Jack Warner was a gambler. You have to be to get into the movie business. He was once nearly killed in a car accident after winning $4,000 playing baccarat.
But he’d never taken as big a risk as casting two unknowns in his 1935 adventure blockbuster Captain Blood.
The result was worth far more than a good night at the baccarat table: an Academy Award nomination for best picture, the top grossing Warner Brother’s film of that year, and the launch of one of Hollywood’s great onscreen couples.
Before Bogart and Bacall, before Hepburn and Tracy, there was Olivia and Errol.
Warner gave the role of the gallant doctor-turned-slave-turned pirate to Errol Flynn, an unproven but handsome actor from Tasmania.
And fresh off her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but still unknown to those outside Hollywood, de Havilland snagged the prime role of Arabella Bishop, Blood’s love interest.
A more lighthearted adventure than MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty, released the same year (and the ultimate Best Picture winner) Captain Blood is a tale of romance and adventure painted on a huge canvas.
Throw in some steamy sex scenes and you’d have the film equivalent of the bodice ripper romance novels published in the 1980s that I gobbled up as a teenager.
I’m here for it.
Peter Blood is a peaceful doctor who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for providing medical attention to a rebel fighting against James II in seventeenth century England. Reprieved of death when the King decides to sell the prisoners for slaves instead and pocket the proceeds, Peter Blood is shipped off to Jamaica.
On the auction block, the plantation owners examine the men like cattle, pulling back their lips to inspect their teeth and testing their muscles. Watching the proceedings is Arabella Bishop, the beautiful young niece of Colonel Bishop, an influential plantation owner. Seeing that Peter Blood is no lowlife, she buys him to protect him from the excesses of the cruel plantation owner known for working his slaves to death.
Blood shows defiance instead of gratitude, refusing to relent even when Arabella arranges for him to act as the personal physician to the governor, giving him an elevated status over the other slaves.
Yet for all his wounded pride, Blood is grateful for Arabella’s interference and very much aware of her beauty.
A born leader, the other slaves soon look to Peter Blood as their leader, and he is increasingly radicalized against King James II and the island’s governor as he witnesses the inhumane treatment and conditions of the slaves.
Soon, Peter Blood and his band of rebels are planning their escape.
When Spanish pirates invade the village, Blood and the other slaves escape Jamaica by stealing their ship.
Like the mutineers on Mutiny on the Bounty, Peter and his followers have committed treason and can never go home again.
And thus, Captain Blood, the fiercest pirate to sail the seven seas, is born.
Yet our Captain is a gallant and fair pirate—the spoils are shared, women are not to be imprisoned or raped, and men who lose an arm or leg are compensated. He leads the fights and takes the first blow. He’s a swashbuckling hero for those opposed to King James II.
And like all stubborn, gallant heroes, his Achille’s heel is the woman he can’t forget, Arabella Bishop.
When they meet again three years later, she is no less beautiful but in the clutches of the second most successful (and far less scrupulous) pirate, Levasseur (Basil Rathbone.) Captain Blood now purchases her as his slave, and duels Levasseur to the death to prevent her from falling into his lecherous clutches.
She is as outwardly outraged (and inwardly thrilled) by his purchase as he once was of hers.
Captain Blood, who has kept his crew alive by his wits, puts himself and his entire crew in danger when he insists on escorting Arabella safely to Jamaica himself, sailing right to the governor who has obsessively pursued Blood all these years.
But in a twist of fate, Captain Blood learns that William III has taken over the British throne and has not only revoked Blood’s status as a traitor but given him a commission in the Royal Navy.
Thus Captain Blood returns a hero and becomes the governor of Jamaica to boot.
And he gets the girl.
But I didn’t have to tell you that.
Captain Blood launched both Flynn and de Havilland into major stardom. It was the first of the eight movies they would make together between 1935 and 1941. The most well remembered is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which de Havilland played Maid Marian to Flynn’s Robin.
Sparks flew between de Havilland and Flynn onset and though he often played pranks on her in the manner of a love-struck schoolboy, de Havilland spoke warmly of him and even once said he was one of the loves of her life.
But whatever they may have wanted, Flynn was married and de Havilland was not the kind of woman to have an affair. Later, when he was free, he once proposed marriage, but though charmed, de Havilland wore no rose-colored glasses when looking at Flynn.
At ninety-two (long after Flynn’s death), she reflected, “The relationship was not consummated. It was just as well that I said no [to marriage.] He would have ruined my life.”1
She’s likely right, as Flynn was content to booze and womanize, and later devolved into an empty shell of a man who self-destructed on drugs, alcohol, and lust.
On the set of Captain Blood, Flynn told de Havilland that he wanted approval and money, which he counted as success.
Even then, with only two films under her belt, de Havilland had higher ambitions.
“I want respect,” she told Flynn. “By that I meant serious work well done.”2
She would fight long and hard to earn it in Jack Warner’s kingdom.
1 Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
2 Amburn, Ellis. Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Warner, Jack. My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.
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It is incredible to me that de Havilland lived to 104, and it is equally incredible how much Hollywood history was likely lost with her passing. It’s funny the way in which we discover these past actors. I first learned of Olivia de Havilland, believe it or not, when reading the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, _In Memory Yet Green_. In it, he describes the first time he met his (first) while, Gertrude, describing her as “the very image of Olivia de Havilland, who, in my opinion, was the most beautiful actress in Hollywood and with whom I’d fallen desperately in love when I saw _Captain Blood_.”
I love that you found her in Asimov…and it’s fascinating how much history outside movies I find in these Hollywood biographies. And that if I had written this blog just a little over a year ago, Olivia would still have been alive to read it! She really was the last of a dying (and now dead) breed…..
1. It’s never safe to drive and play baccarat at the same time, and Warner was lucky to get away with it. We know better now, these two things do not mix.
2. What kind of compensaton did Captain Blood give to someone who had lost a leg? Just wondering….
Fabulous review as always!
Well, since you asked, I went back to the clip to make sure I am accurate…..
600 pieces of eight for the loss of a right arm. 500 for the left arm. 500 for the loss of a right leg, and 400 for a left leg.
And in a very minor subplot, one of the men intentionally shoots off his toe to try to get the gold for losing his leg….but of course our Captain Blood is too wise for this foolishness and the man gets nothing but boot up the arse!
You can’t fool Captain Blood by hacking off your own limbs for cash! Thanks for the detailed response!
“But dad, it’s a scratchy, black and white pirate film!” I whined. Then, the magical happened: I loved the movie.