It was bound to happen. Even the venerable and visceral occupation of piracy has fallen to the vicissitudes of the movies. The bold and brazen pirates of the West Indies have a reputation in rags and ruins thanks to the ravages of the American entertainment crisis—but it is not too late to rescue the New World buccaneers and all their romance from the platitudes of insanity and inanity that plague the Modern World, and restore them to flesh and blood figures that actually mean something and even stand for something. There are dusty volumes that bring the flashiest films to their knees in devastating surrender, and Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel Captain Blood is just such a marauding volume. It is civilized entertainment for civilized readers that blows uncivilized cinematics to Davy Jones with all the ceremony of a broadside delivered by a glib-tongued gentleman-rogue bedecked unapologetically with weapons and lace. For “we are all savages under the cloak that civilization fashions for us,” and Captain Blood permits readers to remain civilized while indulging in all the glorious incivilities of the pirates of the Caribbean.
The insatiable American appetite for entertainment—despite being degraded, deformed, defiled, and desensitized under the pop-culture pulverizations of the motion picture industry—is at long last growing disgusted with the way Hollywood is returning to its vomit. This summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a chief example of this trend of sensational surfeit, being the fifth and fatuous installment attempting to resuscitate the already overblown Disney series with more undead pirates, more spaceship sloops, more outrageous stunts, more outlandish CGI’s, and, yes, more Johnny Depp. Dead franchises should tell no tales. The $230,000,000 farce was panned, repudiated, and relegated to the disreputable ranks of Ninja Turtles and Transformers. This misfiring pattern in entertainment where anything is passable and nothing is plausible is discouraging, for it is no longer entertaining—but it should be. Entertainment where anything is passable and nothing is plausible is in desperate need of remedy, and Captain Blood is just the cure to the curse of entertainment—for it is authentically and thoroughly entertaining. Anything is passable, but not impossible. Nothing is plausible, but it is pleasing. Everything is delicious and devilish, well-framed in sturdy yet elegant prose, a desperate lark from beginning to end.
Peter Blood was a red-blooded, blue-eyed Irish soldier, sailor, and physician who had little interest for anything in the world besides his pipe and his geraniums until he was swept up into the terrible aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor in the revolt against the Duke of Monmouth and King James II. Wrongfully sentenced to die as a treasonous rebel by the diabolical Judge Jeffreys at the Bloody Assizes of 1685, Blood was grimly relieved to dodge death by being sold as a plantation slave in Bridgetown, Barbados to the crazed and cruel Colonel Bishop. When a Spanish armada attacks and raids Bridgetown, in keeping with the political hostilities of the times between Spain and England, Blood and a consort of convicts perpetrate a stunning escape which ends up saving the town together with their skins. And thus, Peter Blood finds himself captain of a gallant vessel with a loyal crew of gold-hearted ruffians and puts out to the tropical seas as a pirate bold to be, hated and hunted vengefully by both the English and the Spanish. As he sails and sallies with a peculiar and particular sense of piratical justice, Captain Blood makes winsome war with the powers of the Main as he commands the Caribbean from Tortuga to Maracaybo to Cartagena, driving the Admiralty of nations to distraction in their rage over his military cunning and manly bravado.
The nature of Captain Blood’s strategies and tactics, of his encounters and engagements, defy credence even as they defy his aggressors. They must be read to be believed, and hold second place to nothing in the story save the nature of Captain Blood himself. His brutality is matched only by his nobility. At one moment, he binds his captive mouth to mouth with a cannon to negotiate his point, and at the next, he honorably rescues a helpless woman from a scoundrel with a swordsmanship only a surgeon can possess. He broadsides and rams ships, subterfuges his enemies, cripples coastal forts, and navigates his courses and his interests with a brave brilliance that is a wonder to witness in words. The very language and dialogue in Captain Blood is an adventure in and of itself, beset as it is with jewels of jargon, precious quips, and priceless rebuffs that keep the pages turning with almost more force than the explosive action. Consider, as a small sample, this delectable exchange between the blue-eyed Blood and his trussed-up prisoner, Don Diego de Espinosa y Valdez:
The light-blue eyes played over him like points of steel.
“You are not afraid to die, Don Diego?”
The Spaniard threw back his head, a frown between his eyes.
“The question is offensive, sir.”
A beautiful literary aperitif, if ever there was—and a banquet awaits the starved. In a time when entertainment is dominated by deplorable, dumb-downed movies running on the fumes of worn-out screen tropes, impairing the cultural capacity for entertainment itself, books like Captain Blood remind people with a thunderclap that there is nothing like a good book when it comes to good entertainment. Part of the purity of such classic entertainments is their lack of self-consciousness, leaving them free to be true to themselves and to the spirit of adventure without trying to break the boundaries of a bloated predecessor or a cutthroat market. The sickness of self-consciousness manifests itself in the cinema with a cynicism that refuses to take anything seriously save its own box-office ambitions, while subjecting movie-goers to a meaningless barrage of imagery that is more reflective of madness than storytelling. Books like Captain Blood, on the other hand, do not hesitate to laugh at their own jokes, even if they are the joke, which is precisely why they provide a remedy in their levity to the madness born and bred by the heavy-handed entertainment industry. In the words of Captain Blood himself, “A man must sometimes laugh at himself or go mad… Few realize it. That is why there are so many madmen in the world.”
And madmen they would prove indeed who preferred Disney’s pirate parodies to the tales of Captain Blood, which reflect the true swashbucklers with echoes of Morgan set in their proper historical place and enlisted upon the voyages and enterprises that made them terrible and time-honored. What ghoulish crew can outdo the ferocity of a Spanish crew? How is the Disneyfied Flying Dutchman more compelling than a British man-of-war? Is the swaggering Captain Jack Sparrow a match for the striding Captain Peter Blood? There is nothing in these five films that holds a candle to this single book by Rafael Sabatini because, in the end, they are not about pirates. They are about an animatronics theme-park ride in Florida. Captain Blood is a pirate and his odyssey is one of real piratical pomp and circumstance that really shows why the pirates of the Caribbean were feared and famed.
So, avast there, between decks. To lubbers disillusioned with the movies, turn ye to your books and smite the sounding furrows. There is treasure there not yet lifted. To them that is disenchanted with the Pirates of the Caribbean bilge, turn ye to Captain Blood, mate, and sign articles for a Caribbean cruise in dead and delightful earnest, devil a doubt. Fall on, me hearties.