Sabatini's wildly popular novel had already been filmed as a silent in 1924. The 1935 film was originally intended as a vehicle for English actor Robert Donat, who had had a great success as Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo the previous year, but had to bow out of Blood due to health problems. Flynn, whose most important part to date had been in a wordless flashback in the Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Curious Bride, was tapped by Jack Warner himself to replace Donat; the devil-may-care Tasmanian of Irish extraction had exactly the quality he desired for the adventurous Irishman, Captain Peter Blood. Olivia de Havilland, having enjoyed a notable success as the feisty Hermia in the Warners' film of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, was assigned the part of the equally spirited Arabella Bishop. The fine dramatic actor Lionel Atwill played The Heavy part of Arabella's uncle, and Basil Rathbone displayed a fine talent for fencing and sneering villainy (if rather less at imitating a French accent) as the evil pirate Levasseur. Henry Stephenson played the kindly Lord Willoughby, and Ross Alexander made a striking impression as the ship's navigator, Jeremy Pitt.
The script, by Casey Robinson, was a skillful adaptation of Sabatini's picaresque novel. Much of Sabatini's own prose was included, but several events and characters were omitted or conflated, notably Lord Willoughby and a rival for Arabella's hand, Lord Julian Wade. It is perhaps notable that the script toned down to some extent the religious and national rivalries that are emphasized in Sabatini's more historically grounded novel. Moreover, the script somewhat changed Blood's character, in an effort to increase his level of badass at the expense of the more complex, touchy-feely aspects of his personality. Thus, fans of the book may see it as inferior, despite the film's undisputed status as a classic.
Notable Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been requested by the respected co-director Max Reinhardt of A Midsummer Night's Dream to adapt Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for the play as a motion-picture score; at the same time the Warner Brothers engaged him to compose an original score for Captain Blood. Korngold's fine Late Romantic score, characterized by Wagnerian themes and Leitmotifs, was a write-in candidate at the Academy Awards, despite the fact that the composer had not the time to complete an entirely original score before the début, but was forced to adapt some of the music from Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Mazeppa.
Other notable talents engaged for the film included fencing master Fred Cavens to choreograph the duels. During the famous duel on the rocks, director Michael Curtiz insisted that Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone should not use "buttons" on the end of their foils, for greater realism; the actors were thus in actual danger of injury, or possibly even death. This was possibly the beginning of Flynn's lifelong detestation of Curtiz, despite the fact that many of his most notable films were made with the hard-driving Hungarian.
King James (Vernon Steele), however, prompted by the venal Lord Sunderland, sells them into slavery in Jamaica instead, where brutal Colonel William Bishop (Lionel Atwill) buys most of the men and his sprightly niece, Arabella (Olivia de Havilland), purchases the humiliated Blood. Arabella suggests Blood as a replacement for the gouty governor's bumbling doctors. Blood takes advantage of this to plot escape for himself and his fellow slaves. Bishop, suspecting, whips Jeremy for information, then prepares to whip Blood for interfering, when the town is attacked by Spanish pirates. In the confusion, Blood and the slaves escape and seize the Spanish ship (with the ransom taken from the colonists), and set forth on a career of piracy.
In order to curb Blood's activity, King James makes Colonel Bishop the new Governor of Jamaica; meanwhile, Arabella sails to England on a visit. On her return, she and Lord Willoughby, who has been sent by the King to deal with Blood, are captured by the evil French pirate Levasseur, with whom Peter has unwillingly gone into partnership on the condition that Levasseur will abide by his humane rules. When Peter discovers Arabella's capture, he "purchases" her; the furious Levasseur refuses to give her up, and they Duel to the Death—Levasseur's. His love rejected by Arabella, Peter decides in a fury to take her and Willoughby on to Jamaica, though he knows that Governor Bishop has sworn to hang him.
