Thursday, January 15, 2015

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Early edition with cover artwork by N. C. Wyeth
Errol Flynn was gone by the time I encountered the 1935 Warner Brothers film that made him a star. Kennedy was president and WGN channel 9 in Chicago was playing a matinee program hosted by Fraser Thomas called Family Classics which included Captain Blood. Before the 60s ended, however, I encountered Sabatini’s 1922 novel in an old hilltop library on Dundee’s Main Street. The library is long gone, but I still have some of those old Sabatini paperbacks.
During his lifetime Rafael Sabatini was as popular as Jack London and Zane Grey. Captain Blood, the novel, is every bit as good as the famous film starring Errol Flynn. In fact, one of the film’s best scenes is taken right from Sabatini’s prose. This key scene, where Peter Blood stands before the judge accused of treason for treating a soldier’s wounds, and states emphatically - “My business, my Lord, was with his wounds, not with his politics.” - is fully realized in the film and sets the tone for Blood’s subsequent motivation. There are still major differences between the novel and the film, primarily involving various characters and Blood’s tribulations, but for my purposes “generally faithful” shall suffice for a description. Read the book. It’s quite a marvelous piece of work, perhaps slightly outdated with its manner of presentation, but still a rousing tale. Much the same might be said for the film.
 
Sabatini had great success with Captain Blood. He wrote two sequels, Captain Blood Returns (1931) and The Fortunes of Captain Blood (1936). As a point of confusion for us bibliophiles, Captain Blood Returns is sometimes reprinted as The Chronicles of Captain Blood. Of these by far the most sought after edition is the 1963 Popular Library paperback of Captain Blood Returns because it features enticing artwork by the legendary Robert McGinnis. This edition is scarcer than hen’s teeth. I have found but one copy in twenty years. Expect to pay no less than $25.00 or more for a good copy – if you can find one. Popular Library reprinted Captain Blood Returns several times, but the 1963 edition with the McGinnis cover is the one to own. It is the rarest of paperbacks (allegedly due to a low print run) and that’s no exaggeration. It’s harder to find than a first edition hardcover. McGinnis, of course, makes collecting paperbacks fun, and if you google him you’ll see why. If you’re unfamiliar with his artwork look up the posters for the James Bond films Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever.
The Rarest Blood, with cover artwork by Robert McGinnis
 Captain Blood stands with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a definitive pirate adventure tale. Peter Blood has become as legendary a character as Robin Hood. Actor Louis Hayward played Blood in the film version of The Fortunes of Captain Blood(1950) and again in Captain Pirate (1952). Errol’s son Sean starred in The Son of Captain Blood in 1962. I would enjoy seeing another film version of Captain Blood because there are many capable directors and actors that could do the character justice, just as Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn did.
 
It’s interesting to me that Errol Flynn is still indelibly associated with the character. Keep in mind it didn’t begin that way. Sabatini was a best-selling novelist when Flynn was still knocking about Australia. But Flynn’s legacy as the greatest action star of his era still reverberates in our culture over fifty years after his death. The 1998 Regnery paperback features a photo of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland on the cover. The Pyramid paperback features a stylized figure of Flynn copied from a publicity still from The Sea Hawk. Numerous other editions exist with Flynn’s image or inspired by him.
 
Both Sabatini and Flynn are worth considering no matter how your interest originated. Sabatini’s novel remains in print. Bibliophiles are quite familiar with Sabatini, and I have encountered them across the country. I recall a few years ago hunting paperbacks in a northwoods flea market where I struck up a conversation with an ancient woman wearing an oversized straw hat. She hailed from Arizona, and in her purse she kept small notebooks listing the author and title of every book she had read since childhood. A lifetime of reading! Of course she had read some of my favorites, including Sabatini and Zane Grey and Jack London. I am not surprised when I encounter modern readers familiar with Captain Blood. There are currently trade paperback editions available of his best books, including The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche. I recommend finding any of Sabatini’s books, but especially a copy of Captain Blood.
 Land ho!

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