The real William Kidd was hanged for piracy in 1701, but there is still debate about the extent of his crimes on the high seas, and whether or not he should even be considered a pirate, as opposed to a privateer; someone employed by a nation to attack foreign shipping during time of war. But no matter how unjust his execution might have been, the name “Captain Kidd” and rumors of his buried treasure have passed into pirate legend along with names like Blackbeard and Calico Jack.
The film’s prologue shows the “ruthless” (according to the narrator) Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) and his pirate crew reduce the English galleon The Twelve Apostles to a smoking ruin near Madagascar and sneak off to a cove to bury their booty before high tide. His band of cutthroats includes B-movie stalwarts John Carradine and Gilbert Roland (playing characters named Orange Povey and José Lorenzo, respectively). When there is a dispute over the spoils, Kidd shoots one of his crew and buries him with the treasure. The impromptu eulogy he says over the grave is a masterpiece of irony.
The action moves forward to London, 1699. Kidd is receiving instructions on how to be a gentleman from a man named Shadwell (Reginald Owen), such as “A gentleman never sucks his teeth” and “A gentleman never pays his domestics high wages.” Kidd’s lust for gold is clearly matched by his lust for power. When he is granted an audience with King William III (Henry Daniell), he convinces the king that he is the right man to sail to India and give a treasure-laden ship called the Quedagh Merchant safe passage through the pirate-infested waters of Madagascar. In exchange he wants a castle and the title of a lord.
William III in this movie is pretty easily manipulated, because he also agrees to Kidd’s insane demand that he be given a crew of condemned pirates. Kidd claims the irreedeemable brigands will be loyal as long as they know a royal pardon awaits them at the completion of a successful mission. Along with some of his old mates from Newgate Prison, Kidd frees a wild card; a tall, well-spoken man named Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), who was the master gunner to another pirate, Captain Avery. Mercy’s motives are mysterious, but it should come as no surprise to the audience when the stalwart and handsome Scott steps into the role of protagonist.
Scott is best known for his many roles in westerns. His physical appearance and his acting style were the Platonic ideal of a western hero, but he makes a decent swashbuckler, too. Scott doesn’t try too hard to hide his American accent in this movie, but he has a patrician bearing that makes up for it, and the scene in which he locks swords with Roland (who went on to play the Cisco Kid in a number of pictures) is exciting and masterfully directed. And the fact that he does it to protect Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton) from Roland’s unwanted advances should delight people who like to read into a scene’s Freudian undertones. (Scott and Roland are the two most virile men on the ship, and as they sword fight, the camera keeps cutting back to Britton, who gasps at each clash of steel on steel.)
Laughton and Scott were the same age, but they might as well have been from different species. While Scott was heroic and laconic, Laughton was a grotesque, blubbery-lipped character actor, and much of the pleasure in watching this film comes from his fantastic performance. No one else can deliver a line like, “Of all the slummocky blackguards!” and sound genuinely appalled while at the same time disgusting the viewer with his own loathsomeness.