Adapted From: Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander
Written By: Casey Robinson
Directed By: Michael Curtiz
When it comes to early cinematic swashbuckling, there are certain names that spring immediately to mind; Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Burt Lancaster and Australia's own notorious rake, Errol Flynn. Captain Blood is the film that catapulted Flynn's career, as well as that of his co-star, Olivia de Havilland, who would go on to work with Flynn a further eight times. It's a classic of the piratical genre and is based on Rafael Sabatini's book of the same name. Sabatini was a hugely prolific author, but is most remembered for three chief works of derring do. Captain Blood is obviously one and then there's The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche. Like Alexandre Dumas pere before him, Sabatini carved a niche in adventure novels featuring put upon heroes forced into great feats of strength, daring battles and heroines that don't necessarily swoon so much as fight back.
Captain Blood is a lot of fun to read and has all the hallmarks of a quality adventure. It follows the tale of Peter Blood, an Irish soldier who has decided to fall back on his medical degree and practice in a small town in England. During the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, Blood is called to attend to one of the rebels, Lord Gildoy, and is mistaken for a traitor himself. He escapes hanging, only to be transported as a slave to the colonies. There he meets the beautiful Arabella Bishop, but immediately assumes she's every bit as nasty as Colonel Bishop.. When a Spanish ship attacks their settlement, Blood heroically steps up to the mark to defeat the Spanish and takes over the ship with his fellow escaped slaves. He then humiliates his owner, the aforementioned Bishop who becomes his sworn enemy, then saunters off to the open sea to carve a career as an infamous, and very rich, pirate.
It's not hard to see why Hollywood came knocking swiftly after Captain Blood, the first adaptation appearing in 1924, just two years after the book was published. Sadly though, only thirty minutes of this film has survived as far as we know. The company who held the rights to the book were swiftly taken over by Warner Brothers in 1925, transferring the rights in the process. Released in 1935, Warner Bros' version of Captain Blood was the first 'talkie' adaptation of any Sabatini novel and was something of a gamble for the studio. It was relatively low budget at the time, but still racked up a total cost of $1 million. The risk came with the stars themselves; it was Errol Flynn's first major role and his supporting cast weren't exactly bankable names either, but it paid off. Captain Blood was a huge success and I think a lot of that lies in the way in which Casey Robinson adapts Sabatini's plot into something much more streamlined as well as the starmaking turn from Flynn.
What you swiftly realise as you're reading Captain Blood is that Sabatini is completely in love with the main character he created. There is no problem too large, no fight too deadly and no political manoeuvre too tricksy for the dashing Peter Blood. And Sabatini goes on to prove this. At length. Basically, by the time the plot starts to wrap up, Peter Blood has managed to piss so many people off that pretty much the entire Caribbean population is out looking for him. There's a family of Spaniards that fight him all over the Atlantic, including an admittedly very fun exchange in Gibraltar. There's Bishop who, in his new position of Deputy Governor of Jamaica, gathers his fleet and leaves Port Royal entirely unprotected for a French attack just to hang Peter Blood from the highest yard arm in His Majesty's Navy. Oh yes, Peter Blood has managed to irritate the French too, not only the French pirate he fights about halfway through the book, but also the entirety of the French navy because he reneges on a commission with them. And they're now at war with the English so they pretty much hate him for that too.
Sabatini has Blood get into all these various scrapes, but he's just a bit too good for you to think he's ever in immediate danger. Not to mention that you need some kind of complicated spider diagram full of colour co-ordinated arrows to work out who he's managed to anger, why and who they're allied with to do something about it. The conflict with Bishop and his hatred of James II, who he sees as responsible for his present slave-based predicament, is the main through-line of the plot, tied in with his love for Arabella, who he realises wasn't actually all that mean and is really quite pretty. However, it's surrounded with so many additional complications that the story breaks down into an episodic narrative rather than anything consistently adhering to one plot. It might be a lot of fun to read, but would be far too lengthy and difficult to negotiate in a two-hour film.
Enter screenwriter Casey Robinson who rather liberally hacks away at the various subplots in the novel, blending together some others and keeping that rivalry with Bishop to produce a plot that is far easier to follow. In the cinematic version, the events that find Blood in Jamaica remain the same. It is only after the Spanish attack the colony that things start to change and Robinson does this whilst managing to keep the two big plot points of the book; the Levasseur duel and Blood saving Port Royal from the French. The rivalry with the Spanish family is dispensed with completely as is his commission with the French navy. The fight with the French pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone, with a truly outrageous French accent) is woven into the main plot so that the Frenchman captures Arabella, rather than another helpless damsel, and Blood duels with Levasseur over Miss Bishop instead.
The sequence is one of the truly thrilling moments in the story and director Michael Curtiz shoots it brilliantly in the surf of the beach on which the pirates have landed. It also acts as a sort of precursor to 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood in which Flynn and Rathbone would once again do battle with Olivia de Havilland watching from afar. It's not quite as spectacular as that confrontation would be, but it's a solid action sequence that's much more intimate than the sea battles that take place throughout the story, famously cribbed from The Sea Hawk's earlier adaptation and using rather impressive miniature sets. The final sea battle, in which Blood saves an abandoned Port Royal from French attacks with the knowledge that James II is no longer on the throne, forms the film's major climax, as it does in the book. Robinson also keeps the ending too as Arabella and Peter finally confess their love for each other and surprise Colonel Bishop with the sudden knowledge that Blood has become the Governor for Jamaica.
The streamline not only helps on a plot level, but also on a character one. Without Sabatini's lengthy odes to the many skills of Peter Blood, he feels less invincible as a character. He keeps the rakish wit that makes Blood so charming and fun to be around. Of course, it helps when you have a star in Errol Flynn, a man who oozed so much charisma, it was practically visible around him on screen. Reportedly, he was so nervous about getting his first major role that Curtiz had to go back and reshoot early scenes once Flynn had grown in confidence. None of this shows in the final performance and it's hardly surprising his career launched straight after. It helps that his chemistry with co-star Olivia de Havilland is showcased here; Arabella in the book is a heroine who bites back at Blood, rather than simply swoon in his presence. Robinson transfers that across and actually increases the amount of agency Arabella is given. Though it's a very masculine film, de Havilland stands out as a woman out of step with the social conventions of the world around her, making it easy to understand why she would fall for the rebel pirate.
In these changes, Robinson may not have produced the most faithful adaptation in terms of the actual narrative, but he does retain the sense of fun and adventure that the novel has in his streamlining of the plot. The simplicity allows Curtiz to rattle through the story at a considerable pace and show off the charms of his then-unknown stars. It's a tricky balance to cut so much out of the original story and keep the spirit of the book in question, but Robinson and Curtiz make it look easy here. And there's no need for that enemy-based spider-diagram.