When he gets there, the capital is under attack by the French, and the protecting English fleet is out pirate-hunting under the command of the Governor; Lord Willoughby entreats Peter to save the town, saying he has been sent by the King to offer him a pardon and a commission. Blood and his crew reject the offer with scorn—until Willoughby informs them that the king in question is not the hated James, but William of Orange, who has seized the throne. They battle the French and win.
Arabella, finding Peter at the Governor's palace, begs him to escape; he forces her to admit that she loves him. Bishop, meanwhile, returns and is arrested; Lord Willoughby informs him that the new Governor will decide whether he is to be hanged or not. Bishop goes to find Arabella pleading for his life with that official, only to find that he is—Peter Blood, who greets him with a "Good morning, Uncle!"
This film provides examples of the following tropes:
- Ambadassador: Lord Willoughby is not the physical type, but any envoy who can recruit a whole pirate crew into loyal privateers for the new King in under five minutes is really good at his job. He's also perfectly willing to accept torture so that Arabella won't have to go through it herself.
- As the Good Book Says...: One of the pirates, Reverend Uriah Ogle, quotes the Bible in almost all of his lines, with some additions to fit the context or simply for laughs.Ogle: [after the former slaves toss Colonel Bishop overboard] "And the whale came, and the whale swallowed Jonah" ... I hope.
- As You Know: At the beginning, as Peter Blood prepares to go out and tend to Lord Gildoy, he recounts to his housekeeper (who is surely familiar with his history) how he was a soldier, fighting "for the French against the Spanish, and the Spanish against the French," and a sailor in the Dutch navy, until he came home and became a physician.Blood: And having had adventure enough in six years to last me six lives, I came here. Hung up the sword and picked up the lancet; became a man of peace and not of war... a healer, not a slayer.
- Awesome Mc Coolname: Captain Blood.
- Bad "Bad Acting": Arabella pours on the melodrama when she's "pleading" for her uncle's life with the new governor.
- Boarding Party: After the second French ship cripples Blood's, he leads his crew in a boarding action to take the French vessel, with plenty of rope-swinging action.Crewman: We're sinking! What should we do?
Blood: Do? We'll board a ship that's not sinking!
- Break the Haughty: The very last scenes are this for Bishop. He is stripped of his post and is even threatened with severe punishment after leaving Port Royal unprotected in war times. To make things worse (for him), Blood is the new governor.
- The Cavalier Years: The film begins with Monmouth's rebellion in 1685 and ends with the deposition of James II in 1688.
- Chair Reveal: "Uncle—this is the governor!" Sort of, anyway. The chair doesn't swivel; instead, Blood has his face buried in his hands when Bishop comes into the room.
- Character Exaggeration: Compared to Sabatini's novel, Blood has become much more of a Flat Character in order to better fit an archetypal Action Hero role. Key moments (and lengthy segments) of the book that helped establish him as a sensitive, complex character were cut, and many parts that were left in were changed as well: At least two of the Captain's pivotal scenes with Arabella, for example, were kept in, but drastically altered to reverse completely the tone they had in the book, making Blood appear more traditionally macho.
- Character Title: Captain Blood
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Colonel Bishop whips Jeremy Pitt for information, and leaves him hanging up without water in the broiling Jamaican sun. (See also Slave Brand, below.)
- Composite Character:
- Arabella Bishop was combined with Madamoiselle d'Onefoys from the book to save money for the production.
- Lord Willoughby is a combination of Lord Julian Wade and Lord Willoughby, the two nobleman characters from Rafael Sabatini's book.
- Compressed Adaptation: Parts cut from the book include, amongst others, a long stretch of time when Blood drank heavily due to depression, and a very powerful scene in which he cried at the loss of his ship. This was part of a general re-interpretation of his character for the film (from a nuanced, sensitive man to a straight-up action hero).
- Cool Old Guy: Lord Willoughby. He may be an old English windbag at first, but anyone with only a silver tongue and some good news as leverage who can turn a pirate crew who scoff at sailing for the King into loyal fighting sailors for the British Navy in five minutes is a force to be reckoned with.
