Adventure on the High Seas

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September 19 is Talk Like a Pirate Day. I love pirates so, to get in the swashbuckling spirit, I went looking for pirate stuff at everybody’s favorite FREE Public Domain warehouse: the Internet Archive. Naturally, IA had lots of fun stuff to watch and read. After spending some time swashing my buckle at IA, I decided to watch and review Captain Kidd. Captain Kidd is a 1945 black and white adventure film very loosely based on the life of the real Captain Kidd aka Scottish sailor William Kidd. The real Captain Kidd was born in January 1645 in Greenock, Scotland. His father was a ship’s captain who was lost at sea. In the late 1680s, Kidd sailed the Caribbean and was involved in several incidents during the conflict between England and France including a mutiny, attacking and sacking a French island, and having his own ship stolen by a pirate while he was ashore. In December 1695, the Earl of Bellomont, governor of what is now the states of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, sent Captain Kidd on a mission to attack a list of known pirates as well as any French ships he came across. The mission did not begin well. Kidd had a brand new ship, the Adventure Galley, but much of his crew got pressed into naval service. He was forced to sail shorthanded to New York to pick up a replacement crew made up mostly of criminals and former pirates. Then he lost many of his new crew to cholera. And his brand new ship started to leak badly.


When Kidd finally reached waters where he could start looking for his pirate targets he had no luck there either. He could not find anyone to attack. In a fit of temper, Captain Kidd killed one of his own crew by throwing an ironbound bucket at him and fracturing his skull. Kidd was not worried. He thought his wealthy friends could sweep away any charges of murder. Kidd finally settled down to the business of harassing the French but his greatest prize would also be the basis for his future downfall. Kidd and his crew took the Quedagh Merchant, an Indian ship hired by Armenian merchants and carrying a very valuable cargo and captained by an Englishman who had purchased passes promising the protection of the French Crown for the ship. Captain Kidd considered the ship to be an entirely legal capture but back in England he was being labeled a “pirate” himself. In April 1698, Captain Kidd met the first pirate on his list. That meeting went the way the whole trip had so far gone and ended in a mess of confusion with most of Kidd’s crew deserting him for the pirate ship. Kidd only had 13 crewmen left so he looted and burned his original leaky ship and headed home on the Quedagh Merchant now renamed the Adventure Prize. Sailing back to the Caribbean, Kidd tried to avoid both his former mutinous crew as well as the English men-o-war searching for him. Kidd hid the Adventure Prize, hoping to use it and its rich cargo as a bargaining tool and headed to New York on a smaller ship (the merchants Kidd hired to protect the ship later sold off the cargo, burned the ship, and ran off). Kidd was arrested by his former friend Bellomont in July 1699 and sent to England for trial a year later. Kidd was confident his wealthy and titled friends would help him but his former friends abandoned him like rats escaping a sinking ship. William Kidd was found guilty of murder and five counts of piracy and was hanged on May 23, 1701. The hanging was every bit as unsuccessful as Kidd’s seafaring career: the rope actually broke as he was being hanged but they just trussed him up and hanged him a second time.


The enduring belief that Captain William Kidd had buried a vast treasure has kept Kidd’s legend alive. He did bury a small cache on Gardiners Island but Governor Bellomont recovered that and used it as evidence against Kidd at his trial. Treasure hunters are still searching for Captain Kidd’s legendary treasure. The movie Captain Kidd actually opens with Kidd (played by Charles Laughton) and a handful of greedy crewmen burying a treasure chest. The dead body of a too-greedy crewman is buried with the treasure.


Charles Laughton was a popular and prolific actor. He played everything from monsters to kings but in two of his most famous roles he played a cruel captain on a ill-starred ship: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Captain Kidd (1945). Charles plays Captain Kidd as a sociopath killing everyone in his way to amassing a fortune. He even keeps a list of those he intends to kill, crossing off their names as he gets rid of them. Randolph Scott, better known as the hero of dozens of Western films, plays Adam Mercy, a member of Kidd’s crew with a mysterious past. Mercy is determined to see the evil Captain Kidd brought to justice. Barbara Britton, who starred with Randolph Scott in many of his Westerns, plays Lady Anne, a wimpy damsel in distress who spends her few minutes on screen worrying over the lecherous intentions of one of Kidd’s pirates. Captain Kidd is not among my Top Five Favorite Pirate Movies. I have a hard time seeing Randolph Scott as anything other than a tall in the saddle cowboy and Barbara Britton is such a door mat as to be mostly invisible. But Charles Laughton makes the movie worth seeing. His Captain Kidd is such a scheming, lying, back stabbing, ambitious, pirate. Kidd launches an elaborate scheme to amass a fortune and fool the King of England into granting him a nobleman’s estate (the nobleman being one of his early victims). He hires a “gentleman’s gentleman” to help him gentrify his manners and speech while happily murdering his own men after they have outlived their usefulness. The film has a few mediocre battles at sea and a couple of sword fights that are over way, way too quickly. Captain Kidd was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. The film runs 90 minutes. Charles Laughton reprised his role of Captain Kidd a few years later in the comedy film Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952) starring one of my favorite comedy duos but unfortunately NOT in the Public Domain.


Captain Kidd is FREE in the Public Domain because the producers failed to renew the copyright in 1972. The Internet Archive has four versions available to watch online or download. Version #1 is the most popular with the most views but also one of the darker versions. Version #2 and Version #3 are both a bit brighter. Version #4 is perhaps the darkest of all the versions. Some scenes are harder to see in the darker versions. All four versions have excellent audio.

The Internet Archive also has several books on the life and times of the real Captain Kidd available to read online or to download. The Real Captain Kidd; A Vindication by Cornelius Neale Dalton was published in 1911. IA has two versions: Version #B1 has yellowed pages while Version #B2 white pages. Captain Kidd and Others of the Buccaneers by John S. C. Abbott was originally published in 1874 and IA has four versions. Version #C1 has bright yellow colored pages. In Version #C2 the pages are more orange-ish colored. Version #C3‘s pages are tan colored. IA also has Version #C4, a more recent copy from 1902. And Librivox has an audio version read by David Wales with a run time of eight and a half hours. Internet Archive also has the book Pirates by Charles Johnson published in 1922 in two versions. Version #D1 can be read online or downloaded while Version #D2 can only be downloaded. Pirates by Charles Johnson can also be read online or downloaded at Project Gutenberg.

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