So after bringing in the New Year with a viewing of Captain Blood, I got hold of a copy of the novel by Rafael Sabatini, in order to find out how much they had in common. Not too unexpectedly, the film – although a rousing swashbuckler – bears only a general resemblance to the book upon which it is based.
The change that leapt out at me was naturally one of dialogue: much to my surprise, it turns out that neither of the slurs against James II that I so fondly quoted emanate from the novel, but were rather the invention of screenwriter Casey Robinson.
(On the other hand, one of my other favourite lines from the film – “He’s chivalrous to the point of idiocy” – is a direct lift from the novel.)
However, despite this specific lack, the novel has scattered throughout its pages enough anti-James sentiment to warm the cockles of my resentful heart. It would be fair, I think, to say that the novel Captain Blood has two different villains: Spain as a nation, and James as an individual.
As for the film— Well, put simply, it’s been cleaned up into an emotionally shallow, albeit thoroughly entertaining, adventure story. It is full of bloodless violence, and entirely lacking the novel’s blunt depiction of the brutalities of the age. Its main villains, Colonel Bishop and Levasseur the pirate, though bad enough in context, are shadows of their vicious novel-selves.
Much of the novel’s focus is upon the shifting sands of European politics at this time, the making and breaking of allegiances, and their impact upon the New World; perhaps a third of its story concerns Peter’s escalating, and escalatingly personal, warfare against an admiral in the Spanish navy.
The film discards nearly all of this, maintaining only such references to James and the Monmouth Rebellion as it needs to emphasise the brutality of the existing regime and the injustice of Peter’s conviction. It also manages to completely miss the point of the novel, in which Peter and his men attack only Spanish ships, by having the pirates attack all ships indiscriminatingly.
Inevitably, in place of politics the film places a much greater emphasis upon the romance between Peter and Arabella Bishop, the beautiful niece of Peter’s deadliest enemy; although it does earn some points in this respect by having Arabella personally buy Peter at the slave-auction rather than just convincing her uncle to do so, thus upping the ante between them. Curiously, the film omits the novel’s single most romantic touch, Peter re-naming his first captured ship the Arabella. (He cries when it sinks; the film omits that, too.)
Conversely, in keeping with Sabatini’s “Boy’s Own” approach to his story, Arabella is present in the novel far less often in the flesh than as an ideal, with the lovesick Peter trying to live up to his image of her and so holding his men to a course of “chivalrous piracy”, which does in fact do them some good in the long run (although not with Arabella herself, who hears a garbled version of Peter’s rescue of Mlle d’Ogeron, the daughter of the Governor of Tortuga, from Levasseur that does him no favours whatsoever).
Likewise, although he never entirely loses the ability to laugh at himself, the novel’s Peter is an older, much more cynical and emotionally damaged individual than the laughing rogue portrayed by Errol Flynn. Although early qualified in medicine, an adventurous spirit saw the young Peter Blood meddling in Europe’s many wars: learning naval tactics under the famous Admiral de Ruyter for the Dutch against the French; serving the French in the Spanish Netherlands; and spending two years in a Spanish prison – emerging from these experiences with a grasp of both “vile” French and “pure” Castilian, a deep hatred of the Spanish, and a great desire for a quiet life which is destined to remain unfulfilled.
The opening of the novel plunges us deeply into precisely the reason I was reading it in the first place. Of all places in the world, Peter Blood has hung up his shingle in Bridgewater, and in July 1865 finds himself a minority of one when the rest of the town’s population is swept up in an enthusiastic fervour over the imminent arrival of the Duke of Monmouth. Peter’s refusal to have anything to do with the matter gets him branded a coward and an outcast, but the issue is simply that he knows too much:
To him they were fools rushing in wicked frenzy upon their ruin. You see, he knew too much about this fellow Monmouth and the pretty brown slut who had borne him, to be deceived by the legend of legitimacy, on the strength of which this standard of rebellion had been raised. He had read the absurd proclamation posted at the Cross at Bridgewater – as it had been posted also at Taunton and elsewhere – setting forth that “upon the decease of our Sovereign Lord Charles the Second, the right of succession to the Crown of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, with the dominions and territories thereunto belonging, did legally descend and devolve upon the most illustrious and high-born Prince James, Duke of Monmouth, son and heir apparent to the said King Charles the Second.”
It had moved him to laughter, as had the further announcement that “James Duke of York did first cause the said late King to be poysoned, and immediately thereupon did usurp and invade the Crown.”
