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Blood! Blood! BLOOD!

Captain Blood is a 1935 Warner Brothers Swashbuckler of piracy on the Caribbean, directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland, based on the 1922 novel Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini. The film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture; interestingly, though Michael Curtiz was not nominated, he nevertheless received the second highest number of votes for best director as a write-in candidate.

Sabatini's wildly popular novel had already been filmed as a silent in 1924. The 1935 film was originally intended as a vehicle for English actor Robert Donat, who had had a great success as Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo the previous year, but had to bow out of Blood due to health problems. Flynn, whose most important part to date had been in a wordless flashback in the Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Curious Bride, was tapped by Jack Warner himself to replace Donat; the devil-may-care Tasmanian of Irish extraction had exactly the quality he desired for the adventurous Irishman, Captain Peter Blood. Olivia de Havilland, having enjoyed a notable success as the feisty Hermia in the Warners' film of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, was assigned the part of the equally spirited Arabella Bishop. The fine dramatic actor Lionel Atwood played The Heavy part of Arabella's uncle, and Basil Rathbone displayed a fine talent for fencing and sneering villainy (if rather less at imitating a French accent) as the evil Pirate Levasseur. Henry Stephenson played the kindly Lord Willoughby, and Ross Alexander made a striking impression as the ship's navigator, Jeremy Pitt.

The script, by Casey Robinson, was a skillful adaptation of Sabatini's picaresque novel. Much of Sabatini's own prose was included, but several events and characters were omitted or conflated, notably Lord Willoughby and a rival for Arabella's hand, Lord Julian Wade. It is perhaps notable that the script toned down to some extent the religious and national rivalries that are emphasized in Sabatini's more historically grounded novel. Moreover, the script somewhat changed Blood's character, in an effort to increase his level of Badass at the expense of the more complex, touchy-feely aspects of his personality. Thus, fans of the book may see it as inferior, despite the film's undisputed status as a classic.

Notable Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been requested by the respected co-director Max Reinhardt of A Midsummer Night's Dream to adapt Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for the play as a motion-picture score; at the same time the Warner Brothers engaged him to compose an original score for Captain Blood. Korngold's fine Late Romantic score, characterized by Wagnerian themes and Leitmotifs, was a write-in candidate at the Academy Awards, despite the fact that the composer had not the time to complete an entirely original score before the debut, but was forced to adapt some of the music from Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Mazeppa.

Other notable talents engaged for the film included fencing master Fred Cavens to choreograph the duels. During the famous duel on the rocks, director Michael Curtiz insisted that Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone should not use "buttons" on the end of their foils, for greater realism; the actors were thus in actual danger of injury, or possibly even death. This was possibly the beginning of Flynn's lifelong detestation of Curtiz, despite the fact that many of his most notable films were made with the hard-driving Hungarian.


In the reign of King James II of England a rebellion to place the Duke of Monmouth on the throne breaks out. Rebel Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander) comes to seek the aid of Irish physician and retired soldier, Dr. Peter Blood (Errol Flynn), to tend on his friend, Lord Gildoy, wounded in battle against the King's Men. While Blood is tending to his patient, he is arrested; brought before Hanging Judge Lord Jeffreys (a creepily memorable performance by Leonard Mudie). Blood and all the rebels are condemned to death.

King James (Vernon Steele), however, prompted by the venal Lord Sunderland, sells them into slavery in Jamaica instead, where brutal Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) buys most of the men and his sprightly niece, Arabella (Olivia de Havilland), purchases the humiliated Blood. Arabella suggests Blood as a replacement for the gouty governor's bumbling doctors. Blood takes advantage of this to plot escape for himself and his fellow slaves. Bishop, suspecting, whips Jeremy for information, then prepares to whip Blood for interfering, when the town is attacked by Spanish pirates. In the confusion, Blood and the slaves escape and seize the Spanish ship (with the ransom taken from the colonists), and set forth on a career of piracy.

In order to curb Blood's activity, King James makes Colonel Bishop Governor; meanwhile, Arabella sails to England on a visit. On her return, she and Lord Willoughby, who has been sent by the King to deal with Blood, are captured by the evil French pirate Levasseur, with whom Peter has unwillingly gone into partnership on the condition that Levasseur will abide by his humane rules. When Peter discovers Arabella's capture, he "purchases" her; the furious Levasseur refuses to give her up, and they Duel to the Death — Levasseur's. His love rejected by Arabella, Peter decides in a fury to take her and Willoughby on to Jamaica, though he knows that Governor Bishop has sworn to hang him.

When he gets there, the capital is under attack by the French, and the protecting English fleet is out pirate-hunting under the command of the Governor; Lord Willoughby entreats Peter to save the town, saying he has been sent by the King to offer him a pardon and a commission. Blood and his crew reject the offer with scorn — until they realize that the king in question is not the hated James, but William of Orange, who has seized the throne. They battle the French and win.

Arabella, finding Peter at the Governor's palace, begs him to escape; he forces her to admit that she loves him. Bishop meanwhile returns and is arrested; Lord Willoughby informs him that the new Governor will decide whether he is to be hanged or not. Bishop goes to find Arabella pleading for his life with that official, only to find that he is — Peter Blood, who greets him with a "Good morning, Uncle!"

Not to be confused with the video game series.

