by 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)