Captain Blood (1935): The Star-making, Breath-taking and Ground-breaking Swashbuckler

By: Paul J. Bradley

Michael Curtiz’s celebrated 1935 pirate film Captain Blood (1935) became hugely popular with the depression weary audiences of the thirties. With its generous helpings of romance, action and adventure, Captain Blood proved to be the ultimate classic tale of derring-do on the high seas.

Based on the Rafael Sabatini 1922 novel of the same name, Captain Blood is set in England during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Irish doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) has been summoned to come to the aid of rebel Lord Gildoy (Dennis D. Auburn). Blood is arrested whilst carrying out his duties as a physician. He is falsely convicted of treason and is sentenced to death by the notorious Judge Jeffreys (Leonard Mudie).

Seeing an opportunity to make profit out of Blood and the other condemned men, King James II (Vernon Steele), decides at the last moment to send them all to Jamaica to be sold as slaves.

At the slave market at Port Royal, Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the beautiful niece of the cruel military commander Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), is attracted by Blood’s rebellious nature, and makes a winning bid to buy him. Blood expresses resentment towards Arabella who in turn is angered by Blood’s lack of gratitude.

Arabella recommends Blood to be the personal physician of the colony’s governor Steed (George Hassell), who is suffering from gout. Despite openly showing resentment towards Arabella, Blood quietly expresses appreciation for her help.

Blood is given access to ride out of the camp to the governor’s house when required. He then devises a plan to enable him and the other slaves to escape.

However, Colonel Bishop’s torture of the slaves has made life unbearable for them and the governor’s continual need for Blood’s care makes Blood’s escape plan difficult. Colonel Bishop becomes suspicious and has flogged navigator Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander) for information.

Blood’s plan cannot wait. They need to escape tonight. Will his plan work and can all the slaves escape?

Captain Blood is one of the many thoroughly enjoyable movies that the studios churned out so frequently during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The swashbuckling genre itself was revived by the recent successes of Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo in 1934 which inspired Warner Bros. Studios to remake their 1924 silent classic version of Captain Blood. The remake was distributed by Warner Bros. and First National Pictures in 28th December 1935, a month after the MGM release of another sea adventure, the award-winning Mutiny on the Bounty.

The film was a big success at the box office, earning the studio a profit of over $1,462 million.

Captain Blood launched the career of Errol Flynn, who would be soon regarded as the natural heir to Douglas Fairbanks. Flynn’s performance as Peter Blood is full of confidence, swagger and sex appeal, whilst his screen presence is truly electrifying

The casting of Errol Flynn in the lead was a risk for the studio because he was relatively unknown at the time. This was not his first film. Flynn’s debut performance as Fletcher Christian in the 1933 Australian adventure film In the Wake of the Bounty is surprisingly unremarkable and yet he lights up every scene in Captain Blood.

Errol Flynn was also not the first choice. The lead role was originally offered to English actor Robert Donat, who had starred in The Count of Monte Cristo, but declined due to his debilitating asthma. Other potential candidates for the role included Leslie Howard and James Cagney, but after numerous screen tests, Flynn was chosen and the rest, as they say, is history.

Talented actress Olivia De Havilland is perfectly cast as the beautiful but independently minded Arabella. Following her debut performance as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1934), as Dolly in Alibi Ike (1934) and as Lucille in The Irish In Us (1935), Olivia De Havilland’s career was boosted by the success of Captain Blood which also began a sequence of movies alongside Errol Flynn.

The supporting actors are excellent, especially Ross Alexander as the enslaved navigator Jeremy Pitt, played with a touch of sadness and madness. Alexander was a rising star back then, but his troubled private life hindered his career. The tragic actor sadly committed suicide in 1937.

Basil Rathbone plays the treacherous buccaneer Captain Levasseur with his usual gusto and aplomb. Although he was always critical of his own performance in the film, Rathbone did pick up fencing for real during the production, becoming one of the top swordsmen in Hollywood. Rathbone’s fencing skills were to be used again for the more accomplished sword fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. **

The symphonic score for Captain Blood was written by the legendary Austrian composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who became the first composer of international stature to write scores for Hollywood movies.

Having travelled to Hollywood to escape the Nazi regime in Austria, Korngold began working on film scores, sixteen to be exact, starting with an adaption of Mendelssohn for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then, almost the complete score for Captain Blood in 1935.

Korngold was only given three weeks to write the music for Captain Blood. Despite having to add a few symphonic poems by Liszt to complete his composition, Korngold’s music sounds magnificent, but he raised the standard of film music even further for the landmark classic The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938 for which he won an Academy Award, having previously won an Oscar for Anthony Adverse in 1936.

Korngold is still a massive influence on modern composers, especially on John Williams for his Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. Along with Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold is regarded as one of the founders of film music.

Hungarian born Michael Curtiz had already directed movies during the silent period and in the early 30s, but his status rose significantly with the release of Captain Blood. Curtiz was a stylish director who would go on to make some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed features such as The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938 and Casablanca in 1942. His directorial visual style is expressionistic with lots unusual camera angles, complex compositions with attention to detail.

The screenplay is expertly adapted by Casey Robinson from the novel and the cinematography by Ernest Haller and Hal Mohr is perfectly atmospheric. Filmed mostly on a sound stage and with Laguna Beach in California standing in for the Caribbean, some of the impressive sea battles were taken from the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk.

Captain Blood is not perfect. For a movie made from a then-sizable budget of $1,242,000, there are a few sequences which look under-produced, such as some of the plantation and on-board ship scenes. The historical events and characters are just loose interpretations, such as “good King William of Orange”, whose actual reign was not good news for Catholics. There also seems to be a shortage of Afro-Jamaicans, with only Matthew Stymie Beard (uncredited) clearly seen as the Governor’s Attendant.

Overall, Captain Blood is a remarkable entertainment with all the talents involved in fine form. With Flynn dashing his sword, taunting his oppressors and wooing his beautiful lady with such flamboyance and style, all to the stylish direction of Curtiz and to the majestic sound of Korngold, what is there not to like?


** More from Producer Melanie on That Legendary Swordfight:

Although Captain Blood primarily filmed on sets, this very first time Errol Flynn picked up a sword features him and Basil Rathbone both learning their fencing trade from fight master Fred Cavens on the treacherously real, slick rocks of Laguna Beach in Orange County. Both actors would go on to be counted amongst the most famous onscreen fencers of all time, and this particular fight is often mentioned amongst the greats. Flynn and Rathbone weren’t overly fond of each other, but they produce onscreen chemistry as frenemies equal to Flynn’s romantic pop with deHaviland. Later known as the dour, buttoned-down, ultimate Englishman Sherlock Holmes, here Rathbone revels in a laconic, drunken stupor with a tres rogue-ish French accent. His lanky limbs seem to almost escape him in the tavern scenes until he snaps alive on those slippery boulders. In fact, he related later that the scene was exactly timed so that when he fell, he could lie backward and be washed over by the incoming tide. If he and Flynn got the timing wrong, slipped or flubbed a move, they’d have to start over again the next day with fresh, untorn costumes. Despite the high pressure of a setting sun and rising tide, they nailed it on one take. The stuff of movie legend.