Tropes used in Captain Blood include:
  • The Cavalier Years: The film begins with Monmouth's rebellion in 1685 and ends with the deposition of James II in 1688.
  • Chair Reveal: "Uncle — this is the governor!"
  • Character Exaggeration: Compared to Sabatini's novel, Blood has become much more of a Flat Character in order to better fit an archetypal Action Hero role. Key moments (and lengthy segments) of the book that helped establish him as a sensitive, complex character were cut, and many parts that were left in were changed as well: At least two of the Captain's pivotal scenes with Arabella, for example, were kept in, but drastically altered to reverse completely the tone they had in the book, making Blood appear more traditionally macho.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Colonel Bishop whips Jeremy Pitt for information, and leaves him hanging up without water in the broiling Jamaican sun (see also Slave Brand, below).
  • Compressed Adaptation: Parts cut from the book include, amongst others, a long stretch of time when Blood drank heavily due to depression, and a very powerful scene in which he cried at the loss of his ship. This was part of a general re-interpretation of his character for the film (from a nuanced, sensitive man to a straight up action hero).
  • Duel to the Death: Between Peter and Levasseur over Arabella.
  • Fanfare: Notably, Korngold uses a repeated horncall to symbolize Peter's ship, at least once explicitly performed as source-music by a bugler in the crew.
  • Flynning: The philosophy of Fred Cavens, who choreographed the duels, was to take the basic fencing moves and to exaggerate them, to make them more spectacular for film audiences.
  • Hanging Judge: The historical Baron Jeffreys, played chillingly by gaunt, reedy-voiced Leonard Mudie, makes it plain that anyone who defends himself in his court is indulging in "a useless effort to keep his own neck from the halter."
  • Heroic Team Revolt: Happens briefly after Peter wants to take his crew to Port Royale where the vengeful governor and the entire English fleet is waiting to string them up. He manages to talk them round.
  • Historical Domain Character: George Jeffreys; King James II; Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland.
    • Interestingly, the film changes Judge Jeffreys' progressively fatal illness from kidney disease (pyelonephritis), as in history and the novel, to a "bleeding death in the lungs" — unspecified, but probably meant for tuberculosis.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: James II is generally considered now not to have been so much a cruel tyrant, as a rather stupid, stubborn man with an exaggerated sense of his own rights; his faults have been exaggerated in the cause of partisan religious and political propaganda.
  • Kangaroo Court: Lord Jeffreys refuses to let Peter defend himself properly during his trial, and literally instructs the jury to "bring in a verdict of 'Guilty'."
  • Leitmotif: Korngold employs several in the score, including the Fanfare mentioned above, a sweeping love theme for Arabella, and a jaunty tune to represent the Jamaican capital, Port Royal — which he deploys to stunning effect when Peter orders the crew to sail there, presumably to their deaths.
  • Made a Slave: The Monmouth rebels are sold into slavery at the suggestion of Lord Sunderland, and Peter is sold along with them.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Sure he's the hero, but "Doctor Blood" does not inspire confidence.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The character of Captain Peter Blood is almost certainly based partly on Colonel Thomas Blood, a 17th century Irish rogue who nearly succeeded in stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London and did succeed in gaining the favor of Charles II, and especially on Captain Henry Morgan, who, like Peter Blood, was a pirate who wound up as (lieutenant) governor of Jamaica.
  • Notable Original Music: Korngold's first original Hollywood score is a beautiful evocation of the sea, and helped launch his career as one of the dominant figures of film music.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Basil Rathbone's French pirate has dialogue of the "Zees so vairy 'andsome Engleesh prize say, « Bonjour, Monsieur le Capitaine Levasseur ! » variety.
  • Pirate
  • Property of Love: Inverted for both genders. Blood gets sold as a slave and bought by his eventual love interest. Later she gets taken prisoner and is sold to him in a similar fashion. They both find the experience to be humiliating in a bad way, and a total turnoff to the point of stopping them from admitting their feelings for each other. It is only later, when they are both free, that their love for each other can bloom.
  • Shown Their Work: Averted to an extent. Sabatini's novel incorporated dialogue from historical sources (such as transcripts from trials conducted by Judge Jeffreys); the film largely ignores these historical touches.
  • Slap Slap Kiss: The perfect description of Peter and Arabella's relationship.
  • Slave Brand: Colonel Bishop has Slaves who attempt to escape branded on the face with an FT for "Fugitive Traitor".
  • Stock Footage: Portions of the battle scenes are lifted from earlier Warners' silents; the attentive viewer can catch glimpses of Napoleonic ship design and costumes among the 17th century piracy.
  • Sword Fight: Notably, Peter's duel with Levasseur on the slippery rocks of Virgen Magra, ending with a very dead French pirate being splashed by the sea-foam.
  • Welcome to the Caribbean, Mon: Not that it seems all that welcoming to Peter Blood, at least at first.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the climatic battle at sea when Captain Blood's ship is sinking and the crew has to board one of the enemy ships, what exactly was the elderly Lord Willoughby doing during all this?
  • Wheel of Pain: Peter and the other slaves are forced to turn one of these on Bishop's plantation, which is explicitly contrasted with their turning of the capstan of the ship on which they escape.
  • Why Didn't You Just Say So?: This is Peter's response when the long-winded Lord Willoughby reveals that the king who seeks the crew's service is William, not James.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Much of the film takes place on-board ship; some aspects of this are lampshaded when Peter reveals that he has not heard of the Glorious Revolution in England because he has "been at sea, out of touch with the world."