Films to Love: Buccaneers and the Noble Savage

 

It might seem like an odd combination to put the spirit of the buccaneer in conjunction with that of the noble savage. Where one is an adventurer, almost recklessly so, who has little compunction for the long arm of the law, the other is an emblem of the intuitive goodness of mankind found in the uncivilized man. One thumbs his nose at society, the other is completely free of its strictures. However, in thinking about the male lead in Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series, I can only conclude that he is a unique melding of the two.

Stoker, short for Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, is a man of many facets. He’s a naval surgeon, a natural scientist, a taxidermist, a scholar, a poet (or at least avid reciter of poetry- Keats in particular), a nobleman’s son, and an outlier. But, above all, whether in the jungles of South America, the sooty streets of London, or the regal dining halls of Cornish castles, Stoker is a man of action.

Sometimes it’s difficult to convey the complexity of a character without giving away too much of the storyline. I don’t wish to spoil your fun as you read A Dangerous Collaboration or any of the other Veronica Speedwell books, so I’ve enlisted the help of characters from elsewhere, each who embody an aspect of Stoker’s nature.

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What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar - and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules. And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?
— Epictetus, The Discourses

Not only is Mutiny on the Bounty a film, it is one that is based upon actual events. On April 28th 1789, a majority of the naval officers and crew mutinied aboard the HMS Bounty against Captain Bligh. While historians can quibble as to the accuracy of facts recounted - Was Captain Blythe truly the cruel taskmaster recorded? Was Fletcher Christian a benevolent champion for the down trodden or merely an insubordinate officer? - the tales surrounding the mutiny have gained their own life. By the time it was made into a movie in 1935, it was largely held that Captain Bligh was a cruel tyrant who deserved the treatment he received at the hands of the ship’s first officer. Lt. Christian Fletcher was considered a hero, for though he is guilty of mutiny, he stood for something that transcends any written law; he stood for common decency among men regardless of rank or privilege.

Christian Fletcher is like Stoker in that he is entirely circumspect. He understands that his actions will forever make his name synonymous with mutiny. His heart does not betray the country which he serves, nor does he spit on the principles with which he was raised. He is man of integrity, but his honor runs deeper than the mere following of orders. Rather than remain silent in the face of barbarous treatment of the men under his command, some who were pressed into service, who hold their tongues and accept the sadistic punishments of their captain, Christian upholds righteousness. Stoker would do the same. Regardless of how history might record his actions, Stoker would act according to the dictates of his moral compass, even if it meant being disgraced, shamed, or even executed. His moral compass is tuned to the righteousness of True North, and he will not compromise that course.

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The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limps; his is also a demure, almost maidenlike, guest in a hall, a gently, modest, unobtrusive man. He is no compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth. The man who combines both characters- the knight- is not a work of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas and marble, for its medium.
— C.S. Lewis

The title of this film is quite blood curdling, don’t you think? However, while you might be thinking that this buccaneer tale is about a man who assumed the sanguine name, it is not. The main character- played dashingly by the devastatingly handsome Errol Flynn- is named Peter Blood. The story begins in 1685 England amidst the tumult of the Pitchfork Rebellion. Peter Blood is a doctor, one who has seen his fair share of adventure having served in numerous wars on the continent over the last six years. He’s given up his pugnacious ways and has avowed himself to doctoring and upholding the Hippocratic Oath, doing no harm and the like. When he is beseeched to aid a fellow human being in need of his medical expertise, he does so without fear of recrimination because he believes in the nobler virtues of his homeland. However, the powers that be betray that trust, and he’s arrested, convicted of treason, and sent to the West Indies where he is then sold into slavery. Though sold to a vile English task master, Blood’s skills make way for him to be personal physician to the governor of Jamaica. And while he does enjoy the benefits of such a connection, the heart of a free man beats in his breast and he, with his fellow Englishmen, plan their escape, procuring a ship in the harbor of Port Royal that will carry them to freedom. Unfortunately, that escape is thwarted by the invasion of Port Royal by the Spaniards. In the melee, the slaves, led by Blood, commandeer the Spanish vessel and liberate Port Royal from Spanish control. One would think such service to the crown would earn them their freedom, but that is most certainly not the case. Seizing the day, Blood absconds into the wild blue yonder with his men. Though a man of deep integrity and honor, he is forced into the life of a buccaneer. It’s not all bad, of course, as Blood relishes the adventures he has, but he yearns to have his sullied name cleared. Oh, and as it’s Errol Flynn, there’s one little caveat more: he’s left a woman who stirs his blood back in Port Royal, and he would love nothing more than to return- vindicated and cleared- to marry her.

