Monday, January 5, 2009

Captain Pirate (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Captain Pirate is an engaging 1952 production from Columbia that was actually based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini called Captain Blood Returns. Columbia planned this as a sequel to their 1950 film Fortunes of Captain Blood, based (more or less) on the same Sabatini novel that was filmed twice before, by Vitagraph in 1924 with J. Warren Kerrigan as the lead (this was not the same person as character actor J. M. Kerrigan, who frequently appeared in John Ford’s movies; he made one more movie after Captain Blood, Hello, ’Frisco, and then retired from acting in 1924 even though he lived 23 more years) and then — famously — by Warners in 1935 with Errol Flynn.

My only acquaintance with the story is the Flynn version (a good movie but really a beta version for the later, even better Warners/Flynn swashbucklers like The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk) and there were some jarring differences between the setup for this sequel (with an interesting black-and-white flashback, probably consisting of footage from Fortunes of Captain Blood, giving us the backstory) and the end of the Flynn version: this time Peter Blood is once again working as a doctor in the British colony of Port Royal, Jamaica, but his aristocratic fiancée is not Arabella Bishop (daughter of the former Governor-General of Jamaica) but Isabella (Patricia Medina, Mrs. Joseph Cotten and a frequent female lead in Columbia period pictures of this time), daughter of a Spanish noblewoman, at a time (1690) when Britain and Spain were actually allies, both fighting to preserve their own empires against the imperial designs of France.

Blood gets back into trouble — and into piracy — when someone stages a raid on Cartagena and steals a priceless Spanish jewelry set while he and his crew were dressed in the famous blue-and-white uniforms Blood and his men wore during his own pirate days. He’s captured by Hilary Evans (John Sutton) — that’s right, a boy named Hilary — who’s high up in the colonial government and also has an ulterior motive: he’s also in love with Isabella and thinks she’ll accept him if he can get Blood out of the way. Blood and his loyal crew members hijack the ship that was supposed to take him to England for trial, with the aid of Isabella and her boy slave Manuelito (Robert McNeeley), and target slave traders in their piracy (the script by Robert Libott, Frank Burt and John Meredyth Lucas establishes that Blood’s own time in slavery turned him against the institution in general and made him an abolitionist, forcibly liberating slaves 160 years before John Brown!).

They also trace the jewels first to a British pirate, Easterling (Ted de Corsia), and then to a French pirate, Coulevain (Maurice Marsac), whom they defeat in a confusing action sequence involving not only the usual swordplay but a gun battle at sea in which, for reasons that remained pretty murky, Blood sank his own ship in the harbor with the shore batteries and ultimately brought down Coulevain’s three ships as well. (I think it had something to do with blocking the exit to the port and thereby trapping the Frenchman’s ships inside, but the sequence as a whole was so sloppily edited the ending of Armageddon looked like a model of clarity by comparison.)

Directed (on some of his good days) by Ralph Murphy and photographed in stunning Technicolor by Charles Lawton, Jr. and Francis Cugat, Captain Pirate is an effective swashbuckler, and Louis Hayward — though he lacks both Flynn’s charisma and the gender ambiguity he showed in the 1935 Captain Blood — is certainly dashing enough for the lead, but the film lacks any truly menacing villains (no one even remotely in the league of Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone!) and suffers from a camp score (mostly by George Duning) that relies too heavily on hackneyed sea chanteys. Charles joked every time the characters called out, “Weigh the anchor!” He asked, “Why do they have to weigh it every time? Why don’t they just weigh it once and remember how much it weighs? Why don’t they write down how much it weighs?”