Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: eight years after making pirates the toast of pop-culture once more, Johnny Depp and friends are back to try to wring a little more blood from a stone with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Movie swashbuckling, however, is far older than CGI blockbusters, older even than sound; I've plucked this example out of all the annals of celluloid piracy largely to make an annual tradition of reviewing a Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn collaboration as part of this series.

There was never a time when the pirate movie was completely out of fashion; since the first half of the 1910s, there has not been a decade and indeed barely even a single calendar year without a single solitary example of the genre. There was, however, a time when the pirate movie was in abatement, and that time was the early 1930s. Despite the big business done by swashbuckling epics like the evergreen Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks in 1926, Hollywood's best and brightest had not figured out how to marry the essential requirements of the form (seafaring, swordfighting, energetic action) with what was in those days the unwieldy, tempermental, studio-bound equipment used to record sound. And so, for some length of time the onscreen adventures of pirates came to end.

In 1934, MGM released an adaptation of Treasure Island that did more than fair business for itself, and as far as I have been able to make out, it was the first attempt to make a convincing ship-based adventure in the sound era, though it would take quite a generous or naïve viewer to overlook the preponderance of sets involved in the film's creation. It wasn't until the next year that the problem of making a sound movie using actual water tanks & location shooting was finally solved, in stunning fashion, when Warner Bros. decided to take a chance on a B-picture director of little particular merit, an unknown contract actor who'd had small parts in minor films (cast only after most of Warner's big stars proved unavailable), and a genre far removed from anything remotely akin to the largely urban comedies, musicals, and dramas that had been the studio's bread and butter since the start of the decade. This gamble paid off like few ever have when Captain Blood made Errol Flynn one of the biggest stars of the day, turned Michael Curtiz into one of the best-regarded action-adventure "man's man" filmmakers of his generation, and kick-started a Golden Age for gung-ho adventure movies as good as any that have been produced in all the decades since.

Considering what we now know about pirate movies, Captain Blood takes a surprisingly long time to get revved up; it is almost precisely halfway through the 119-minute feature before any high seas adventuring starts, and a lot of the most choice piracy is rather more assumed to have happened than depicted. For its first hour, the film is something of an historic romance, opening during the 1685 rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth against the recently restored King James II of England (briefly played, with zestful fatuous excess, by Vernon Steele). In those days, we are assured, there was a certain physician, Dr. Peter Blood - yes, that is exactly where the title comes from, it's not some kick-ass pirate name, and who the Christ would go to a doctor named "Blood"? I assume Dr. Killpatients must have had his shingle hung right next door.

Blood is of course played by our man Flynn, who glides into the slot of '30s Leading Man like he was born to do it, a dashing smile underneath dramatically tousled golden hair and a chin you could use to break boulders. Was Flynn a "good" actor? Lord, no; but he was the best of all possible Errol Flynns, and as much as I bow to no-one in my adoration of The Adventures of Robin Hood, I would still, under duress, point to Peter Blood as the most agreeably Flynnian character he ever played: a man of such ridiculous pure noble heart that even when he's sacking every ship in the Spanish Main, we simply know it's because he's just trying to make the world a better place. It's actually quite cunning how screenwriter Casey Robinson, adapting Rafael Sabatini's novel, tricks us into so viewing Blood, despite his profession and leading surname: first, because he's a doctor. Third, because he's a doctor whose commitment to saving the wounded is so complete that in the first scene, just the very second that he's done establish to his housekeeper how far he is above the grubby, violent politicking that is ruining England (the second thing we learned), he agrees to aid one of Monmouth's grievously wounded supporters, with not a moment's thought to what it means to him personally.

What it means is a quick trip to kangaroo court, where Blood, branded a Monmouth partisan and thus a traitor to the crown, is sentenced to live as a slave in the West Indies. And that's the fourth thing: having first shown that Blood is a man who refuses to choose sides between having a shit sandwich or a turd burger on the throne, Robinson then doubles back to show that, nonetheless, James II and his cronies are devils in the flesh, and the "worse" side, so whatever Blood does against them later, it's surely morally justified. They're slavers, for god's sake!

