“China Seas” was the original “Die Hard”, a true classic adventure film from the Golden Age of movies. Adapted from a 300 page novel by Crosbie Garstin, it’s a story of modern day Pirates that attack a cruise ship in search of a hidden treasure being guarded by the tough as nails English Captain Alan Gaskell, wonderfully played by Clark Gable.
…Wait, what? The all-American Clark Gable as an English ship Captain?(Oh, I know, he played Fletcher Christian but STILL…) Don’t misunderstand me, “China Seas” is one of my favorite Clark Gable films. An all-star cast that sees him at his peak while playing opposite the likes of Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Rosalind Russell, C. Aubrey Smith and Hattie McDaniel. It’s just that this adventure film easily could have been (Nay, SHOULD have been!) a movie that starred Errol Flynn. Imagine Errol Flynn as a modern-day hard drinking, womanizing, heroic Captain of a ship who romances two leading ladies while also fighting Pirates with a machine gun and you start to see my point.
It’s a wonderfully entertaining film and incredibly influential if you factor in the numerous parallels with the later “Die Hard” blockbuster. (Like Bruce Willis, Gable’s Captain Alan Gaskell has to fight Pirates while also dealing with a horrific foot injury.) But it also highlights the fact that Clark Gable and Errol Flynn often seemed to play roles that could have been written for one another.(Robin Hood being a notable exception.) And certainly, Errol was part of the Rhett Butler casting triangle that pitted him against Gary Cooper and Clark Gable for the lead role in “Gone With The Wind”, a part Flynn had campaigned for and Gable had shunned. The truth is Rhett Butler was Gable’s best-suited role as much as Robin Hood had been Flynn’s.
But despite Gable’s masterful movie star turn as Captain Alan Gaskell, there’s no escaping that the role was clearly written for an Englishman, with numerous references that scream for an English accent to back up the character’s yearning to return there. Throw in a modern day pirate story and it all adds up to Clark Gable playing the Errol Flynn role. This is a role that Flynn might have elevated if Warner’s had purchased the book instead of MGM. Of course, Gable and Jean Harlow were a tremendous screen team and this is one of their best. But Errol Flynn as the cultured Englishman being pursued and fought over by the equally cultured Rosalind Russell and the crass but feisty Jean Harlow? To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, that’s the stuff that movie dreams are made of.