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25 April 2017

"Masterful, audacious, beautiful...": Basil Rathbone's Captain Levasseur

Captain Blood, released by Warner Brothers in 1935, is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pirate adventures ever. Based on a best selling historical novel by master swashbuckling storyteller Rafael Sabatini, the film was a class-A production in every way, with elaborate, expensive sets and costumes, the perfect director, Michael Curtiz, a topnotch cast, and a rousing score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Best of all, it had Errol Flynn, in his first starring role — in fact, it was his first major role of any kind. Nobody had ever heard of  him before. Audiences of 1935 were about to see his sparkle, his charm, his verve, his sheer physical beauty, for he first time. How exciting that must have been!
The Warner Brothers had made a casting decision that hardly ever happens except in fairy tales — they chose an unknown, untried 25-year-old Tasmanian to carry a major motion picture. Luckily for them — and for all of us — Flynn gave a performance that defined the dashing pirate hero for all time. (I’ve always liked to imagine Jack Warner’s feelings on seeing the first rushes — champagne corks must have been popping!)
And the greatest pirate hero needs the greatest pirate villain; fortunately,  author Rafael Sabatini supplied one of these, too. Here’s the literary version of their first meeting, when Captain Blood and his crew have arrived in the pirate-friendly island of Tortuga for some R & R:
“Captain Blood looked up... The man was tall and built on lines of agile strength, with a swarthy, aquiline face that was brutally handsome. A diamond of great price flamed on the indifferently clean hand resting on the pummel of his long rapier, and there were gold rings in his ears, half-concealed by long ringlets of oily chestnut hair.”
With J. Carrol Naish as his first mate Cahusac

Well, it wasn’t hard to cast this role, was it? This is Captain Levasseur, the renegade Frenchman, terror of the High Seas, with whom Captain Peter Blood is about to become entangled. And he too will be brought to life for all time in a marvelous performance by Basil Rathbone.

Born in South Africa and raised in England, Basil Rathbone was a highly experienced stage actor in London, on Broadway, and as a leading player in the great American actress Katherine Cornell’s repertory touring company. He had been a dedicated athlete since his schooldays, his size, strength, and speed making him good at football, rugby, and cricket. He began his acting career after serving on the Western Front during World War 1. He was very successful in Hollywood from his first days there, but by 1935 was already becoming dissatisfied with being offered so many villainous roles. (Of course, this was partly because he was so good at them!) He liked playing the rascally Captain Levasseur, though.

We first meet Levasseur, who looks pretty much like the description above, on Tortuga, engaged in his favorite pastimes — drinking, gambling, and most of all, wenching. Because we see from the start that Levasseur’s biggest weakness is women; he’s crazy about them and they’re crazy about him. He’s wily, energetic, and battle-hardened, but one thing makes him lose his grip — the ladies. (The film follows the book pretty closely in this, too.)
Before the agreement with Captain Blood
Levasseur celebrates with some ladies

Of course, Captain Blood is a different kind of pirate.  After Peter Blood escaped from slavery with his crew, they decided to turn pirate mainly because as escaped slaves there was no haven for them anywhere. But Blood insisted on being a pirate with a conscience, writing up a payment schedule and a code of conduct for his men and anyone else they decide to work with (pirates really did this; for instance, on a pirate ship if you could play a musical instrument you got an extra share of the booty!).
After several successful months collecting loot, Blood and his men have settled into Tortuga, which was sort of vacationland for pirates, for a few weeks of carousing. It is there he meets the notorious French buccaneer Levasseur, and they begin to discuss an alliance. They write up an agreement and both sign it with some ceremony, although Blood feels uneasy about it from the start. Levasseur is strong and well-supplied with followers, but is he trustworthy? Probably not.
The agreement

Rathbone’s Levasseur is boisterous, mercurial, conceited, flirtatious, and sexy as hell; he may be a bad guy, but he’s a glamorous bad guy! Happily for the storyline, Rathbone was not only an experienced actor perfectly at home in costume (and with an accent), but he was probably the best fencer in Hollywood. Fencing was his sport, and he practiced weekly for decades. (Rathbone, a lifelong athlete, was also an expert archer — although his Guy of Gisborne in The Adventures of Robin Hood had no opportunity to demonstrate this. He and Errol Flynn were also members of the hard-driving Hollywood Cricket Club, as was future personification of Dr. Watson, Rathbone’s close friend Nigel Bruce. Most Americans don’t realize that, despite the cute striped jackets and white flannel trousers, cricket is one tough game.)

