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Ten years after his Captain Bligh was cast adrift by Clark Gable's Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Charles Laughton was recruited by independent producer Benedict Bogeaus to assay the title role of a similarly notorious historical mariner for Captain Kidd (1945). While this modestly budgeted effort played fast and loose with the facts concerning the fate of the late 17th century privateer and pirate, the project allowed Laughton to display considerable brio with his conniving characterization, and the end results are entertaining for it.
The narrative opens on the seas off Madagascar, where Kidd and his crew have just waylaid and torched the British ship 12 Apostles and murdered its captain, Lord Blayne. With the aid of his smarmy lieutenants, Povey (John Carradine), Lorenzo (Gilbert Roland), and Boyle (Sheldon Leonard), Kidd secretes the 12 Apostles' treasure cargo in a cove, and returns to England's shores, where he slanders Blayne as having stolen the goods and to have died in the attempt. By 1799, Kidd finds himself championed by Lord Bellomont for a commission from William III (Henry Daniell) to rendezvous off Madagascar with the King's galleon Quedah Merchant. From there, he is to assure safe passage home through the pirate-laden seas for diplomat Lord Falsworth (Lumsden Hare) and his beautiful daughter Lady Ann (Barbara Britton). The audacious Kidd requests Blayne's lands and title as reward for a successful voyage.
To find the needed manpower for his vessel, Kidd turns to the convicted pirate populace of Newgate Prison, reasoning that rescue from the gallows will be sufficient guarantee of their gratitude. From this legion of the damned, he is impressed by the wit and bearing of a young seaman answering to Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), and singles him out to serve as ship's gunner. The promotion is of course calculated by the shrewdly suspicious Kidd, who can't help but wonder if the too-perfect Mercy isn't following a hidden agenda.
The pacing of Captain Kidd is relatively stately for a swashbuckler, but the film's virtues are less to be found in the action sequences than in the uniformly strong performances. Besides the aforementioned, Reginald Owen is effective in providing the film's lighter moments as the valet that the socially ambitious Kidd retains in order to provide himself with a veneer of breeding. Of course, Laughton binds the entire affair with his bravura villainy. "His assumption of a slightly off suburban London accent is witty and appropriate; his revelation of the depth of his ambition quite chilling; his rage and pride at bay when finally confronted, animal and fearsome," Simon Callow observed in his Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (Methuen).
As directed by period-drama veteran Rowland V. Lee, the scenario provided by Robert N. Lee and Norman Reilly Raine bore only tangential similarity to the life and exploits of the Scottish-born William Kidd. The historical facts behind the legendarily fearsome buccaneer actually make him out to be something of a patsy. Commissioned in 1695 by Whig politicians to prey upon cargo ships flying under the flag of France, Kidd turned to piracy outside his mandate when there were no French targets to be had. He boarded the Quedah Merchant in 1698 under the supposition that it was a French vessel, only to find it with a British captain. Kidd's crew ultimately mutinied, and on his return to the colonies, he found himself deported to London to face piracy charges. Exculpatory evidence linking the Quedah Merchant to France was suppressed at the subsequent trial, and Kidd's former backers quite literally left him to twist in the wind, as he was executed in 1701.
Producer: Benedict Bogeaus, James Nasser
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay: Robert N. Lee, Norman Reilly Raine
Cinematography: Archie Stout
Art Direction: Charles Odds
Music: Werner Janssen
Cast: Charles Laughton (Capt. William Kidd), Randolph Scott (Adam Mercy), Barbara Britton (Lady Anne Dunstan), John Carradine (Orange Povey), Gilbert Roland (Jose Lorenzo), John Qualen (Bart Blivens).
by Jay Steinberg