Category Archives: Michael Curtiz

Errol Flynn: Captain Blood

Since we’ve been hearing about the planned Captain Blood remake since July, 2009, I thought it about time to revisit the 1935 version. It’s unclear when the Spierig brother‘s science fiction adaptation will be released, or if it’s in pre-production. Warner Bros. and producer Bill Gerber have said the story – lifted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel – will remain unchanged, even if the characters will be fighting across galaxies and not in 17th century galleons.

The Captain Blood that has endured as a classic was actually a remake of a 1924 silent film starring J. Warren Kerrigan, who left acting after this film. Some shots of the naval battle were edited into Flynn’s sound update.

The Talent

Producers Hal B. Wallis and Jack Warner hired Michael Curtiz, and old hand at Warner, to direct the big-budget swashbuckler. The Hungarian-born Curtiz had moved to the United States in 1926, though his English remained so poor he often called his estranged wife Bess Meredyth for linguistic help on set.  [Harmetz, Alean. Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of “Casablanca”. Orion Publishing Co, 1993. p. 123] Though he was a versatile talent he always inflicted a sense of action in a scene, moving the camera, playing with shadow, adding a shifting European dynamism.

Jack L. Warner and Hal B. Wallis plan Blood. Curtiz looks on. From:

Captain Blood was the first of eight collaborations between Curtiz and Tasmanian actor Errol Flynn, who worked for Warner Bros. England in the early 1930s. He was, however, unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. Olivia de Haviland was also unknown, playing parts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and The Irish in Us (1935 – and what a title). This was an almost unprecedented risk for a tentpole picture.

Warner was gambling on the recent successes of The Count of Monte Cristo and Treasure Island (both 1934). The period piece allowed studios to bend the rules of the Hollywood Code, enforced energetically due to pressure from groups like the Catholic  National Legion of Decency. Historical settings allowed more leeway for violence, drunkenness, and sexual innuendo – how can you shoot a pirate movie and not show brawling, alcoholism, and womanizing? Warner felt the time was right to reinvigorate the genre. He made some predictable casting decisions, too, just to be safe: Basil Rathbone was an easy pick for the likeable villain Lavasseur, and Lionel Atwill was a reliable bad guy, whose every gesture and sharp glare lets you know he’s mean without the trouble of much establishing dialogue.

Flynn and Atwil (Governor Bishop) size each other up at a slave auction.

According to  film scholar and biographer Lincoln D. Hurst, Flynn was quaking with fear in the early days of the shoot. This is not apparent in the final product partly because Curtiz reshot some of those moments after Flynn gained the charisma and confidence that seduced audiences. Thomas McNulty, author of Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, calls the star a “personality” actor, not a “method” actor of the Stanislavski school: “He had style when style was everything.” Evaluating Flynn as a good or bad actor is almost besides the point. He matched the glowing pomp of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Despite the scope of the pirate battles, Warner and Wallis relied almost exclusively on soundstages. The Rathbone-Flynn duel was filmed at Laguna Beach under the supervision of fencing master Frank Cavens. He gave Hollywood sword fights a polished elegance, and was probably held in the same high regard Woo-ping Yuen of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is today.

The original music was supplied by Austrian composer Erich Korngold. He had just returned to Europe from scoring A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was asked to score Captain Blood…in three weeks. Because of ominous sounds from Germany, Korngold decided to remain in L.A., scoring Warner’s films until 1947. In Captain Blood he hammered home emotional themes through operatic crescendos, drumming in the upswings and downswings of the plot. His flourishes underscore Blood’s motivations and desires, a perfectly thunderous accompaniment to a full-throttle action movie:


The film’s overwhelming success was one of the most stunning debuts of any Hollywood actor. And the debut of a stunning couple: de Havilland and Flynn became a star team. I will look at a few of their others collaborations, including They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) in the new few weeks. Warner’s casting instincts proved right, and all of the film’s uncertain elements coalesced and connected with audiences. Something similar would happen in 1942, when Curtiz directed Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in an oddly structured film called Casablanca.

The English Revolution

James II, 1633-1701

Warner wisely stayed away from the political content of the period, which was in any case an odd scenario for a modern pirate movie. Pirates of the Caribbean remained in safe waters by pitting the British Royal Navy and a rabble lovable pirates against unlovable pirates. Peter Blood, on the other hand, is a Protestant rebel in an England on the brink of another civil war. The year is 1685, the Catholic James II has just ascended the throne, and the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion has just been defeated.

Peter Blood, a physician of Monmouth’s supporters, is sentenced to slavery in Bardbados by no other than Judge Jeffreys, a notorious alcoholic and royalist. Some rebels actually did become plantation slaves, though Curtiz does not portray the misery of the black slaves in the colony who vastly outnumbered the band of English dissenters. The film also avoids religious references; apart from the word “papist” in the opening scenes, the struggle is cast in mould of tyranny vs. freedom, not Rome/France vs. the Anglican Church (and the other strands of Protestantism).