After the agreement, Levasseur celebrates
with some more ladies
Captain Levasseur’s role in the plot of Captain Blood follows the book quite closely, except for one very important difference. In the book, the young lady Levasseur has made off with is the daughter of the governor of Tortuga, and she actually ran away with him voluntarily at first. But she changes her mind when she sees just how ruthless he is, however charming, and Blood’s rescue of her proceeds exactly like the movie.

The filmmakers very wisely eliminated this subplot and had Levasseur capture Peter Blood’s beloved Arabella Bishop, played by the lovely young Olivia de Haviland, which makes the big set-piece on the beach at Virgen Magra all the more intense. (Frankly, I’ve always thought Sabatini must have kicked himself for not thinking of this improvement in the first place.)
Discussing his plans for Arabella

Captain Levasseur is planning to send a message to Miss Bishop’s uncle, the governor of Jamaica, demanding 20,000 pieces of eight ransom — while he maintains custody of her person. Little imagination is needed to guess what plans he has for her while they wait for the ransom to be paid. But Captain Blood throws a monkey wrench into the works by pointing out that, firstly, ransoming women prisoners is forbidden by their agreement, and, secondly, he will pay the ransom himself immediately and take possession. To Levasseur’s increasing fury, Blood points out to the Frenchman’s greedy crew that this way, they will get their cut of the ransom at once, with no waiting. Levasseur, seeing that he cannot rely on his men’s support if it comes to a pitched battle, gives way to rage, and, drawing his sword, cries,

Captain Blood interferes
“You’ll not take her while I live!”
“Then I’ll take her when you’re dead!” Blood replies, and one of the most exciting sword fights ever filmed ensues.

Rathbone had the expertise, the height, and the reach, but Flynn, though not as skilled a fencer, was at this point tremendously fit and agile, and the two needed little assistance from stunt doubles, battling fiercely over dry sand, scrubby dunes, and right to the water’s edge.
Levasseur, an expert and experienced killer, laughs at the very real danger, almost forgetting his fury in the joy of combat. But Captain Blood is both cooler headed and more motivated, and at last one precise lunge finds its mark. Levasseur falls, and the surf washes over his dead face.

Actually, you miss him when he’s gone, though the story wraps up pretty quickly, with Blood returning Miss Bishop to Jamaica only to discover Port Royal under attack (by the French fleet for some reason). Blood and his experienced crew make short work of the French, taking them completely by surprise. The new king of England, William, appoints him governor, and probably sends a nice gift for his wedding with Arabella. (It is actually true that Captain Henry Morgan, the famous pirate, was appointed governor of Jamaica — but since he was a hopeless alcoholic, it didn’t work out so well.)

Basil Rathbone’s Captain Levasseur is the perfect opponent for Peter Blood; it would have been no fun at all to just go on battling with Arabella’s cruel but stodgy old uncle, Col. Bishop — he’s wicked enough, but not exactly dashing! Many female viewers, myself included, would agree that Rathbone’s Levasseur, with his glossy curls, his flashing laugh, and his powerful, athletic build, provided plenty of extra interest.

The joy of battle

Rathbone and Flynn had an excellent rapport, and always got along well, with Flynn greeting him on set as “dear old Baz” — though Rathbone, a superior swordsman, reputedly was prone to tell Flynn that he could kill him anytime he wanted to! But that was all manly fun. “I liked him, and he liked me,” Rathbone summed it up in his autobiography.

Unfortunately from Rathbone’s point of view, his performance as Levasseur did not really lead to more interesting offers; he found most of the rest of his film career disappointing, though there were some bright spots. I can only think he would have been happy, though — if rather surprised — to know how audiences today still enjoy and value his work.

We're sorry to see him go

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