It’s impossible for me to watch this movie and not think of Stoker. After likening him to Fletcher Christian, it would be easy to consider him to be a sober minded individual who ponders the evils of the world and considers them his personal cross to bear. However, Stoker is a well-rounded man, capable of cutting a dashing figure in a governor’s mansion and then rolling up his shirt sleeves to fight alongside his comrades in a rebellion. And, he is also adept at flirtation, and one can only assume, much, much more. The foundation of Captain Blood is a heart rooted in the quest for justice, but tempering that lofty, worthy quest are all the things that add richness of flavor to life- laughter, merriment, and love.

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Cities make ferocious men because they make corrupt men. The mountains, the sea, the forest, make savage men; they develop the fierce side, but often without destroying the humane side.
— Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Just when you think he’s shirked off the bonds of society and embraced his barbaric yawlp, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane turns up in the poshest tux and tails, fit to dine with the Queen herself. Yet, lurking beneath the sophisticated façade is a bit of the noble savage. There is something fine, almost pure, in Stoker, though many would overlook it because of the rugged façade under which it is hidden. He possesses an ineffable understanding of the dignity of mankind and will not stomach unwarranted degradation and cruelty. This, of course, comes from the personal experiences he collected throughout his childhood and youth.

In this way, Stoker is very much like Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans. Unfolding in 1757 during the French and Indian Wars in the Hudson River Valley, The Last of the Mohicans explores an element of the noble savage. Hawkeye is the adopted son of Mohican chief Chingachgook, who found him in tender infancy orphaned and friendless and has raised him as his own. His English is superb, as is Chingachgook’s blood son’s, Uncas, because Chingachgook has sent them to Reverend Wheelock’s school to learn. Both Hawkeye and Uncas are a breed apart. Europeans would have the settlers believe that the Indian nations filled with nothing by heathen, blood thirsty savages. Yet, when Cora and Alice Munro- daughters to an English colonel and traveling from Albany to join their father- meet them when Chingachgook and his sons rescues them from an ambush, they quickly learn that these savages are anything but barbarians. They are attune to the rhythm of nature, aware of their surroundings in an almost spiritual way. They are able to discern the way of things because they are humble enough to listen to nature and the living things around them. And because they possess this purity of spirit, this reverence for life all around them, they are attentive to the human condition. They understand on a visceral level the quality of mercy and they hold no quarter for those who abuse the innocents of the world. Certainly, they do not shy away from violence, but they are not violent men by nature, only when they are called upon to defend those virtues worthy of protecting.

But, Stoker is akin to Hawkeye in another way. Throughout the film, Hawkeye develops a deep passion for Cora Munro. At all times, he is honest with himself about this burgeoning love. When asked about it, he admits to it freely. He’s forthright with himself and Cora. That honest passion is almost overwhelming. Stoker has this self-possession, instantly making him a swoon-worthy male lead.

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He really is Aquaman. Except he’s not an actor playing a role.
— Meghan March, Deal with the Devil

Now, this is a bit of a departure, but I have to include DC’s newly released Aquaman. Why? Well, because one part of A Dangerous Collaboration melded Revelstoke Templeton Vane with Arthur Curry so spectacularly, that I need to bring it up. While I had never given much thought to what actor I would cast as Stoker, after this latest installment, I see him looking quite like Jason Momoa. Certainly there are aspects of his physical appearance that don’t line up, but the physicality of Stoker in these particular scenes is undeniably Momoa… and you’ll just have to read the book to understand what I mean.

You can have that chance because Whiskers’ Springtime Giveaway is a signed copy of Veronica and Stoker’s latest adventure: A Dangerous Collaboration. Click the link below to find out more.