Though he had yet to grow his trademark pencil-thin moustache, Errol Flynn rocketed to stardom with 1935’s Captain Blood, a high-spirited remake of a 1924 silent film (based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini) that provided the actor with the first of his eight on-screen pairings with luminous Olivia de Havilland. Not nearly as exciting as 1940’s The Sea Hawk but a sturdy first swashbuckling foray for Flynn, this Michael Curtiz picture—greenlit after MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty proved a hit—features a spirited score by the legendary Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and supplies jolly pirate action while simultaneously, and none-too-subtly, mocking the dictatorial British monarchy. In 1685 England, Dr. Peter Blood (Flynn, in a role originally intended for Robert Donat) helps treat a rebel wounded in an uprising against King James II, and for his trouble gets labeled a traitor and sent to Port Royal in Jamaica to be sold into slavery. There, he is purchased by the beautiful niece (de Havilland’s Arabella) of a vicious plantation owner (Lionel Atwill’s Col. Bishop), but during an attack on the colony by a Spanish armada, Blood takes to the ocean aboard a stolen army vessel. Now a notorious pirate surrounded by a band of loyal, exiled Englishmen, Blood—an Irish buccaneer with vigor and wit to spare—steals from anyone foolish enough to cross his path and spars with a rascally Spanish pirate (Basil Rathbone’s Captain Levasseur) before eventually reuniting with, and successfully wooing, Arabella.
That Blood’s reputation is restored thanks to the newly installed King William doesn’t change Captain Blood‘s playful critique of English rule, which is presented as ruthless, irrational, and wholly unconcerned with the democratic ideals of freedom and equality. However, such rusty political undercurrents—clearly intended to appeal to the film’s tyranny-loathing American audience—are much less important than Flynn’s dashing, gallant performance as the impudent Blood. Conveying emotion in big, broad strokes and through buoyant, lithesome physicality, Flynn—shot in light almost as downy as that which envelops de Havilland—dominates Curtiz’s frequently overcrowded and busy frame like a shining sword cutting through the fog. As a result of the charming de Havilland’s rote role as a moralizing stick-in-the-mud (her eventual affection for the plundering Blood is as predictably bland as her ruffly outfits are constricting and chaste), the film’s central romance isn’t as captivating as the on-screen couple’s later collaborations, and one pines for more (and more elaborate) set pieces than the somewhat wooden Flynn-Rathbone duel and a sea battle culled from silent movie and miniature model footage. Yet even if Captain Blood often seems overloaded with too much time-consuming exposition and unfunny peripheral characters (including those played by Ross Alexander, Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, and Robert Barrat), Flynn’s wicked, wicked charm helps keep this high seas adventure afloat.