- "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: A downplayed example when Willoughby offers Blood and his men a commission from the King; they spend several minutes refusing and putting the King down. When Blood snaps they don't want to follow James, a stunned Willoughby tells them that the Glorious Revolution has taken place, James is deposed, and it's King William offering the deal.Blood: Willoughby, it's the long-winded fellow, you are, why didn't you tell us this in the first place!
- Dies Wide Open: Levasseur.
- Duel to the Death: Between Peter and Levasseur over Arabella.
- Epic Ship-on-Ship Action: The climax involves Peter Blood and his pirate ship, having agreed to fight on behalf of the British against the French, attacking two French warships in turn. They handily defeat the first, igniting its powder magazine in a massive explosion that reduces the vessel to splinters. The second French ship blows a hole in Blood's ship big enough to sink it, but slowly enough that Blood leads his entire crew in a Boarding Party that captures the French ship instead.
- Fanfare: Notably, Korngold uses a repeated horncall to symbolize Peter's ship, at least once explicitly performed as source-music by a bugler in the crew.
- Flynning: The philosophy of Fred Cavens, who choreographed the duels, was to take the basic fencing moves and to exaggerate them, to make them more spectacular for film audiences.
- Graceful Loser: Bishop seems to accept the fact Blood is the new governor with surprising humility.
- Hanging Judge: The historical Baron Jeffreys, played chillingly by gaunt, reedy-voiced Leonard Mudie, makes it plain that anyone who defends himself in his court is indulging in "a useless effort to keep his own neck from the halter."
- Heroic Team Revolt: Happens briefly after Peter wants to take his crew to Port Royal, where the vengeful governor and the entire English fleet is waiting to string them up. He manages to talk them round.
- Historical Domain Character: George Jeffreys; King James II; Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland.
- Captain Levasseur may also be based on the Historical French Pirate Oliver Levasseur. However Oliver Levasseur operated mainly in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean and would have been an infant when James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: James II is generally considered now not to have been so much a cruel tyrant, as a rather stupid, stubborn man with an exaggerated sense of his own rights; his faults have been exaggerated in the cause of partisan religious and political propaganda.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Asked to prove that he is a physician in court, Blood points out that Judge Jeffreys is suffering from this.Blood: For if I'm not a physician, how is it I know that you're a dying man? The death to which you're dooming hundreds of poor men daily—in a frantic effort to send their souls to perdition before your own—is a light pleasantry compared to the bleeding death in the lungs to which the great Judge has condemned you.
- Just a Stupid Accent: Basil Rathbone as a French pirate.
- Kangaroo Court: Lord Jeffreys refuses to let Peter defend himself properly during his trial, and literally instructs the jury to "bring in a verdict of 'Guilty.'"
- Kubrick Stare: Peter shoots one at Col. Bishop after being whipped.
- Leitmotif: Korngold employs several in the score, including the Fanfare mentioned above, a sweeping love theme for Arabella, and a jaunty tune to represent the Jamaican capital, Port Royal—which he deploys to stunning effect when Peter orders the crew to sail there, presumably to their deaths.
- Lovable Rogue: Captain Blood.
- Made a Slave: The Monmouth rebels are sold into slavery at the suggestion of Lord Sunderland, and Peter is sold along with them.
- Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It scores a 3.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Sure he's the hero, but "Doctor Blood" does not inspire confidence.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Rafael Sabatini, who wrote the novel Captain Blood, based his tale on historical fact; a surgeon named Henry Pitman, who tended wounded rebels and was sentenced to death by Judge Jeffreys. Pitman's sentence was commuted to penal transportation to Barbados where he escaped and was captured by pirates. Pitman did not turn pirate, preferring to make his way back to England where he wrote about his ordeal. The second part of the story, where Peter Blood becomes a pirate, was based on Captain Henry Morgan, who, like Peter Blood, was a pirate who wound up as (lieutenant) governor of Jamaica.