The Glorious Revolution itself happens offscreen. While Blood captures a Spanish galleon, pirates all over the Caribbean,

William of Orange, 1650-1702

duels Levasseur over the governor’s daughter, and saves Barbados from the French navy, William of Orange invaded England with a Dutch navy. William was married to James’ daughter Anne. The King’s support collapsed when William came ashore and ascended to the throne as join-ruler with his wife. The Bill of Rights were passed, cementing Parliament’s ascendancy in financial matters, essentially keeping England on the course of constitutional monarchy.

In the film Blood is summoned back by the new King. He gladly throws down his pirate ways just as he seems most determined to stay an outlaw. Protestant William’s summons is an odd mixture of deus ex machina and historical accuracy – though I am not sure if the rebels were pardoned by William. Monmouth, after all, held several coronation ceremonies in Somerset county, treasonous behaviour since James II was a legitimate monarch.


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Wartime Bogart Part III: Passage to Marseille

It has been a long time since I posted on Wartime Bogart, and sadly, my small series will end here (Action in the North Atlantic was a disappointing advertisement for the US Navy, and not worth much comment). Passage to Marseille is a magnificent, flawed, and colourful film that raises the problem of patriotism when you think your own country is a coward. The Free French, a movement you don’t often see on-screen, are the heroes of Bogart’s second-last wartime picture. If political Hollywood movies have shown us one thing, it is that every cause has to be “personalized” for the hero.

More on that later. First, I should give a little synopsis of Passage to Marseille. Capitaine Freycinet (Claude Rains) presides over a Free French airbase tucked into the green pastures of rural England. He tells a curious war journalist about the history of the enigmatic Jean Matrac (Bogart), one of the pilots. Matrac was an anti-appeasement journalist in France who is framed for murder. His wife Paula (Michèle Morgan, less successful in America than in native France) vows she will wait for his release from Devil’s Island in Guiana. There he meets the other convicts: Marius (Peter Lorre), Renault (Philip Dorn), Petit (George Tobias), and Garou (Helmut Dantine), who plan an escape to the motherland. They are aided by butterfly catcher Grandpère, played by Vladimir Sokoloff, who later appeared in The Magnificent Seven (1960) as the wise old peasant.

Screenwriters Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt structure the unfolding back stories around the character’s own memories. Passage to Marseilles is like a Russian doll, doing to flashbacks what Inception does to dreams. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, all treated by director Michael Curtiz’s gift at voiceover and storytelling.

The narrative gets really interesting when the escaped convicts are picked up by Ville de Nancy, a French ship en route to Marseille. The Maginot Line is about to be outflanked by the Germans, dividing the ship’s crew between Vichy sympathizers and Free French. Representing the fascism Matrac so despises is the corpulent Sydney Greenstreet – a familiar Bogie adversary – as Major Duval. Rains’ Freycinet is not so poor and not so corrupt: he wants to help to patriotic convicts join the fight against Hitler.

Matrac also wants to return to his wife, and it is here that the distinctions between “motherland” and woman are blurred. While he cannot reunite with either France or Paula, he can fly over both, leaving letters after each bombing raid on Germany. There are echoes of the “outlaw hero” here, a man who overcomes disgust in his nation’s politics to fight for the ideal of the nation itself. Robert Ray describes the reconciliation between individual and community in his essay The Thematic Paradigm:

The reconciliatory pattern found its most typical incarnation […]  in one particular narrative: the story of the private man attempting to keep from being drawn into action on any but his own terms. In this story, the reluctant hero’s ultimate willingness to help the community satisfied the official values. But by portraying this aid as demanding only a temporary involvement, the story preserved the values of individualism as well.

When the anti-fascist Captain Malo turns the ship from Marseilles after the fall of Paris, Matrac is initially dismayed: he wants nothing more than return to Paula and his young son. However, as the ship journeys on to the UK he grows committed to fighting until Hitler is defeated and he can come home a free man. Casablanca illustrated this dichotomy more clearly, and Ray holds Curtiz’s previous effort as the ultimate example of the “reluctant American”.

In fact this film feels even more like a Casablanca reunion than Across the Pacific felt like a Maltese Falcon reunion. Most of the same players are here: Bogart, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Dantine, composer Max Steiner, writer Casey Robinson, Curtiz, and even producer Hal B. Wallis. It is typical of the assembly line model of filmmaking, when contracted talent would churn out picture after picture for a studio. Casablanca has often been called an “accidental hit” because it was one of many wartime adventure films Warner Bros. was producing.


And yet Passage to Marseilles is still well worth watching. Curtiz can guide you through a hellish night raid on German factories, a mutiny and counter mutiny on the Ville de Nancy, and a ship vs. plane duel involving a particularly devastating Focke Wulf 200. Claude Rains always seems to get the best lines: he tells Manning that Matrac “still fights. The bombs that are dropping tonight are editorials the Germans will understand.” Perhaps most impressive in the film’s mournful and touching conclusion, consisting (spoiler alert) of Matrac’s last letter to his wife and son, also read by Rains. A dedication to those who died for freedom, it is moving and dignified enough to be part of a Remembrance Day’s celebration. After the madcap fun of All Through the Night, it is fitting to end on a solemn note, pulling the celluloid out of the realm of Indiana Jones fantasy and into the real world of mourning and sacrifice.

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Filed under Bogart, Michael Curtiz, Old Ones, Wartime Bogart