Book Review: Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini

Captain Blood is the best pirate movie I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s not even a subjective question and Captain Blood is the best pirate movie ever.

Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Haviland, and Basil Rathbone, among others, the 1935 version of Captain Blood is a sweeping, swashbuckling epic, made the way only old Hollywood could make movies, with a fierce though gallant pirate forced into the life of the buccaneer by venal civil servants during the English civil war, who escapes slavery on Jamaica and sails the Caribbean, pining for his dear Arabella, niece of his former slavemaster Colonel Bishop.

It’s awesome. And while watching it with my son a year or so ago, I realized it was based on a book.

So of course, I had to read that book.

Captain Blood: His Odyssey was written by Italian-English writer Rafael Sabatini and was first published in 1922. Sabatini wrote a whole lot of other stuff, but we’re going to focus on Captain Blood.

Rafael Sabatini

I’ll get the big stuff out of the way first: It’s fantastic. As a fan of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised by how closely the movie hewed to the source material. There were, of course, some changes–Blood’s first destination is Barbados and not Jamaica, for instance, and certain episodes and even characters were cut for the movie. But as far as book-to-movie adaptations, Captain Blood hits enough of the beats to be satisfying.

But I dare say the book is better.

Captain Blood tells the tail of Irishman Peter Blood, a physician who is falsely accused of aiding the rebels during the Monmouth Rebellion in England in 1685, all for the crime of treating the wounded without regard for their politics. It doesn’t matter: Blood is sentenced to be a salve in the British colony of Barbados. There, he is purchased by the sadistic planter Bishop. But due to Blood’s skill as a doctor, he is given relative autonomy, and is the only one who can ease the governor’s gout.

However, the yoke of slavery and the injustice committed against him burns Peter Blood. The men he was arrested with were likewise no more guilty than he. Barbados’s other two doctors, jealous of Blood, help him plan his escape. But then the Spanish attack the night they are supposed to break free, and the real adventure begins . . . 

Suffice it to say, Blood and his ragtag band of escapees manage to capture the Spanish ship and make it their own. But all the while Blood still pines for Bishop’s beautiful, vivacious, and compassionate niece Arabella, for whom he names his ship.

This book is awesome. It’s so much fun, and though a lengthy, sprawling adventure, it never feels long. That’s because Sabatini writes in an elevated style that still sparkles with wit. His dialogue is Jane Austen-levels of snappy without devolving into modern TV sitcom-style snark. Early scenes where Blood is before the court sentencing him to slavery feature epic ripostes, and his conversations with the backstabbing pirate Levasseur, the venal Bishop, the cunning Spaniard Admiral Diego, and his own crew are truly a joy to behold.

The nautical pirate adventures are equally fantastic. Blood has an interesting martial past as an adventurer, so you believe he’s able to command his own fleet of pirate ships, wield a sword and a gun, speak multiple languages, and fight with the best of them. There’s something about pirate adventure stories that make the law-abiding man’s blood surge. Captain Blood provides a surfeit of this feeling. It’s interesting that Sabatini makes Blood an honorable pirate. I suppose this was necessary to make the character sympathetic. I wouldn’t imagine audiences in 1922 would be too keen on a protagonist who is an actual, bloodthirsty murderer and thief. 

That might fly in 2019, but not back then. And we’re better for it, because Captain Blood has everything you’d want in a melodramatic, swashbuckling tale during the golden age of piracy.

Another thing I love about reading old works of fiction like this are that they don’t slavishly follow the three-act structure of setup-confrontation-resolution with plot points in between. Captain Blood is all over the place, more episodic in nature, broken up into big adventures but it still works towards an endpoint and the story always flows smoothly forward. There is never a dull moment, and the story DOES resolve. It’s just that the resolution is not set up or revealed in advance like in modern novels and movies. You really don’t start to suss out the endpoint until some 85 or 90 percent near the end.

And there is plenty of conflict as well. For all of its high-seas adventure and acts of derring-do, Captain Blood is about the stormy, angst-filled relationship between Peter Blood and Arabella Bishiop. There are misunderstandings, miscommunication, anger, bitterness, betrayal, jealously, and even a love-triangle. It’s all good stuff that provides motivation for both Blood’s actions and restraint, for he had what it took to be the fiercest scourge the high seas had ever seen . . . but he decides to be an honorable pirate, a good Englishman only despoiling his homeland’s enemies, notwithstanding his dalliance in service of the French.

Speaking of the French, if you’re French or Spanish, you might object to how Sabatini characterizes your countrymen. Hint: there are no good Spaniards.

In any event, you’ll thrill to the adventures of Captain Blood and how he goes from respected physician to slave to the most skilled, feared, and respected pirate in the Caribbean. There is no nihilism, no moral ambiguity, no inversion. The men are masculine, the women are feminine, there are no snarkbucklers, and there is no “battle of the sexes” nonsense. If you’re sick of modern subversion and sucker-punches, you need to regress harder and read books like Captain Blood.

If you’ve never seen the movie, go watch it! But read the book too. I shall leave the order in which you do this up to you.

For the record, Captain Blood is available for free on Gutenberg.org.


My latest novel The Last Ancestor features action and feats of derring-do, inspired by older works of fiction by authors such as Jack Vance, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and, yes, Rafael Sabatini. Buy it on Amazon and support independent creators!

18 comments

  1. Alexander

    I’m not surprised. Sabatini was simply meeting his audience’s expectations of the plucky Englishman battling the dark forces of papism. So he did his job and I’m not bugged by it.

    Captain Blood is a throwback to the early modern chivalry novels of the 1400-1500s. Some of the plot conceits are also found in Tirant lo Blanc and Curial and Guelfa

    However by the 17th century Spain was an enemy neither an enemy to be feared nor an ally to be trusted in Hugh Thomas’s word. So the rep is deserved.
    However if you look at the Brits and Dutch during the golden age of piracy they believed just like the Moslem pirates minus the slavery but with massacres instead.

    Drake was pretty much la pirate no matter the hagiography. And that’s something Anglophone historiography has to now acknowledge. Not just bragging about how the British navy made the modern world by rum, the lady and freemasonry

    xavier

    Liked by 2 people

  2. High time for a Sabatini revival. I’ve just finished his ‘Bellarion’, which is excellent, about a monastery-educated youth who manages to thrive in a world of intriguers and warlords by applying his philosophy and thinking on his feet. I’ve been putting off reading Captain Blood because I’ve seen the film but you’ve made me want to get hold of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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