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Captain Blood
by Rafael Sabatini
Introduction by Bernard Cornwell
Cover by Gregory Manchess

I've been burning to go back to some of the old pulp classics for quite some time, especially the ones by authors I've heard about for decades but never got round to reading. Rafael Sabatini, an Italian brought up in England, is a great example, having written many of the great swashbuckler novels that were adapted into the great swashbuckler movies of the silent and early sound eras.

'Captain Blood' wasn't his first book, but it was one of the two which launched him to fame. Published in 1922, it was quickly adapted to the screen in 1924 with J Warren Kerrigan in the lead role, then remade in 1935 with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone gifting us with one of the very best swordfights ever shot (Rathbone vs Tyrone Power in the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro is surely the best).

I plan to follow up on this novel with a viewing of the Warner Brothers film to see how accurately they adapted the novel to the screen (sadly the earlier version survives only in an incomplete state today with half an hour extant). I've seen the later film before, of course, but it's been long enough that I'm not able to judge on memory. I simply remember it being great fun, a description that emphatically applies to the source novel too.

Sabatini may have had serious points to make in and amongst the swashbuckling adventures of his characters, as he based some of the story on fact. Captain Peter Blood, of course, is fictional, but he's based on Captain Henry Morgan, a very real seventeenth-century pirate who ended his days as the British crown's Deputy Governor of Jamaica. Also, the way Blood finds himself in the colonies is rooted firmly in history. As the story begins, he's an Irish doctor wise enough to keep out of the failed Jacobite rebellion against King James II but unwise enough to give medical aid to one who took part, so he's brought up before Judge Jeffries at the Bloody Assizes and sentenced to hang for treason, a fate that's changed only when the king realises that transporting his prisoners to work the sugar plantations of the Caribbean is more lucrative than killing them.

Anyone who harbours the thought that history is boring should be made to read this book. The early chapters may seem like far fetched pulp shenanigans but they're barely fictionalised versions of the truth because history is often a corrupt and bloody creature that plays far closer to 'Game of Thrones' than we might be comfortable accepting.

Peter Blood begins as a gentleman in an ungentlemanly world and he remains so, as he's sent into slavery, escaping the worst of the plantations only through being a better doctor than those already on the island. Even as he takes advantage of a Spanish raid on the island to escape it, seize the pirate's vessel and become one himself, he remains the gentleman in a world of cutthroats and villains. It's this constant anomaly that makes swashbucklers so attractive. They allow us to experience the thrills of a lawless world where we can take what we want and drink to our success without ever becoming the cruel villains that pirates tended to be in reality.

And there's little doubt that any of us would fail to identify with Peter Blood. He's a great lead, immediately better than those around him but thrown quickly into dark times where he suffers not only the indignities of being owned but the heartache of falling head over heels in love with the niece of his owner. Of course, he's going to eventually find a way to woo her in words not just in dreams, but it takes longer than it should because he's a stubborn man and she's a stubborn woman and Sabatini skillfully brings them together only to thrust them apart again on a number of occasions. Put simply, we care for Blood from the outset and we're with him throughout, even when he ignores our shouting at him not to say precisely the wrong things at precisely the wrong times.

The supporting cast are drawn well too, if coarsely. Back in the twenties, swashbucklers were just another genre on which to look down with disdain, like horror and science fiction, so there's very little attempt at serious literature. We're here to see action with a romantic undercurrent, in both the meanings of the word, and we get plenty of that. Sabatini is a glorious writer, speeding us along like we're riding in one of Blood's galleons with all sails unfurled and a strong wind behind us. Characters arise when needed and are thrown away when they're needed no more.

In the Errol Flynn film version, Arabella Bishop, the lady of Blood's affections, is played by Olivia de Havilland and that would appear to be a good casting choice, even though she was an unknown at the time, appearing in only her fourth film and becoming a star in the process. She's appropriate because her character is clearly an object of desire in this novel but one with hidden depths and a little edge waiting for the right moment to be revealed. Blood falls for her as much because he initially misjudges her as for any other reason; Sabatini is a master of painting a mysteriously enticing woman, even if her substance gets little attention. There are precious few women in the story and she's the only one who has any substance at all. Unless you're going to write about a woman in a man's world, swashbuckling is clearly a testosterone-fueled environment and women are seen as just another prize to be taken, except, needless to say, by a gentleman like Captain Blood.

I remember Basil Rathbone as such a glorious villain in that film version, if without much detail, that I was surprised to find that he's not the main villain in the book. Levasseur, his character, is a more traditional pirate who captains one of the ships in Blood's growing fleet and has very different ideas about what they should be doing. The friction between them is strong and inevitably comes to a head with a battle that doesn't match what was translated to screen.

Here, the real villain is Colonel Bishop, the man who buys Blood to work his plantation, and who never forgets it even after Blood's escape and rise to prominence on the high seas. He's well-framed as a cruel but not unrealistic master, but comes into his own as the book runs on because of his thirst for vengeance over the slave he believes made a fool of him. This comes to dominate his thinking until it becomes obvious to every man except himself that he was a fool to begin with.

Of course, by this point, everyone also realises that Captain Blood is no fool, as he's outwitted the British, French and Spanish in various locations, through application of strategy and force of will. As such, the rise of Captain Blood is an underdog story, the slave becoming the master as much as the man restoring his freedom. Only a few chapters in which he's drunkenly despondent at his perceived loss of Arabella have Blood anywhere less than front and centre, leading a charge and imploring us to follow him too.

'What an adventure!' as Bernard Cornwell exclaims in the introduction he wrote for the handsome 2002 W W Norton trade paperback edition that I recently picked up at Bookman's. I thoroughly enjoyed Sabatini's novel and will happily pursue more of his work, but this edition aided my enjoyment to no small degree. The cover is a colourful action painting by Gregory Manchess, who also provided the cover text, which is the product of hand calligraphy not a fancy font. The internal text is set in New Caledonia, which is traditional enough to evoke the period setting but new enough to be a clean read.

Norton has also published two earlier Sabatini novels, 'The Sea-Hawk' and 'Scaramouche,' in matching editions, so I'll need to seek those out next. They are another pirate yarn and a tale of the French revolution respectively and both were also adapted to the screen during the golden age of Hollywood. Sabatini wrote 31 novels in all and six collections of short stories were collected during his lifetime, so I'll happily accept the challenge of tracking them all down.

Four books relate the story of Peter Blood, this surprisingly being the second, as he appears in 'Tales of the Brethren of the Main', a set of short stories collected from 'Premiere' magazine in 1920 and 1921. Sabatini then rewrote them to flow better in novel form, making this book a sort of expansion of previously published material. Captain Blood returns in, well, 'Captain Blood Returns' and 'The Fortunes of Captain Blood.' ~~ Hal C F Astell

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