Thinking everything was in place, Warner Brothers scheduled Captain Blood for production in 1935. The great action director Michael Curtiz was assigned to helm the film, co-starring up-and-coming 19-year-old Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020) as the love interest. But Robert Donat, slated to play the title role, was too ill with asthma, so the wife of studio head Jack Warner suggested Warners’ new 25-year-old contract player Errol Flynn (1909-1959), telling her husband that Flynn was the handsomest actor they had under contract.
Fortunately, Flynn knew how to fence convincingly, as did his co-star Basil Rathbone. Indeed, both men were superior swordsmen. Shakespeare-trained Rathbone was likely the most skilled fencer in Hollywood, and he cut a forceful and aristocratic figure in costume pictures such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), David Copperfield (1935) and Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Warner worried because the movie was released with two unknown actors as its stars. It was de Havilland’s fourth film, and Flynn’s experience was just as limited. He had bit parts in about four movies in Australia and England and had co-starred in one inept attempt to film a sequel of sorts to Mutiny on the Bounty.
Flynn’s character, Peter Blood, was a medical man unfairly accused of treason against British King James II and sentenced to a penal colony in the British Caribbean, where the injustice and cruelty prompt him to lead a rebellion. Succeeding, Blood and his fellow work-slaves turn to piracy. One of his adversaries is a French buccaneer, played by Rathbone (1892-1967). Because England and France were in conflict, Captain Blood helps the British despite their injustice to him and his men.
The story is filled with action and romance, so Captain Blood became a smash hit in the USA and overseas. The screenplay was written by Casey Robinson, but was adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel of the same title. The film was produced at William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Studio for release by Warner.
Following the smashing success of Captain Blood, Errol Flynn had to fight Warner not to be typecast as a swashbuckling action star. He made a few movies in modern day dress, but audiences wanted Flynn in adventure flicks, and he had the athletic physique for jerkins and tights.
Lovely co-star Olivia de Havilland became recognized as one of Warners’ leading ladies and went on to a distinguished movie career of nearly 50 years. Her best-remembered and most frequently watched films are Gone with the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Ms. de Havilland was nominated five times for Academy Awards and won two as Best Actress (To Each His Own and The Heiress). Many more acting awards were conferred on her by film critics and film societies, and she was made a Dame of the British Empire and a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.
Flynn’s movie career lasted half as long as his counterpart’s. His 25 years of filmmaking vied with his roistering ways. As Flynn grew older, he was charged with having sex with underage girls (at least some of the accusations proved to be ploys for publicity by ambitious parents of the young women). By his mid-forties, Flynn found himself broke, subject to bouts with malaria, heart trouble and liver damage. Critics and some within the Hollywood industry disparaged Flynn’s acting skill. But no other Hollywood actor since Douglas Fairbanks Sr. proved as comfortable and believable in period costume roles.
During his last years he delivered top-notch portrayals in The Sun Also Rises (1957), Roots of Heaven (1958) and Too Much Too Soon (1958), in which Flynn fully realized his role as a dissolute John Barrymore). Before he died, Flynn won recognition for his always believable screen persona and acting skill.
Captain Blood was nominated as The Best Picture for the 1936 Academy Awards. Despite not being nominated, Michael Curtiz received the second-greatest number of votes (all write-ins) for Best Director. Others who received substantial write-in votes (more than many of the official nominees) were Casey Robinson for his scriptwriting and Erich Wolfgang Korngold for his Music Score.
You can watch Captain Blood free online here:
Frank Cullen is a published, award-winning show business historian and fiction writer living in the East Mountains. In October 2021, he hopes the threat of Covid will have abated, so that he can revive the monthly Movies in the Mountains film series at the East Mountain Public Library in Tijeras.