Sunday, 9 November 2014

200th Post

So it's time once again for me to celebrate a new milestone on my blog and what better way to do that than with a movie that made a significant impact on my life. Now I imagine you're all left wondering what the secret movie is this time. It seems I've been going back a decade with each passing milestone. For my 50th post I did a a film from 1964, for my 100th post I wrote about a film from 1954, so naturally why not go back another decade with a movie from 1945? This time I settled for an exciting swashbuckling tale of piracy. It's the classic adventure film Captain Kidd.

As far back as I can remember, this was the first fully-black and white movie I ever saw from start to finish. I'll confess that I've always had a soft spot for pirates. In fact back in July I wrote an entire article about the subject of pirates on film comparing the myth to history. I first encountered Captain Kidd years ago, back when I was somewhere in Grade 4 or 5. I was big on the subject of pirates at the time and I had been exposed to a handful of older movies. If I recall correctly it was in a Wal-Mart my mom managed to find the "Hollywood DVD Classics" edition of the film.

We watched it about a week later, and it was a bit jarring at first because I had never seen a full black and white film before. Sometime later, maybe a week or two (I don't remember precisely) I talked myself into giving it another chance and found I appreciated it a lot more. Before long it quickly became one of my favourite movies (though granted it has been outranked by several other films since then) and I found myself watching this exciting adventure again and again. I wanted to go out and find other films in the "Hollywood DVD Classics" series, though I never did until a few months ago when I found one of their discs compiling two episodes of Bonanza.

I was literally obsessed with Captain Kidd, that's how much I loved the film. The impact it had on me was unbelievable. In between classes at school, I used to make arts and crafts projects imitating the case (which unlike your standard DVD case is much smaller and more flexible). Of course, none of my classmates ever understood quite how much this film intrigued me and instead would make fun of these projects jokingly showing them off as my "fake I.D." (something I did not understand the meaning of at the time, which didn't help much).

While this wasn't the first old movie I ever saw, it was one that certainly opened a door down a winding corridor that would allow me greater exposure to other things. If 2001: A Space Odyssey was sealed my fate to be a film student, it was Captain Kidd that first set me on that path. In addition to opening my mind to Classical Hollywood, it introduced me to a name that I would come to know very well in the following years: the great actor Charles Laughton. Since this occasion calls for me to discuss something special I decided to dig out that old DVD and see if it was as good as I remembered. So after all these years and now looking at it again with a broader understanding of film history, how does it hold up?

Well, I'll confess, it isn't the greatest thing I've ever seen. It did feel a bit like a b-movie, and its story certainly had flaws I would not have noticed when I was younger, though I can certainly see how I would have enjoyed it. Laughton himself has done some far better projects such as Mutiny on the Bounty (which curiously enough, was also a nautical adventure in which he plays a nasty sea captain) That does not, however, mean that this was in any way a bad movie. While it may not be any grand cinematic achievement it is still an enjoyable little adventure story.

I should explain that this isn't exactly a historical film. Captain William Kidd was a real pirate who buried a small stash of treasure before he was hanged... and that's about the extent of the history you'll get here. The actual Captain Kidd was something of a real-life tragic hero, a man who got mixed up in piracy because of circumstances beyond his control and executed for it when he tried to get out. The movie's Kidd is instead treated as a despicable and scheming villain, so aside from sharing his name with a real person he's pretty much a fictional character.

Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) is a respected sailor in England with the popular image of being an honest shipmaster. In actuality, he is a ruthless double-crossing, backstabbing, and greedy pirate. He is recruited by King William III (Henry Danielle) to lead an expedition into African waters to rendezvous with an English vessel loaded in treasure and escort it safely back to London. What the King doesn't know is that Kidd has no intention of seeing the ship return safely and in fact wants to keep the riches for himself.

To accomplish this end, he recruits a crew of convicted pirates who are offered a pardon for their services. As the voyage gets under way, Kidd begins to put his dastardly schemes into action, which result in various members of the crew dying in "accidents". Unfortunately for him one officer by the name of Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), starts to figure Kidd's intentions and with help from the few trustworthy people aboard, becomes determined to expose his captain's treachery and see justice prevail.

So as you can imagine, this is a pretty straight forward swashbuckling adventure, something not too unusual for the 40's. In that sense it may at first feel like a typical b-movie, but even so it is still nonetheless an enjoyable story. Laughton makes an intimidating villain as you can normally expect from his roles, possibly channelling a bit of his more famous role of William Bligh. Scott's character of Adam Mercy is a fairly likable character, one who you can find yourself rooting for and hope to see triumph in the end.

There isn't a whole lot to be said about much of the supporting cast, and if I had to point out any flaws in the movie I could argue that they are underdeveloped. Only a few people really stand out from the crowd, though out of the ones that are present the most interesting has got to be Orange Povey. This is a character who steals the show in his scenes, and the tension between him and Kidd is very strong, with the former trying to find a way to get rid of him by way of an "accident" and the latter finding clever ways to talk him out of it.

So after all these years does Captain Kidd still hold up as a great film? Well, it does have its narrative flaws and underdeveloped characters. I don't know I would consider it a masterpiece and I will confess that Charles Laughton has done a lot of far better work. However, it is still a fun and enjoyable little movie with a straight forward plot and some exciting sword fights. It is worth giving a watch if you get the chance, though perhaps not one you will need to put as a top priority.


  1. It's fun to go back in time and watch a film that grabbed you so much when you were a kid and then see it through adult eyes and with many viewing of other films. In some ways it's like finding out that Santa doesn't exist as the magic goes a little away. The nice thing is that we can see what grabbed us and made us fall in love with film. This film and the Great Charles Laughton did this for you. Mine was the musical Top Hat.

    1. That was kinda the experience I had here. It wasn't quite as I remembered it but I could see why I enjoyed it so much as a kid. I certainly wouldn't say I'm ashamed to have enjoyed it. If anything, I guess it was more like a taste of what Classical Hollywood had to offer, a tiny sample that would lead me down a path in which I would encounter many even better films.

  2. Congrats on the milestone. Can't believe I've never seen Captain Kidd, though. Sad.

    1. Thanks. It's not exactly a well-known film. I'm not sure how easy it would be to find, so it wouldn't surprise me that you haven't actually seen it.