By Philip Schweier
A year or two back I got me a Kindle, and being the cheapskate that I am, I immediately loaded it up with as many public domain books as I could find. Among them was Raphael Sabatini’s swashbuckling adventure novel, Captain Blood. Midway through reading it recently, I decided to revisit the film version. Directed by Michael Curtiz in 1935, it is the first of nine pairings of then-unknowns Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
Consequently, he himself is convicted of treason against King James and exiled into slavery in the West Indies. There, he is purchased on the whim of Arabella Bishop (de Havilland), the niece of a wealthy plantation owner (Lionel Atwill). As a prank, she arranges for the defiant doctor to treat the governor’s gout, which draws the resentment of the town’s official physicians (Hobart Cavanaugh and Donald Meek).
The doctors conspire to finance Blood’s escape, ridding themselves of this usurper to their profession. Blood intends to take with him a company of his fellow prisoners, but on the eve of their departure a Spanish galleon attacks Port Royal, Blood leads his men to capture the vessel and escape to the high seas. Privateers though they may be, Blood instills in his crew a unity of purpose, and a vow for the fair and ethical disposal of all their booty, including captives, especially women.
In a duel to the death with Levasseur, Blood wins the lovely Arabella and rids himself of the cruel French captain with the stroke of a single cutlass. While aboard Blood’s ship, she rebukes the charming buccaneer, who in turn decides to exchange her freedom for his own. Of course any one can see that these two kids are crazy in love, and nothing good will come of all this posturing.
Arriving at Port Royal, Blood discovers the town under attack by a pair of French ships. Willoughby explains that France and England are at war, and he has been authorized to offer Blood and his crew a place in the British Navy. Naturally, they collectively refuse to serve King James, only to be told by Willoughby that James has been deposed and William III now sits on the throne.
But what of Blood’s fate? Governor Bishop had abandoned the protection of his station in a misguided and fruitless pursuit of Blood. Willoughby reveals to Bishop that if he’s lucky, the new governor might not hang him for abandoning his post. Of course it’s up to Arabella to plead for clemency, but seeing as how her true love is now the governor, she just might be able to save her uncle from the gallows.
Of course, similar events would be played out a few years later, when Flynn plays yet another dashing rogue who charms a privileged beauty in his quest for justice and loyalty to the King of England, skewering Basil Rathbone in the process. Yes, kids, I’m talking about The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), also directed by Michael Curtiz.
Comparing the novel to the film, the movie is of course condensed, and the book perhaps rather wordy by today’s standards. The book harkens back to an earlier time, when adventure novels were epic stories in the vein of The Three Musketeers or Scaramouche. I don’t hold it against the film that it hits mostly the high points of the novel. It’s merely the product of its time – but it’s a mighty good product. Its only fault is that it parallels too closely its younger sibling, the more widely known Adventures of Robin Hood.