Rafael Sabatini

Biography

Rafael Sabatini is seldom mentioned in the 21st century -- indeed, he was seldom mentioned in popular culture during the final years of the 20th century, apart from a jocular reference in the prelude to the Michael Palin/Saturday Night Live sketch "The Adventures of Miles Copperthwaite." But during the first half of the 20th century, from the teens until the '40s, his books sold by the millions around the world, and movie studios lined up to bid on the film rights to his historical adventure stories. Sabatini was born to an Italian father, Maestro-Cavaliere Vincenzo Sabatini, and an English mother, the former Anna Trafford, in 1875. He was born and raised in Jesi, which was then a small city with a medieval cathedral and ruins; it seems to have sparked his early interest in history. As a boy, he became fixated on history above and beyond the study of any other subject. He learned English from his mother and attended the École Cantonale in Zoug, Switzerland, and the Lycée of Oporto, Portugal, and in the process learned the language fluently. He read voraciously on anything to do with the past and the people in it; he had a special interest as a boy in the life of the Borgias, which wasn't surprising as the Adriatic village where he was born and spent his early life was closely associated with Cesare Borgia. Apart from a vast (and ever increasing) knowledge of history -- and not just of Europe, but also of the Americas -- his other major learning success was in languages, and it was his multilingual skills, coupled with the fact that his mother's family lived near the port city of Liverpool, that got the teenaged Sabatini sent to England, and he subsequently devoted himself to storytelling in English.

Not coincidentally, he also became enamored with England's countryside and spent much of his adult life enjoying the beauty of rural England and Wales. He came of age in the 1890's amid the new flowering of interest in the adventure novel -- fostered by the popularity of works such as The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope -- and the tail-end of the heyday of the historical novel. He began writing in his twenties, initially composing short stories for his pleasure. It was only at the suggestion of someone else that Sabatini was persuaded to think his work might be worth publishing. From a modest beginning in local publications, he began an international career. By the turn of the century he was being read in London, and that was soon followed by an overture from a publisher about authoring a full-length novel -- the result, in 1904, was his first book, The Tavern Knight, which was a success. His second, Bardelys the Magnificent, appeared in 1906, and his third, The Trampling of the Lilies, the same year. With that, Sabatini began a prolific string of writing, not all of it immensely popular but cultivating an audience that grew slowly over time. His first history, The Life of Cesare Borgia, was published in 1912 as well, and three years later came Toquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. That same year, he published The Sea Hawk (1915), a story of adventure in Elizabethan times, which became a major hit and seemed to indicate a commercial breakthrough to a new level of readership. It was around this same period that Sabatini was forced to take British citizenship, in order to avoid being forced into the Italian army. He also went into the service of the British government, in intelligence work, as a translator. He resumed writing fiction after the war but seemed to lose his momentum when a half-dozen publishers rejected his new novel, Scaramouche. It was finally published in 1921 and became a bestseller first in the United States, where audiences flocked to its escapist setting in pre-Revolutionary France, and its story of vengeance and honor redeemed then became an international hit.

A year later came Captain Blood, about an English gentleman forced into the life of a pirate, which was an even bigger success -- suddenly, he was among the biggest selling authors in the world, and he was a celebrity in his own right. As early as 1916, Sabatini's work was being adapted for the big screen with The Blackmailer, based on one of his stories; a film version of The Tavern Knight appeared in 1920, and Scaramouche appearing in 1923, starring Lewis Stone (who would also appear in the 1952 color remake). There were silent versions of The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood as well, and Bardelys the Magnificent in 1926, and then there was nothing for nine years -- not only no screen adaptations, but no new books. He'd reached a point of exhaustion, which forced him to take a rest from writing, and the tragic death of his son in a car accident only extended this hiatus; his ensuing divorce from his wife four years later caused the break in his work to go well into the next decade. He spent much of his time at his favorite hobby, fishing, and resumed writing initially for his own pleasure and personal enjoyment. As a backdrop to his private struggle to recover his life, the advent of the Great Depression caused a drop in his popularity, as the reality of the social upheaval intruded upon the escapism of his books. By the mid-'30s, however, he'd remarried (to his former sister-in-law) and resumed writing for publication, and interest in his old books was rising again, heralded by Warner Bros.' grand new production of Captain Blood (1935), built around a new star named Errol Flynn and featuring some of the highest production values of its era. None of Sabatini's '30s books, which included sequels to Scaramouche and Captain Blood and the pirate tale The Black Swan, sold as well as they did in his twenties, but all more than paid their way at the time. Warner Bros. did a 1940 version of The Sea Hawk starring Flynn, which was a glorious production (albeit in black-and-white) and perhaps the best of the studio's swashbucklers, though it had little to do with the book beyond its title and the period in which it was set. And 20th Century Fox closed the book on major movie versions of the author's work in 1942 with The Black Swan, shot in Technicolor and starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara.

Sabatini's health declined during the 1940's, and by the end of the decade, he was fighting a losing battle against cancer. The author passed away in 1950, the same year that a modestly budgeted film version of Fortunes of Captain Blood was released by Columbia Pictures. In 1962, Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn's son, starred in Son of Captain Blood, based on Sabatini's work. Most of the screen adaptations of his books since his death have been produced in Europe, primarily in Italy and Spain. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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