Captain Blood

Captain Blood
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Captain Blood

After the success of swashbucklers Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo, Warners decided to go all-in on a remake of Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. (There’d been a silent version in 1924, now lost.) The stars they initially had in mind for the leads bowed out, and in the end the studio took a huge risk and cast two complete unknowns: Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. Luckily, they were both excellent, ideal for the rôles—and even better, they had great on-screen chemistry together, so good they were paired seven more times in the next ten years. The director’s chair went to studio veteran Michael Curtiz, who in 1938 would direct another swashbuckling essential, The Adventures of Robin Hood, before his career pinnacle helming Casablanca. Add in Basil Rathbone as the villain, supported by a slate of the best character actors in Hollywood, with a stirring soundtrack by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and you have the makings of a true classic.

The story starts in 1685 during Monmouth’s Rebellion against England’s King James II. Dr. Peter Blood, treating one of the wounded, is swept up among the captive rebels and sentenced to death in the Bloody Assizes, where we first get a sense of his indomitable character. Throughout the film Blood is aflame with a mocking defiance of oppression and tyranny, but Flynn’s characterization also sparkles with wry intelligence, as he delivers razor-sharp remarks with such conviction it seems he’d thought them up himself. Blood’s sentence, and that of his fellow rebels, is commuted to slavery on the plantations of Jamaica, and the crew is shipped off to Port Royal. At a degrading slave sale, Blood catches the eye of Arabella Bishop (Olivia DeHavilland), daughter of one of the plantation owners, and in order to save the sullen Irishman from being bought by the most brutal man on the island, she buys him herself—now there’s a “meet cute” for you!

The film’s next half hour is this amazing back and forth as the story contrasts the luxury and brutality of colonial Jamaica, with Blood step-by-step engineering an escape attempt by himself and his fellow slaves, meanwhile currying favor with the governor (only Blood can cure his gout) and engaging in a half-unconscious courtship dance with Arabella. (Neither of them really mean it—or do they?) Then the escape plans go awry and all seems lost, until the “timely interruption” (as Blood himself puts it) of a raid by Spanish pirates. The slaves take advantage of the chaos to turn the tables on both Spanish and English, and after some derring-do, Blood and his crew are free and in command of a fighting ship. And then, with all the world their enemy, what should they do but sail to Tortuga and join the Brotherhood of the Coast? But when you ally with pirates, you must consort with such scoundrels as Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone)—and that might not end well.

But oh, those scenes of Caribbean piracy: the buccaneers swearing to the Articles, drunken pirates pillaging a seaport, freebooters roistering in the taverns of Tortuga, the boarding actions—“Grappling hooks to larboard!” They’ve all been done many times since, but never better, to my mind. The rapier duel in the surf between Flynn and Rathbone over the captured DeHavilland is worth the price of admission alone. Guilty pleasure: Basil Rathbone’s outrrrrrageous French accent.

Buccaneer

Buccaneer
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1938
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Source: Olive DVD

The Buccaneer

 

This may be the only patriotic American pirate movie with a president in it, except for the remake filmed twenty years later. It’s based on the 1930 novel Lafitte the Pirate by Lyle Saxon, which I haven’t read, but if its plot has as little to do with history as this movie, Mr. Saxon has a lot to answer for. High concept: “Jean Lafitte helps ol’ Andy Jackson beat the British at the Battle of New Orleans.” This is not only a sure-fire can’t-miss basis for a Hollywood movie, it even actually happened. Just nothing like the way it’s depicted in The Buccaneer.

All right, so this is claptrap—but is it entertaining claptrap? In the main, it is, mostly because it knows it’s claptrap and therefore doesn’t take itself very seriously. This is a relief, frankly, after DeMille’s pompous and overblown Cleopatra and The Crusades, and shows he still knew how to tell a story with a light hand. But this is also flag-waving American history as told in the mid-twentieth-century, and therefore more about America’s idea of itself than what really occurred.

Jean Lafitte, the titular buccaneer, is played by Fredric March, one of the most respected leading men of the 1930s, acclaimed in roles both dramatic and romantic. His Captain Lafitte is a dark and curly-haired dandy who mocks respectability in a suave French accent while secretly aspiring to gentility, more an unorthodox free-trading entrepreneur than an unscrupulous cutthroat. The real Lafitte was the last of the Caribbean pirates, a double-dealing scoundrel with no principles to speak of—but that won’t do for DeMille, who must have a heroic privateer who respects the American flag and will raid only foreign shipping. Claptrap, but it provides the film some early conflict between Lafitte and a captain who disobeys his orders and sinks an American ship. This gives March a chance to conduct a boarding action, show his piratical grit, and then turn around and display his decency by saving the life of a captive, a Dutch woman named Gretchen, played for laughs by Franciska Gaal. She’s not the only funny-foreigner character in the film: for DeMille, the melting-pot nature of New Orleans is an opportunity for a parade of cartoon ethnics and racial stereotypes. This is irksome, hard to forgive, and unfunny, with one exception: the ursine Akim Tamiroff (and his mighty mustache) in the role of Dominique Youx, a former Napoleonic cannoneer in the service of Lafitte. (True story.) Tamiroff becomes Gretchen’s protector, and his blustering ebullience is one of the chief pleasures of this film.

Other pleasures include the re-creation of Lafitte’s legendary pirate haven of Barataria, the battalion of buccaneers gliding through the bayous on their long, narrow flatboats, the swaggering and smirking Anthony Quinn as Lafitte’s shady lieutenant (his presence seemingly statutorily required in every pirate movie), and best of all, the dawning realization that the so-serious Fredric March has a genuine talent for sly comedy.

Over an hour into the movie the other major historical figure finally appears: Hugh Sothern as General Andrew Jackson, in a fun over-the-top portrayal of Old Hickory, outdone only by his aide, the even-more-cartoonish frontiersman Ezra Peavey (Walter Brennan, in an early triumph). Brennan even out-hams Akim Tamiroff. Anyway, the British are coming! After a tense negotiation held at mutual gunpoint, Jackson and the outlawed Lafitte join forces—once Lafitte slays a British-paid traitor in a fine cutlass duel and frees his captive men from prison in the nick of time.

And then the Battle of New Orleans is on! In the big finale DeMille reminds us that, if nothing else, that son of a bitch sure knew how to set up a shot. Lafitte and his men are given the critical center of the line of defense, whereas historically they held the extreme left flank, but what the hell: it’s Hollywood. Flags wave, redcoats marching to skirling bagpipes are no match for Jackson’s squirrel hunters and Napoleon’s cannoneer, and America is saved from perfidious Albion. So it’s a happy ending for everyone, right? Well, not so much, because pirates. No spoilers here: see it for yourself.