He knew not which was the greater lie. For Mr. Blood had spent a third of his life in the Netherlands, where this same James Scott – who now proclaimed himself James the Second, by the grace of God, King, et cetera – first saw the light some six-and-thirty years ago, and he was acquainted with the story current there of the fellow’s real paternity. Far from being legitimate – by virtue of a pretended secret marriage between Charles Stuart and Lucy Walter – it was possible that this Monmouth who now proclaimed himself King of England was not even the illegitimate child of the late sovereign. What but ruin and disaster could be the end of this grotesque pretension? How could it be hoped that England would ever swallow such a Perkin? And it was on his behalf, to uphold his fantastic claim, that these West Country clods, led by a few armigerous Whigs, had been seduced into rebellion!
The rebellion, of course, goes exactly as Peter predicts it will, but his intention of staying out of it is shattered when his neighbour, Jeremiah Pitt, drags him out to attend the wounded Lord Gildoy: a rebel, yes, but someone who has been a good friend to Peter and done him many favours, so that as neither a man nor a doctor can Peter honestly refuse to give his assistance. He is, at this point, sufficiently unacquainted with the incumbent monarch to assume that his merely providing medical treatment to a possibly dying man will not be be the cause of any particular trouble. He is soon disabused, and finds himself imprisoned awaiting trial for his life. If this was not enough to alter his political opinions, other events are…
…and you may imagine the evil joy I felt, when I found the finger of scorn being pointed in a third, equally deserving direction:
Mr. Blood heard that tale with the same indifference with which he had received the news of Monmouth’s death. But one shameful thing he heard in connection with this which left him not quite so unmoved, and served to nourish the contempt he was forming for King James. His Majesty had consented to see Monmouth. To have done so unless he intended to pardon him was a thing execrable and damnable beyond belief; for the only other object in granting that interview could be the evilly mean satisfaction of spurning the abject penitence of his unfortunate nephew.
Later they heard that Lord Grey, who after the Duke – indeed, perhaps, before him – was the main leader of the rebellion, had purchased his own pardon for forty thousand pounds. Peter Blood found this of a piece with the rest. His contempt for King James blazed out at last. “Why, here’s a filthy mean creature to sit on a throne. If I had known as much of him before as I know to-day, I don’t doubt I should have given cause to be where I am now.”
And that’s before he meets Judge George Jeffreys.
(In another clean-up moment, the film has Jeffreys dying of tuberculosis, rather than the excruciating kidney disease that actually did kill him. Also, the convicted rebels are merely to be hanged, rather than hanged, drawn and quartered, as in reality.)
The lives of Peter Blood and some of his fellow convicted rebels are saved when James is convinced that transportation and slavery would be a more profitable way of proceeding – and just as fatal in the long run. On the nightmare journey to Jamaica, Peter’s medical skill is called upon, and he arrives in Jamaica with a reputation as a skilled physician. He is bought by the brutal Colonel Bishop – catching the interested eye of Miss Arabella Bishop, the Colonel’s niece and ward, in the process – but is soon worth more to his owner as a doctor than as a slave. His success goes over like a lead balloon with Jamaica’s incumbent doctors, who enter into a conspiracy with Peter to buy a boat in which he and a handful of fellow-slaves can escape. Circumstances both hinder and favour the breakout, with Peter and the others finally making their escape under the cover of an attack upon Port Royal by the Spanish.
From there the book and the film part company for quite some time, with the former concentrating on Peter’s individual war with the Spanish admiral – the older brother of the man in charge of the illegal attack on Port Royal, who is captured by Peter and his men (along with his ship, the soon-to-be Arabella) and dies in their custody, although not really through any fault of theirs.
However, in spite of how busy the pirates are kept, there’s always time to insult James Stuart:
Both Esteban and Blood made haste to agree with him, and then Blood raised his glass, and drank to the glory of Spain and the damnation of the besotted James who occupied the throne of England. The latter part of his toast was at least sincere…
So you may imagine my horror when, in another plot twist omitted from the film, Peter Blood finds himself accepting a commission in the navy of King James…
This nightmare volte-face comes about when Peter rescues from the Spanish Arabella herself and Lord Julian Wade, a relative of the Secretary of State, Lord Sunderland, who has been sent to the West Indies to try and “solve” the pirate situation by offering Peter a pardon and a commission. At first, Peter’s reaction is everything we might expect, and hope:
“Ye’re my guest aboard this ship,” said he, “and I still have some notion of decent behaviour left me from other days, thief and pirate though I may be. So I’ll not be telling you what I think of you for daring to bring me this offer, or of my Lord Sunderland – since he’s your kinsman – for having the impudence to send it. But it does not surprise me at all that one who is a minister of James Stuart’s should conceive that every man is to be seduced by bribes into betraying those who trust him.” He flung out an arm in the direction of the waist, whence came the half-melancholy chant of the lounging buccaneers.
“Again you misapprehend me,” cried Lord Julian, between concern and indignation. “That is not intended. Your followers will be included in your commission.”
