“An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.” — Agatha Christie
In 1699, William Kidd (Charles Laughton), a ruthless pirate who has recently captured the ship The Twelve Apostles and killed its crew, presents himself at the court of William III of England (Henry Daniell) as an honest shipmaster seeking royal backing. With this backing, he recruits a crew from the inmates of Newgate and Marshalsea prisons, promising them a royal pardon at the end of their voyage. Among the new recruits is the quarrelsome, though cultured Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), whom Kidd makes his new master gunner because of his claimed prior service with a famous pirate.
The king sends Kidd to the waters near Madagascar to rendezvous with the ship Quedagh Merchant and provide an escort back to England. The Quedagh Merchant carries Lord Fallsworth (an uncredited Lumsden Hare), the king’s ambassador to the Grand Mughal, his daughter Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton), and a chest of treasure – a present from the Indian potentate to King William.
Kidd’s murderous plan quickly unfolds. His story about a pirate he fought recently in the waters nearby persuades Lord Fallsworth to switch ships with his daughter and the precious cargo. Meanwhile, Kidd’s confederate Jose Lorenzo (Gilbert Roland) lights a candle in the ship’s Magazine (artillery). Just as the transfer takes place, the Quedagh Merchant blows up. Kidd also arranges a fatal “accident” for Lord Fallsworth, leaving only a frightened Lady Anne.
She turns to the only man she thinks she can trust, Shadwell (Reginald Owen), Kidd’s servant. When she mentions in passing the recent battle with pirates, the honest Shadwell tells her it never happened. He advises the woman to put her faith in Adam Mercy.
On the voyage home, Kidd schemes to rid himself of his three close associates (to avoid sharing the booty) and Mercy, whom he rightly suspects. Mercy is really the vengeance-seeking son of Lord Blayne, the unfortunate captain of The Twelve Apostles. When a smitten Lorenzo tries to force himself on Lady Anne, Kidd is delighted when Mercy engages him in a sword fight. Lorenzo is driven overboard to drown. However, during the fight, Mercy’s medallion is torn from his neck. Kidd finds it and recognizes the Blayne family Crest (heraldry).
Kidd drops anchor at a lagoon. He, Orange Povey (John Carradine), his only surviving confederate (he had the foresight to prepare an incriminating letter to be sent if he should die), and Mercy go ashore and dig up a chest. When Mercy realizes it is the loot from The Twelve Apostles, with the Blayne crest, a fight breaks out. Outnumbered, Mercy is knocked unconscious, falls into the water, and does not resurface. However, he is not dead. He swims secretly back to the ship. Mercy and a loyal crewman row Lady Anne away in a longboat, but are spotted. Despite Shadwell’s heroic, if fatal, attempt to interfere, the boat is blown up.
Believing himself safe, Kidd appears before King William with his treasure and claims his reward (an aristocratic title and an estate). However, Mercy and Lady Anne have survived and preceded him to court. The king’s men have found the booty looted from The Twelve Apostles after searching Kidd’s cabin. Kidd is tried, condemned, and hanged.
The film contains much historically incorrect material, including a London scene showing Tower Bridge – two hundred years before it was built. Kidd’s London prisoner crew was removed before it sailed from England and Kidd was forced to find a new crew in New York City. Kidd returned to New York, not to London.
- Charles Laughton as Capt. William Kidd
- Randolph Scott as Adam Mercy
- Barbara Britton as Lady Anne Dunstan
- John Carradine as Orange Povey
- Gilbert Roland as Jose Lorenzo
- John Qualen as Bart Blivens
- Sheldon Leonard as Cyprian Boyle
- William Farnum as Capt. Rawson
- Henry Daniell as King William III
- Reginald Owen as Cary Shadwell
- Abner Biberman as Theodore Blades
- Clifford Brooke
- Harry Cording as Newgate Prison Warder
- James Dime as Pirate
- Lumsden Hare as Lord Fallsworth
- Al Hill (actor) as Peter Sharfstone
- Keith Hitchcock
- Frank Mills (British actor) as Ship’s Sailor Waiter
- Edgar Norton as Nobleman with King William III
- Reginald Sheffield as Captain of the King’s Guard
- Ray Teal as Michael O’Shawn
- Eric Wilton as Nobleman with King William III
- Frederick Worlock as Newgate Prison Governor Landers
In one scene, while Kidd and his officers are at dinner, Kidd says that Adam Mercy, as the youngest man present, has the duty of proposing the King’s health. In reality, Randolph Scott was the oldest actor at the table, the others being Charles Laughton, John Carradine, Gilbert Roland and Sheldon Leonard.
This film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score.