- Offstage Villainy: Blood and his crew are never shown attacking a ship or stealing anything (except in a quick montage). In fact, their entire piratical career in the movie is one scene in which they are dividing booty from an unseen attack, and a later scene where Peter shows Arabella some of his booty. When she straight-out asks him how many people he's killed to get all that treasure, Peter says, "No more than was necessary," indirectly admitting that yes, he and his crew have killed people. Presumably this was done so the audience would continue to view Captain Blood and his fellow pirates as the good guys.
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Basil Rathbone's French pirate has dialogue of the "Zees so vairy 'andsome Engleesh prize say, « Bonjour, Monsieur le Capitaine Levasseur ! »" variety.
- Pirate: Blood and his fellow slaves plan to simply escape in a small boat. When their vessel is sunk by Spanish raiders, they steal the Spanish ship instead, and take advantage of their prize to begin a new career in piracy.
- Pirate Booty: Peter shows Arabella all his booty in an effort to impress her. It doesn't work.
- The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Blood is the greatest pirate in the world, but the only people he ever kills on screen are members of foreign armies and one perverted French captain. He's also never shown stealing or sinking other ships unless it's against enemies of England (which would make sense if they'd said that he was a privateer sailing under a British letter of marque rather than a genuine pirate), and the other members of his crew are all rough, roguish, and jovial rather than a bunch of cutthroats. Even when the main villain, who abused them as slaves, is in their grasp, they happily just comically throw him overboard rather than kill him. The movie only barely glosses over his life as a pirate and thief, and it comes off as rather jarring when the love interest refuses to be with him because he's committed crimes we've never seen. The book averts this and better justifies Arabella's attitude.
- Property of Love: Inverted for both genders. Blood gets sold as a slave and bought by his eventual love interest. Later she gets taken prisoner and is sold to him in a similar fashion. They both find the experience to be humiliating in a bad way, and a total turnoff to the point of stopping them from admitting their feelings for each other. It is only later, when they are both free, that their love for each other can bloom.
- Shown Their Work: Averted to an extent. Sabatini's novel incorporated dialogue from historical sources (such as transcripts from trials conducted by Judge Jeffreys); the film largely ignores these historical touches.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: The perfect description of Peter and Arabella's relationship.
- Slave Brand: Colonel Bishop has slaves who attempt to escape branded on the face with an FT for "Fugitive Traitor."
- Stock Footage: Portions of the battle scenes are lifted from earlier Warners' silents; the attentive viewer can catch glimpses of Napoleonic ship design and costumes among the 17th century piracy.
- Sword Fight: Notably, Peter's duel with Levasseur on the slippery rocks of Virgen Magra, ending with a very dead French pirate being splashed by the sea foam.
- A Taste of the Lash: Colonel Bishop whips his slaves for information and punishment. When he strings Blood himself up for whipping, he notably begins to lash Blood's chest instead of his back, which would likely have killed him if the Spanish attack hadn't interrupted.
- Tempting Fate: When the King's Men barge in on Doctor Blood as he's treating rebels' wounds, he reassures his nurse that England is still a Christian country, and its soldiers wouldn't arrest anyone engaging in care of the wounded. He's quickly proven wrong.
- Those Two Guys: Bronson and Whacker, two physicians that treat the governor's gout before Blood comes along.
- Welcome to the Caribbean, Mon!: Not that it seems all that welcoming to Peter Blood, at least at first.
- Wham Line: "James? This commission has been sent by King William."
- Wheel of Pain: Peter and the other slaves are forced to turn one of these on Bishop's plantation, which is explicitly contrasted with their turning of the capstan of the ship on which they escape.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: In the climatic battle at sea when Captain Blood's ship is sinking and the crew has to board one of the enemy ships, what exactly is the elderly Lord Willoughby doing during all this?
- The Women Are Safe with Us: Blood's ship has it as an explicit rule that no one will mistreat any woman, nor take them prisoner in the first place. He kills one of his partners over it.
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Much of the film takes place on board ship; some aspects of this are lampshaded when Peter reveals that he has not heard of the Glorious Revolution in England because he has "been at sea, out of touch with the world."