Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Adventure classics -- Swash me buckles, matey

Captain Blood

by Rafael Sabatini
He was born to an English mother and a foreign father, and wandered the world as a young man, searching for a place to call home. Until his fortunes changed and he became the ex-pirate governor of a Caribbean island. Or perhaps that should be, a famous author. Because it’s sometimes hard to separate dashing pirate captain Peter Blood from his creator, dashing author Rafael Sabatini.

Errol Flynn as Captain Blood
If Sabatini’s most famous novels, including 1922’s Captain Blood, had been published in any decade except the 1920’s, he might be remembered for more than the movie version that made Errol Flynn an overnight star. Or as a tag in a Monty Python skit.

But to add to Sabatini’s misfortunes -- a questionable birth, an itinerant childhood as the son of professional singers, the death of his own son -- his best writing coincided with the heyday of the modern novel. Any list of works by his contemporaries reads like a who’s who of the greatest books ever written -- Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Mrs. Dalloway, All Quiet on the Western Front -- to name only a few.

To Sabatini’s good fortune, however, readers fleeing post-war depression, political upheaval and bewildering shifts in social mores, found his historical tales of love, honor and adventure a welcome escape. And perhaps only in the tumultuous twenties could a hero be both as cynical and naïve, as canny and conflicted, as Captain Peter Blood.

The story opens during the late sixteenth century, as James Scott (known as the Old Pretender) reels from his attempt to capture the throne of Great Britain from his Stuart cousins. Irishman Peter Blood has been absent from his mother’s English homeland for years, engaged both in gaining a medical degree and in serving as a foreign mercenary. But with his characteristic bad luck, he returns, only to be falsely accused by the victors of participating in the rebellion.

Deported to the British colonies in the Caribbean and sold as a slave, he escapes, but is forced to turn pirate to avoid the vengeance of his former owner, the vicious Colonel Bishop. Unknown to Bishop, Blood has already lost his heart to the only good member of the Bishop family, the colonel’s niece Arabella.

In his pursuit of Blood across the Caribbean, Bishop practically has to take his turn as the English, Spanish, French, and fellow pirates all get Blood in their sights. Will the  pirate captain ever be able to turn honest man and win the heart of Arabella? Sabatini leaves us with a delicious twist of an ending. Because, yes, this is a pirate story with humor as well as bloodshed.

Sabatini had written for a quarter-century before striking gold with his adventure stories and remained successful throughout the 1920's. But in the next decade, his son died, he and his wife divorced, and at the beginning of the Great Depression, his sales plummeted.

The renewal of his fortunes came in the 1930’s, with the release of movie versions of his novels.  In 1935, after two actors turned down the role of Captain Blood, an almost-known Tasmanian named Errol Flynn was tapped for the lead. The rest is history.

For more about Sabatini and his works, see his official site,

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a month on the waters with Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea.)

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