So let me ask you. When you see a movie about pirates, what do you want to actually see?
You want to see them, y’know, being pirates, right? Clashing swords, hollering “up in the rigging, ye monkeys!”, carousing in taverns, cannons ablaze at enemy ships, Jolly Roger flag fluttering in the breeze, chests of gold coins, voyages to mysterious ports, pitched battles on decks, swash-swash buckle-buckle, right? If you went to the next Pirates of the Caribbean film and it ended up mostly being about Captain Jack’s backstory, with lengthy sequences of him working in an optometry practice or something before caught up with political dissidents and getting deported to work as a slave on a sugar plantation, and it was midway through the film before he even got on a boat, you’d feel a little cheated, no?
Yeah, so that was Captain Blood.
Now, this is not to say that the backstory of our hero Peter Blood wasn’t inherently interesting. Based on a 1930s novel, Captain Blood is the story of an Anglo-Irish doctor who gets mixed up the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II. He’s been trying to stay neutral in an existing poltiical conflict in England, treating wounded on both sides; but when the King’s men find him tending to a rebel soldier’s wounds, they imprison him with the rest, deporting the whole group of men to Jamaica where they are to be sold into slavery in the sugar plantations and sulfur mines. He quickly gets on the bad side of a wealthy plantation owner, Colonel Bishop – but Bishop’s niece Arabella is impressed by his spunk and buys him herself. turning him over to her uncle to manage. Blood’s medical expertise also wins him favor with Jamaica’s wimpy governor, who struggles regularly with gout.
Bishop, however, still doesn’t like the guy, but can’t do anything about it because of Blood’s favor with the governor. So Bishop takes it out on his other slaves – which makes them all the more ready when Blood comes up with a scheme to escape by taking over a boat. They scrape together the money to get a smallish boat from a shipbuilder in debt – but then the city is attacked by Spanish pirates, most of whom abandon their ship to carouse in port, and the team gets a better idea…and thus, nearly halfway through the film, does our ostensible pirate captain finally become a pirate.
The film takes pains to show us that Blood is a moral pirate, drawing up a very rigorous code of conduct and plan of business for himself and his crew – plunder being paid into a common fund with equal shares paid to all, plus any extra one-time stipends paid out for injuries. Drunkenness during battle is a no-no. Capturing women for lewd purposes is strictly forbidden. It’s decent of him and all, don’t get me wrong – but a good several minutes is spent on a sequence spelling out his OnBoard Code Of Conduct, and on a sequence showing the crew dutifully lining up for their share of the proceeds after a raid. Which…isn’t exactly gripping.
It does set things up for a later plot twist, after Blood has joined forces with the French pirate Levasseur; the pair have agreed to meet up at a deserted island, each taking different routes to get there, and divvy up whatever each crew may find en route. When they meet back up, Blood is horrified to see that amongst Levasseur’s cache of booty is – Arabella. Without letting on that he already knows her, Blood gets into a swordfight with Levasseur for breaking contract.
….I just timed that fight; it lasts only one minute and three seconds. A big sea battle at the end takes only about eight minutes. Which gives us only….nine minutes of pirate battles in a two-hour film that is claiming to be about a pirate.
Despite how it may sound above, I didn’t hate this film. There are some fun moments from stars Errol Flynn (as Blood) and Olivia de Havilland (as Arabella), both of whom were complete newcomers to Hollywood. Flynn seemed a little green, and the swordfighting was a little uneventful, but it was hard to tell how much of that had to do with the story simply focusing on the wrong things, in my opinion.
Or maybe it’s me that’s been spoiled with all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or with the swordplay in Princess Bride (Wesley’s first fight with Inigo Montoya alone is three times the length of the big fight in Captain Blood). I tried to remind myself that I’m watching in an era when “pirate movies” were familiar genres, and there were conventions I’d been trained to expect – and at the time Captain Blood was first out, this was unfamiliar territory.
Still, though. If you’re going to call yourself a pirate movie, your pirate stuff should at least be more than 20% of your running time. That’s what I think, anyway.