sure-fire, his female co-star, the equally unknown Olivia de Havilland also became a star. She and Flynn would star in a further nine movies together.
It goes without saying that Captain Blood not only raised the bar, but in many ways set the standard for ‘sword and swagger’ movies full stop. Even today its influence can be seen in any ‘big ship’ period extravaganza. It’s easy to see why. Despite budgetary restrictions that meant no full sized ships could be used for the battle scenes (they used processed shots of miniatures and footage from silent film The Sea Hawk, which Curtiz and Flynn remade in 1940) the story telling was so good and the movie was so well edited that any disbelief was suspended totally unconsciously. The stars simply oozed charisma and it was absolutely rollicking good fun… and still is!
John Ford may well have beaten Curtiz for Best Director at the 1935 Academy awards for his work on The Informers, but it remains ironic that if the Oscar had been given based on public votes alone, the Hungarian journeyman would have walked away with the gong no arguments. In that respect is it any wonder Captain Blood remains the ultimate ‘swash buckler’ of all time. If you haven’t seen it check it out as soon as possible.
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