In Port Royal, Jamaica, Blood is purchased for £10 by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the niece of wicked miltary commander Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill); she means well, but is taken aback by the morally righteous Blood's refusal to submit to slavery in even its nicest form. It takes the quick-witted doctor only a short time to set himself up as an indispensable servant to the gout-ridden governor (George Hassell), and only a short time from there that he's able to arrange a slave rebellion, taking a whole mess of Monmouth supporters with him to start a freewheeling life of piracy (the scene where he cons the governor's other physicians, played by Donald Meek and Hobart Cavanaugh, into financing his escape, is a glorious piece of studio-system contrivance that works almost solely because Flynn puts it over through sheer charisma). But Arabella does not forget him, nor he her; and as he establishes a code of ethical conduct for all his crew to follow, and strikes up a clearly ill-advised partnership with French pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone, whose natural haughtiness manages to save the character from one of the worst French accents you've ever heard), a part of him still longs to put the life of a buccaneer behind him and become a man of peace once more.

Let us not mince words: the plot of Captain Blood jerks along in the most erratic spurts, with the first hour representing a self-contained three-act drama, and the second never settling upon a plot or conflict. "How about Levasseur for a baddie?" it seems to ask. "Hm, maybe not, that wrapped up too fast. Let's see what's going on in Port Royal." The film contains in itself the matter of a whole trilogy, the result of condensing a book even more packed with details from the life of a pirate; it is an undeniable mess. But it simply Does Not Matter In The Slightest. For one thing, however much the different elements of plot get tangled up, Robinson does a fine job of making the whole thing about the relationship between Blood and Arabella, giving it an in-hindsight structure by which it all flows rather nicely. For another, Curtiz has a certain skill, familiar to anyone who has seen his later, obscure war movie Casablanca or the rare film noir Mildred Pierce, of charging through complex and chaotic narratives with a surety known by few other directors of the era; a certain ability to stress the important scenes with the force of an orchestra all playing the same note at once, and breezing through the bits between the important scenes quickly enough that you can't get bored, but not so fast that it starts to rattle apart.

Whatever the case, both halves of Captain Blood, the pirate and non-pirate editions of the story, are crammed full of all the adventure that $1 million in 1935 dollars could buy; that translates into plenty of effects work and extraordinary sea battles (some of them re-using footage from 1924's The Sea Hawk), grand swordfights against dramatic landscapes, gorgeous sets used to represent Port Royal, and a pirate invasion sequence in the film's midpoint that remains one of the most impressively overwrought moments in any '30s action film. Curtiz got around the issue of sound in all of this through the wildly simple trick of not recording sound, instead relying on the exhilarating Foley work and even more exhilarating score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold - his first movie score, composed in a three-week rush - combining with Curtiz's bold compositions to create all the vitality that audiences were beginning to expect, now that the bugs were out of sound cinema. In most ways, the film is less sophisticated than the candy-colored Adventures of Robin Hood, but that isn't necessarily a problem: Captain Blood is the scrappy younger sibling, unpolished but direct, where Robin Hood skates by on sheer scale. They fill complimentary needs.

In all this grand epic awesomeness, we have our Movie Stars: Flynn, owning every single frame he stands in, and de Havilland, herself a brand-new discovery at the ripe age of 19, playing the charming naughtiness of Arabella with a delightful sexiness that the actress would rarely get to show again, once she sidled into a string of innocent waifs and starchy icons. It's eerily obvious why Arabella wanted to buy Blood, and there's a largely unstressed but omnipresent kinkiness to their relationship, a tension wherein both players obviously think of the other as a body, first and foremost; one imagines a Captain Blood just two years earlier, where all that would have been played right on the surface. Still, the chemistry between the two actors is perfect, Code or not, and it's no wonder at all that they teamed up an impressive eight more times. Rounding out the cast, Atwill and Rathbone are more than creditable villains; I'd love if Rathbone had something more of a part, but I suppose that's what Robin Hood is for.

It's all so much candy, I guess, but candy made with the utmost precision and attention and care in every detail; the film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (along with The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and winner Mutiny on the Bounty, confirming 1935 as a watershed year for action-adventures); what's impressive is that in the last year the Academy allowed write-in votes, Curtiz came in second in total votes, while Korngold and Robinson both came in third, without benefit of being nominated. A concerted bit of campaigning by Warners, maybe, and I know you're not supposed to use the Oscars as a mark of quality; but for such a shot in the dark popcorn movie to inspire that kind of enthusiasm is just crazy, and that right there should tell you about how much more Captain Blood is than just a popcorn movie: it's the popcorn movie of the mid-'30s, one of the most joyful and watchable of all adventure pictures no only of its era, but of all time.