With a title like Captain Blood, I think I went into this expecting something a little more…visceral? But it’s fine. It doesn’t quite live up to its title, and as a sea-faring story it definitely pales next to Mutiny on the Bounty, but I can sorta see why it’s on the List.
My understanding is that there were a ton of pirate movies made in the 1930s, just as the ‘50s saw a boom in sci-fi and the ‘40s in noir, but here it’s I guess the responsibility of the List to show us a good enough sampling of the medium’s most popular genres. Having a rounded sense of why a given genre saw such a boom might reveal something about the audience and time. Consider, for instance, the periodic resurgence of movies about demonic possession. These tend to reflect periods of concern about autonomy, insurgency, a feeling like we’re being attacked and maneuvered from within by some malevolent foreign entity. Notice how it came up again, in movies like Paranormal Activity and The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Devil Inside, after 9/11.
So what does the pirate epic tell us about the early- and mid-1930s? Well, according to the sampling we’re given by the List, they seem to concern people who are being hassled by society, or something to do with bureaucracy, and decides, “Fuck this,” they’ll take to the sea, make a life of their own. Living by their own rules, they forge reputations. Legends are crafted about their formidability, their conquest, their altruism and valor. Maybe what these pirate movies spoke to, in the hearts of their Depression-era audience, was the feeling of how great one could be if only they could get away from some stifling larger system.
I’m not all that endeared by the sub-genre of pirates, or of sea-voyage stuff in general, and even though we still, in the 21st century, see one or two mid-to big-budget movies set in open waters each year, I’m inclined to say that nobody’s an explicit enthusiast about ocean movies. Or very few. Because when you look at the vampire sub-genre, or demonic possession, or Roman epics, or evils-of-technology sci-fi, you see that they all tend to enjoy a periodic resurrection. A two- or three-year spat of public interest. But that doesn’t really happen with sea stories. We got the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which is huge, but otherwise no real trend of movies taking place on the water (although I guess you could maybe say the original Star Wars trilogy is a pirate story, people hopping from ship to ship…).
Captain Blood is about a doctor named Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) who gets arrested in 1600s England for tending the wounds of a rebel. He’s exiled to the West Indies where he’s sold into slavery and then yadda yadda he becomes the most formidable and legendary pirate on Earth. And it’s a good yadda. Errol Flynn is a charming actor, his co-star Olivia de Havilland palys well off of him, and there’s an exciting (I wouldn’t surprised if it was iconic) duel in the middle, swords on a beach, between Blood and a rival pirate. But the movie isn’t all that memorable. I want to say that the reason it doesn’t ring my bell is because of my aforementioned disinterest in movies of this overall sort, the fact that I’ve never found seascapes all that gorgeous nor been compelled by the claustrophobic drama of the ships (even the scenes on land, with Dr. Blood’s internment and escape, don’t do much for me), but I also came into this Project thinking I wasn’t a fan of musicals. Then I watched the Busby Berkley stuff and fell in love with them. Didn’t think I’d like romantic comedies, either, but Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch have spun me around on that.
The biggest thing I took away from Captain Blood is an insight into the structure of good storytelling.
A Word on Structure
My favorite aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s work is that, while the final outcome of his stories might occasionally be predictable, a typical viewer (like myself) can almost never predict the course of action that will carry us toward it. Characters’ actions continue to alter the situation, consequences and stakes are constantly mounting in little self-contained episodes of suspense. Consider the dinner scene in 39 Steps, or the breakfast scene in Blackmail, or the dinner scene in Shadow of a Doubt (Donald Spoto has a keen eye in his book on Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius, for the significance of scenes involving food). These episodes are kinda loosely bracketed or underscored by a plot. So it’s like this:
Notice that the plot is just there at the bottom. The murky waters on which the story sails. What captures the audience’s interest is the action that the plot has inspired. The plot itself is relegated mostly to the beginning and end of the picture.
Now here’s what I think Captain Blood does that’s similar, but different.
So there isn’t much of a plot here, which is great because the story, like a Hitchcock yarn, is perpetually unfolding, variegated, carrying us from one set piece to the next, land to sea and back again, England to the Caribbean, romance to adventure to political intrigue. What anchors out interest, therefore, are the characters, not the plot. The plot’s all over the place. And this is one of the golden tricks to telling a good story. If the audience cares about your characters, they’ll follow you anywhere.
Interesting stuff. I watched it late at night after my second consecutive ten-hour shift and, for all my exhaustion, it held my interest pretty well until the last fifteen or twenty minutes, where the troubled romance takes precedence.
If you’ve gotta go with either this one or Mutiny on the Bounty for your annual sea-venture, go with Mutiny.