“And d’ ye think they’ll go with me to hunt their brethren – the Brethren of the Coast? On my soul, Lord Julian, it is yourself does the misapprehending. Are there not even notions of honour left in England? Oh, and there’s more to it than that, even. D’ye think I could take a commission of King James’s? I tell you I wouldn’t be soiling my hands with it – thief and pirate’s hands though they be. Thief and pirate is what you heard Miss Bishop call me to-day – a thing of scorn, an outcast. And who made me that? Who made me thief and pirate?”
As you will have gathered, Peter and Arabella – who is struggling with her own confused emotions, and still smarting from the story of Mlle d’Ogeron – have already exchanged pleasantries. Between that, and her mere presence, and his growing conviction that Arabella is in love with Lord Julian, as he certainly is with her, Peter completely loses his head, and blunders straight into the British navy and Colonel Bishop. With escape impossible, and the lives of all his men at stake, Peter makes a deal with the devil – but insists that those of his men who do not wish to accept a commission or a pardon (which is most of them) should be given a ship and a head-start.
And afterwards—well, he doesn’t quite go about flagellating himself and howling, “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!”, but that’s what it amounts to. It is left to Arabella to put James Stuart in his place:
“Your resolve delivered me from a horrible danger,” she admitted. And she shivered at the memory of it. “But I do not understand why you should have hesitated when first it was proposed to you. It is an honourable service.”
“King James’s?” he sneered.
“England’s,” she corrected him in reproof. “The country is all, sir; the sovereign naught. King James will pass; others will come and pass; England remains, to be honourably served by her sons, whatever rancour they may hold against the man who rules her in their time.”
In spite of this intended comfort, Peter’s service for James goes just as well – and lasts just as long – as you might anticipate, and in short time he is headed back to Tortuga. However, Peter’s self-disgust runs deep; he feels that he can no longer – no longer honourably – be a pirate. He cannot serve England. He will not serve Spain. What is left but to sell his sword and his boats to the French? (They didn’t have a Foreign Legion back then, but the principal is the same.)
To Peter’s horror, he soon finds himself, in the name of honourable warfare, involved in acts of piracy worst than any he committed as an actual pirate. His remonstrances and protests outrage and offend his commanders, who take the first opportunity to sever the connection between themselves and these skilful but tiresome buccaneers. They have, in any case, other fish to fry – now that France and England are at war…
Those “fish” are nothing less than an attack upon Port Royal: an attack made frighteningly easy by the absence of Colonel Bishop, now Deputy-Governor of Jamaica, who has deserted his post and taken the fleet with him to hunt his personal nemesis, Peter Blood (and in company with Lord Julian Wade, who by this time has his own reasons for hating Peter).
Peter and his men are on their way to French Hispaniola in pursuit of their former colleagues when they hear guns, and see an attack upon a single English ship. Upon rescuing the survivors, Peter finds himself confronted by a choleric Englishman named Lord Willoughby, and the Dutch Admiral van der Kuylen, whose ship was sunk. While the Dutchman seems amused at being rescued by a notorious pirate, Willoughby is furious and aggressive, insulting Peter who responds with a quiet courtesy that the Englishman takes for sarcasm:
The fierce little gentleman stared at him. “Damme! Do you permit yourself to be ironical?” he disapproved him, and possibly with a view to correcting any such tendency, proceeded to introduce himself. “I am Lord Willoughby, King William’s Governor-General of the West Indies, and this is Admiral van der Kuylen, commander of His Majesty’s West Indian fleet, at present mislaid somewhere in this damned Caribbean Sea.”
“King William?” quoth Blood, and he was conscious that Pitt and Dyke, who were behind him, now came edging nearer, sharing his own wonder. “And who may be King William, and of what may he be King?”
“What’s that?” In a wonder greater than his own, Lord Willoughby stared back at him. At last: “I am alluding to His Majesty King William III – William of Orange – who, with Queen Mary, has been ruling England for two months and more.”
There was a moment’s silence, until Blood realised what he was being told…
And from here, the long-severed book and film finally reunite, with Peter and his men falling upon the superior French forces and defeating them in grim and bloody battle, saving Port Royal and redeeming themselves in the process. Afterwards, Peter is appointed the new Governor of Jamaica and – after finally coming to an understanding with Arabella – is left to deal with his future uncle-in-law…
Though it is undoubtedly a Hollywoodisation of its source novel, the film version of Captain Blood is, as I have indicated, a perfectly entertaining adventure film, with all the usual Warner Bros. benefits: direction by Michael Curtiz, a score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a clever, frequently funny screenplay by Casey Robinson, the match-made-in-heaven co-casting of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland, and poor Basil Rathbone dying on the point of Flynn’s most undeserving sword, for the first but certainly not the last time.
The novel, however, is an altogether darker and more complex work—while for the James Stuart haters amongst us, well, it’s all good.