Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood"

"Captain Blood" was supposed to be just another quickie action flick for 1935 Depression-era audiences, a pirate adventure with an unknown actor. It was such an unexpected success, it made Errol Flynn an overnight star -- arguably the biggest star in Hollywood's first half-century.

In fact, Warner Brothers so liked the pairing of Flynn, Olivia de Havilland as his leading lady and director Michael Curtiz that they quickly ordered up two more pictures with the same group -- "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1936, and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" in 1938, which would become Flynn's signature role.

It was not at all unusual for Golden Age studios to re-use the same grouping of actors from a successful movie, which is why John Wayne always seemed to have the same supporting cast. So it's not surprising that Basil Rathbone played Flynn's rival in several pictures, including both "Captain Blood" and "Robin Hood," as well as "The Dawn Patrol," which was the subject of a Reeling Backward review a few weeks ago.

These two movies are strikingly similar in theme and the portrayal of Flynn and de Havilland. Flynn is a noble figure -- a nobleman in "Robin Hood," a physician in "Captain Blood" -- who stands up to injustice and becomes an freedom-loving outcast as a result. He has a taunting, cocksure bravado that infuriates his enemies to no end. De Havilland is the unattainable rich woman who, despite her higher station, finds herself attracted to the impudent adventurer. Their relationship is classic love-hate -- mostly hate until near the end, when she decides she loves him.

There's plenty of battle scenes in "Captain Blood," and they're pretty convincing for the most part. The vintage ships from circa 1680 appear very authentic -- if they used models, it must have been extremely high-tech stuff for 1935, because I can't tell.

Rathbone has a rather brief role in "Blood." He plays Captain Lavasseur, a French pirate who becomes Peter Blood's partner as soon as he's introduced, then two scenes later they're bitter enemies and having a deadly sword fight on a rocky beach.

"Captain Blood" ends on a rather strange note. His biggest enemy is Col. Bishop, the governor of Port Royale, who buys Blood as a slave, and vows to hunt him down after Blood leads a slave revolt to capture a ship, becoming pirates in the process. But just as a big showdown with Bishop appears to be looming, an emissary from the English king shows up with a letter of marque for Blood, wiping away his criminal record.

By contrast to the relatively cheap budget of "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood" was a major showcase for Warner Bros., the most expensive movie made to date. Unlike "Ivanhoe," whose production values I commented negatively upon previously, you can see every dollar up on the screen in "Robin Hood." The colors are vivid and bold even 70 years later, and everything from the armor to the woodsmen tights looks spot-on. And all the arrows thunk into their targets convincingly.

Claude Rains is delicious as a slightly sexually ambiguous Prince John, and Basil Rathbone has a meatier role here as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Robin's chief antagonist. Interestingly, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a minor player in this version of Robin Hood, a fat and bumbling figure who's more of a comic relief than a villain. Eugene Pallette is a much more martial version of Friar Tuck than other iterations, as quick with his sword as the cross.

There's a wonderful tone to "Robin Hood" that makes it an infectious film to watch. Even some of the dialogue, which is typically stilted for its time, doesn't land with a thud like it might. I think the rousing music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold has much to do with it -- it won the Oscar for best score.

Robin Hood is such an indelible cinematic character, that a host of actors have portrayed him over the years. Douglas Fairbanks played him in 1922, there was a 1950s TV series, an older Robin played by Sean Connery, and of course Kevin Costner had a very successful turn in 1990, portraying Robin Hood with an accent that alternated between light English and California dudespeak.

As I'm writing this, I learn that Russell Crowe is set to tackle the green tights in a new film version coming out in 2010, directed by Ridley Scott and co-starring Cate Blanchett. It seems this quiver never runs empty.

No comments:

Post a Comment