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Putting the Swashbuckle back in Hollywood
on 4 March 2009
Famously Errol Flynn's first major role (and Olivia De Havilland's), this film made them both stars and put the swashbuckle back into Hollywood. It opens in 1685, with England in the grip of a little local civil war in the shape of Monmouth's Rebellion. Doctor Peter Blood is called to provide medical care to a man wounded in one of the battles but is seized by the king's troops and imprisoned as a traitor. He will be transported to the colonies to be sold as a slave. Once in the West Indies he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Arabella, but he is a slave and she is his owner. Blood will plot escape and will find himself the most famous, or infamous, pirate in the Caribbean.
Although the naval battle scenes - in the form of some very large models being blown to pieces - and the cutlass and sword fighting actually look a bit amateurish now, they captured the public's imagination in 1935. This is a costume drama which never attempts to portray realism - note the vast size of the rooms the characters occupy, the extraordinary size of the cabins onboard ship, the lack of any sense of movement at sea, the melodramatic poses, a carriage which looks distinctly 19th century, etc. This was pure romance, and it was made in a Hollywood which had not produced much in the way of costume drama or swashbuckling for a couple of years.
The studio obviously took a risk on this film - but it catapulted Flynn and De Havilland into stardom and provided the stimulus for a host of further period dramas ... complete with director, Michael Curtiz's trademark duelling shadows. The attraction of the film to an audience enduring depression and starved of fantastic drama is still obvious, but it has aged badly. It looks primitive and simplistically structured. Flynn has astonishing screen presence, but he lacks just a hint of the authority he will assume in later roles. De Havilland is radiant and has a sophistication and class to which few other Hollywood actresses could even aspire. Curtiz directs flamboyantly, but you realise that the palette of 'special effects', pyrotechnics and explosives, sword fencing choreography, and scale of production are just a little bit claustrophobic here - everything gets bigger, better, faster, more colourful in future films.
As a film which made a breakthrough in its time, this is well worth watching, though it has become a trifle twee in its old age. Flynn and De Havilland have great chemistry ... you can sense it building, and that certainly hasn't faded. Entertaining - but give the extras a miss, except, perhaps the short analysis of the importance of the film (you'll find a 10 minute 'comedy' about a ventriloquist's dummy playing American football, a five minute musical cartoon, and a five minute 1935 newsreel ... supposedly to give you a flavour of what audiences might get on their cinema bill at the time ... but not extras you'd want to watch twice).