Movie Review: Captain Blood (1935)

CaptainBloodThumbby Brad Nelson
These older movies are often difficult to review. Partly this is because the styles have changed so much since the 30’s and 40’s. But it’s certainly not because they are in black and white. Many of these old movies are beautifully photographed (think “Raging Bull” as an example of a modern masterpiece in black-and-white). It’s surprising just how rich black-and-white can be. But rating these old films can be difficult because it’s hard to separate the corn from the cream. Many of these old movies were using techniques or styles that have since become corny clichés. But back then they were not, and many of these techniques were innovative.

Still, it may be difficult to see these styles as innovate rather than as tired clichés. Watch “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” for instance, and you’ll see the classic “madman playing the organ” cliché. But was that a cliché back in 1954 with James Mason as Captain Nemo on the keyboards? Probably not. But I admit to chuckling at that scene now (although the movie itself is truly superb). That’s part of the charm of watching old movies. But there was nothing intrinsically funny about “the madman playing the organ,” not until 50 years later, at least.

And so I find it a bit of a challenge to rate old movies such as “Captain Blood.” This one features two classic stars, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. There were times in this movie when the acting was a bit stilted, the editing clumsy, and the plot lacking. But “Captain Blood” is the quintessential pirate movie. There are no goofy Disney special effects as in the would-have-been-a-complete-dog-without-Johnny-Depp “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Captain Blood is a nice and interesting mix of swashbuckling happy-go-lucky pirating adventure and serious drama (well, sometimes, anyway). And despite the name, the violence is all stylized. There is almost no blood shown. No body parts flying. No slow-motion disemboweling. Movies such as this make it seem as if it would be fun to be on the deck of a ship exchanging broadsides with an enemy. But that was almost certainly not the case. It was hell. (The terrific Horatio Hornblower series of books is rife with descriptions of this hell.)

But in movies of this kind, we can leave those harsh realities behind and concentrate on the theme of the good guys vs. the bad guys. And this movie does some interesting things in that regard. In fact, “Captain Blood” seems a little ahead of its time in the way they made Errol Flynn’s hero character morally dubious at times, which is a standard modern convention (even a bit of a cliché). And yet, in the end, you know he’s going to do the right thing and you’re glad for that fact. There is a time and a place for nice, clean, happy endings that occur only after a roller coaster ride of adventure and swashbuckling. And “Captain Blood” is such a place.

But I was surprised that this movie had so much serious content. Forget your typical brain-dead pirate movie (even possibly ones starring Errol Flynn). I found “Captain Blood” to be far richer than the standard superficial Saturday matinee fare. Don’t think Indiana Jones (which, although quite entertaining, is not a “thinker’s” picture). This movie is a bit more intelligent than that. Where Indiana Jones is a chain of implausible (but fun) events, Captain Blood is, surprisingly, much more realistic. I was expecting a campy picture but instead got a much more thoughtful movie – and still plenty of swashbuckling and campy dialogue for good measure.

Another point of interest is that, at least in terms of women, “Captain Blood” was a bit ahead of its time. One would hardly call Olivia de Havilland’s character the typical “helpless damsel in distress.” She’s much stronger and more sassy than that. I have no doubt that if Olivia de Havilland were still making movies today (and as of this writing, this great lady is still alive), she would fit in very easily with today’s strong, sassy, independent stereotype of the modern woman — or what I refer to as “the ass-kicking female,” which today has become yet another cliché. It’s easy to forget when she is on screen that this movie was made in 1935.

Errol Flynn, as with many of the major movie stars of that, and later, eras, had a personality and on-screen demeanor that you either like or you don’t. John Wayne, for example, pretty much had one way of acting. He was John Wayne (although check him out, along with Montgomery Clift, in the superb “Red River,” another must-see classic.) If you liked that syle, great. If not, well, if you’ve seen one John Wayne movie, you’ve seen them all (and I’m still working my way to that point). And I think that’s not too unfair of a characterization of Errol Flynn. But as it turns out, I like that style. I still don’t think they’ve made a better Robin Hood than the 1938 film in which he plays the title character (also starring de Havilland). And this is the Flynn you get in “Captain Blood.” He’s brave, handsome, happy-go-lucky, and a leader of men.

When all is said and done, I give this film 3.8 swashes out of 5 buckles. I was expecting much less. I got more. It’s directed by Michael Curtiz of “Casablanca” fame. That’s probably why. • (959 views)

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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5 Responses to Movie Review: Captain Blood (1935)

  1. Michael Schmidt says:

    You didn’t mention the Korngold score…

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Please do, Michael. It’s been a while since I wrote that review so the movie isn’t fresh in my mind. Is it pretty spectacular?

  2. Suzanne says:

    Don’t forget how good Errol Flynn is in “The Prince and the Pauper.” Charming, roguish, roped into ‘doing the right thing’ (= helping the unrecognizable young prince) in spite of himself…

    Another beautiful black and white movie made in the modern day is Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” which is amazingly good on all levels.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thank you, Suzanne. I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen that one. I’ll see if I can find it to rent.

      Speaking of “The Wild Child,” I have a review of a book about that. I didn’t know that there was a movie on the same subject. I might check that out.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Also, Suzanne, a great triple feature (along with “Captain Blood” and “The Prince and the Pauper”) would be to see Errol Flynn in “The Sea Hawk.” Here’s a capsule review:

      When you want to sit down and watch a good old-fashioned pirate movie, this is exactly the kind of movie you probably have in mind. “The Sea Hawk” stars Errol Flynn as Capt. Thorpe, Brenda Marshall as Doña Maria, and Claude Rains as the Spanish ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth of England (played wonderfully, by the way, by Flora Robson). I like Claude Rains, but his presence isn’t really needed in this movie. He didn’t even look or sound Spanish. His talent was sort of wasted. But it was fun to see Alan (I’m not your little buddy) Hale as Mr. Pitt.

      This movie is definitely a worthy effort. There are some great scenes aboard both a Spanish ship-of-the-line and a British privateer. Great pirate stuff. And Errol Flynn is at his best – which is not to say that he’s Kenneth Branagh, but he plays the man’s man and a leader of men in a world that chews up all but the toughest and bravest.

      Gilbert Roland is excellent as Captain Lopez, and Henry Daniell is suitably slithering and two-faced as the Lord Wolfie (Wolfingham). It’s not just all pirate scenes though. There’s some great politics on display as well. Flora Robson, as I said, makes a very interesting and believable Queen Elizabeth. Yeah, this movie recycles pretty much the same old love-interest plot. Flynn captures girl. Girl hates uncouth pirate. Flynn proves he’s not all that rough around the edges. Girl falls in love with Flynn. Flynn has to part with girl to go on a dangerous mission before declaring his love. But this plot device is still done pretty well. I’d never heard of Brenda Marshall before, but she’s actually pretty good in this movie.

      “The Sea Hawk,” as someone else said is “good, classic entertainment.” I couldn’t agree more. I give it 3 hat-doffing monkeys out of 5.

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