A Real Pirate Movie: Captain Blood (July 22, 2006)
"You speak treason!"
Errol Flynn's witty reply comes from Robin Hood, but it also captures the soul of his pirate classic, Captain Blood. A justly famous adventure classic, Captain Blood showcases Flynn at his youthful fiery best. But its greatness lies not just in its swordfights and battles, but in the rousing story of injustice overcome against great odds.
The charge of treason was unreasoning and injust in the extreme; Blood was merely a doctor treating the wounded of the English civil war. Sentenced without regard to his innocence, he is sent to a hellhole prison island in the Caribbean and must join a daring escape with other nothing-to-lose prisoners.
After the escape, he turns to piracy--ironically, a "brotherhood" of rough-hewn democracy and loyalty at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the society which cruelly imprisoned him over an imagined political crime. As a pirate Captain, Blood is fair and just--again, in stark contrast with the government which so cavalierly convicted and enslaved him.
The female interest, Olivia de Havilland, at first heaps scorn on him as a low-life traitor who obviously deserved his fate; this being Hollywood, she eventually sees the error of her assumptions and falls for the dashing pirate.
While all of this sounds like typical adventure, its timelessness rests partly on its subtext of injustice and suffering being defeated not through an oppressive, corrupt "system" but through comradeship and an anti-hero idealism: though we be pirates, we hold to a code of honor, and plunder only the wealthy. There is a mythic quality to this storyline, of course, but there is also a very clear "anti-hero" thread to Blood's rejection of "official" justice and his embrace of a rough-and-ready justice dealt out with the blade of a sword and a broadside of cannons.
This must have resonated especially powerfully with Depression-era audiences.
What was the Depression if not a heaping of undeserved poverty on the innocent masses? The "system," controlled by a self-serving financial and political elite, had failed spectacularly; this film depicts a scenario in which the struggles to escape the imprisonment of poverty and passivity are eventually rewarded--but only after the "crew" adheres to a shared set of just rules: the pirates' code of honor and the election of a strong, idealistic, fair-minded captain.
The great irony at the heart of this film is that true justice lies not with the system but with the pirates, the supposed renegades. Captain Blood achieves his redemption not by docilely awaiting "justice" from his overlords (their verdict was basically an appeals-free death sentence), but by escaping the prison and fighting the system of wealth and privilege on the high seas.
It is interesting to speculate what might have become of Captain Blood in the film world of the 1970s, the heyday of anti-heroes. Perhaps Blood would have rejected clemency and remained a pirate. But in the 1930s, the "system" was viewed as capable of recognizing injustice and correcting it. Was this a political subtext or simply story-telling? If you consider the widespread suffering of people during this time, you might find a message not for 1685 but for the era in which the film was made (1935, at the height of the Great Depression).
Regardless of any subtexts, we root for Captain Blood precisely because he was wronged, and we find great satisfaction in his contempt for the harsh and faulty judgment of the ruling class. We cheer when he looses a broadside into his "betters" who so breezily sent him to a death-camp. Great adventure, great story, great message: Blood was forced to overcome injustice by breaking out of the system rather than passively awaiting a justice which would never have come.
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copyright © 2006 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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