Sunday 11 September 2011

1,001 Films: "Captain Blood" (1935)

Is Captain Blood the moment American sound cinema first showed signs of a spring in its step? By way of evidence, look at how high the walls are on the sets in Michael Curtiz's adaptation of the Rafael Sabatini swashbuckler: whether we be in a doctor's surgery in Bridgwater, a Caribbean mansion, or Taunton Crown Court, it's as though the talkies' new-found confidence (and opulence) could no longer be contained by conventional structures.

Of course, there was also no greater figure of cocksure masculinity than Errol Flynn, here parrying and thrusting with words and rapiers alike in his starmaking role as the dashing (if inappropriately named) doctor Peter Blood. Unjustly arrested as a traitor for simply doing his job, he's sent into slavery in Port Royal, where the film flirts with kinkiness by having governor's niece/archetypal posh totty Olivia de Havilland buy our hero's services for herself. Soon, however, he's plotting his escape, which he achieves by commandeering a Spanish pirate ship and becoming one of the most legendary swashbucklers on the high seas.

You're not supposed to notice this, but in doing so, Blood has to renounce his far nobler credo of saving lives rather than taking them; one of his victims, popping up at the halfway mark, is Basil Rathbone as a rival pirate with a truly terrible French accent. Elsewhere, the script, direction, performances, cinematography (Hal Mohr, painting shadows on those walls while helping de Havilland glow) and stuntwork (particularly during the final ship battle) are so utterly assured as to make for a tantalising taster of the golden age of studio filmmaking the following decade would usher in.

Captain Blood is available on DVD as part of Warner Bros.' Errol Flynn: The Signature Collection boxset.

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