Captain Blood My Hero

The other night Lily and I watched Captain Blood (1935) and we LOVED it. What a great film. Honestly, I can’t remember if I have ever seen an Errol Flynn movie before (shock & disbelief), and if I have it must have been when I was a kid. Flynn is wonderful. Not only does Flynn live up to his swashbuckling reputation, and not only is he as handsome as any leading man has ever been, he’s quite a good actor. In all Captain Blood was somewhat of a revelation for me.

What impressed me the most, however, was the overall craft that went into the creation of the film. Michael Curtiz directed the film, which was also a surprise for me (this shows just how out of touch I am to certain aspects of film history), and I was struck again by what a master he was. Sure, Captain Blood can be considered just another big costume drama with model boats from an era with lots of such films, but, for what it is, it is still a stunner. Here are just a few observations and some favorite images of mine.

The film opens with action, as any good pirate movie should – aaarrggh. The first shot has Blood’s friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander)* riding his horse at full-speed.

Now this shot was obviously filmed in the studio, which makes it even more remarkable considering the horse has to be running on a horse-sized treadmill. But the dynamic nature of the shot with its combination of rear screen projection and foreground objects flying by, with lighting flashing, and the horse racing, is just a wonderful moment and a great way to set the tone for the story.

Then the battle scenes are wonderful. Here is a small example of the level of craft in the film. First is a shot from one of the Spanish ships firing on the town of Port Royale. We the have the canon fire with its flash and smoke.

Then, a full second later, we see the flash of an explosion in the distant town.

Then we have a match on action (or match on explosion) when we cut in mid flash to the site of the explosion.

And then we see people running from the blast.

It all happens so fast that one might not notice how well put together these kinds of little moments are throughout the film. It certainly would have been much easier to just show the canon fire then cut to an explosion. But here we have a sense of depth and a holistic world, a world that is made up of real things and flesh and blood, not merely the fabrication of montage. In the age of “montage or bust” Curtiz places his edits within a world of three dimensions.

Then we have the model boats. To our eye, and maybe to those of 1935 as well, these shots are clearly made of models and miniature sets. But what a great job. The shots are more than just to create the sense of the battle, they are also works of art. Look at how beautiful they are:

When it comes to filming on the boat with actors, we all know that many of the boat sequences in Jaws (1975) were filmed with a hand-held camera so that the rocking motion of the boat wouldn’t be too much and make the audience sea sick. Well, Captain Blood had the opposite problem. It was filmed without real ships, so how were they going to make the ships have that feeling of actually being on the water? I only noticed the secret when I was fast forwarding through he film with scenes such as this, where Captain Blood dictates the articles of piracy for his crew…

…and it takes place on the studio-bound ship and the action is slow. What Curtiz had his cameras doing was very slowly, almost imperceptibly, dollying back and forth to and from his subjects. It gives the feeling that one is standing there on the ship and subtly adjusting one’s balance as the boat rocks.

And then there is the use of shadows. German expressionism was still a powerful influence in 1935, and what better scenario to use it than a swashbuckling pirate story? Here a just three such examples:

I love this shot too, with the candles placed in the foreground:

Makes me think of Ophüls or von Sternberg.

And finally there is the wonderful Basil Rathbone as the dashing pirate Levasseur. Doesn’t he look great in this shot (also with candles in the foreground)? N’est pas?

Here is Levasseur dying in the surf, what another beautiful shot.

There are so many more great images and moments in this film. Captain Blood is more than just a pirate film, it is an example that a finely crafted film, with depth and richness, could get made during the studio system by a director under contract – as so many were.

Of course I am always a little worried showing such old films to Lily. Maybe she will be bored. Maybe the films will be too dated to be appreciated. But, not only did she show great interest in the story and even cringe during some scenes, especially the branding of the slaves scenes, but when it was all over she turned to me and said “that was a good movie!” Good job Captain Blood.
*I have linked to Ross Alexander’s story on IMDB because it is fascinating and very tragic. I found his performance compelling in the film and Lily even remembered his character’s name the next day and had to remind me of it.

8 thoughts on “Captain Blood My Hero

  1. >Tucker, a lovely post. I’ve never seen CAPTAIN BLOOD and just added it to my Netflix queue. Re: Curtiz, in addition to CASABLANCA (“the most decisive exception to the auteur theory,” as Sarris called it), I also really like THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (also with Flynn), MILDRED PIERCE and FOUR DAUGHTERS. I’ve heard FLAMINGO ROAD and THE SEA HAWK are enjoyable too.

  2. >Girish, thanks for commenting. We have The Sea Hawk next on our list, maybe for tonight!I may have seen Robin Hood when I was a kid, but that was long, long ago. I still need to see Mildred Pierce, Four Daughters and Flamingo Road, and mazybe much more. I am becoming more impressed with Curtiz by the day. For whatever reason I’ve always just associated him with Casablanca and nothing else.

  3. >About six months ago they released a number of the old Errol Flynn Warber Bros. movies onto DVD and I decided, having never seen Flynn in anything (though I’d heard his name mentioned a zillion times), that I was gonna watch a few of them. I started with The Adventures of Robin Hood and so thoroughly enjoyed it that I had to watch the rest. I soon devoured Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and The Prince and the Pauper. I also watched a fascinating documentary on the man himself called The Adventures of Erroly Flynn.The movies were all great (as always I loved Curtiz’s penchant for shadowplay) but the most fun I got was just watching Flynn. What a specimen! Such charm, such charisma, such atheleticism, such finely chiseled features and–as you point out, Tuck–such a good and underrated actor too. I particularly liked it in Robin Hood when he would put his hands on his hips, throw his head back and laugh in such a joyouns, triumphant manner. I could see why every guy wanted to be and every woman woman wanted to be with him.

  4. >Damin, thanks for commenting. It seems to me that adventure stars, like Flynn, are like comedies: they may be wonderful, excellent, brilliant, but they will rarely get the respect they deserve. Flynn was a better actor than a lot, and he was so full of life without being campy. I, like you, have heard his name for years but could never really say I was familiar with his work. Now I am glad to get to know him (in a manner of speaking). I am also enjoying getting to know the work of Curtiz better. I am amazed at his virtuosity in handling this big ensemble/costume pictures.

  5. >Flynn’s flamboyant, fun, and friendly in his films. But I find it rewarding to watch Basil Rathbone as his foil in these films. Rathbone was an excellent swordsman and competitive fencer who helped Flynn look ten times better than he was. I also think Rathbone was the actor; Flynn the movie star.

  6. >Brian, it’s great to have you stop by. If one compares Flynn’s swordplay in Captain Blood with that of The Sea Hawk it looks like Flynn has improved quite a bit in the 5 years between the two films. No doubt Rathbone helped him along, as well as others. I also like seeing Rathbone play the foil. He was a great actor and his capabilities elevated the film in the way that Rickman elevated Die Hard. Certainly Flynn was more the star and Rathbone the actor, but I was surprised to see how good of an actor Flynn was. He was remarkably perfect for the best of his roles.

  7. >Great post! I especially like the screen shots that you chose. I think you are absolutely right introducing your daughter to old films. Better to start now, rather than when she is older and may not be so open to the idea, don’t you think?

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