Can a pirate be a substitute monster? Hammer Films gives yet another genre a spin with this box-office winner that launched a sideline in costume adventures. The Hammer crew makes it work: Christopher Lee, Marla Landi, Marie Devereaux, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed and Andrew Keir, plus yank assistance from Kerwin Mathews and Glenn Corbett.
The Pirates of Blood River
1962 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date October 17, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Glenn Corbett, Marla Landi, Michael Ripper, Peter Arne, Oliver Reed, Marie Devereux.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Film Editor: Eric Boyd-Perkins
Original Music: Gary Hughes
Written by John Hunter, John Gilling, Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Nelson-Keys
Directed by John Gilling
Hammer Films didn’t start out as a horror studio, but after their big Technicolor successes in 1957-’58 they soon found themselves in a rut. Their non- horror films often included a horror element — torture and mass murder. But they tried almost everything, including war films, rather racist pulp tales set in China and India, and their own spin on Robin Hood. Their best effort in this pattern was their horror-inflected Sherlock Holmes movie, which was so good that it seems a pity it didn’t become a series.
In 1961 Hammer engaged Peter Cushing to play a piratical ship-wrecker in a Dr. Syn movie, and let Christopher Lee try on a fancy French pirate for size. Hammer made plenty of films in anamorphic ‘scope but rarely in both ‘cope and color. It’s clear that they had high hopes for their Columbia co-production The Pirates of Blood River. The lively action picture seeks to create an exotic tropical adventure . . . on the same English locations as the rest of their pictures. Hammer had made a successful POW atrocity thriller called The Camp on Blood Island, so perhaps they thought ‘Blood’ in the title was the way to go.
Director John Gilling partly rewrote the shooting script, which plunks its pirates into an unorthodox time and setting. I’m not sure that many viewers had any idea that the story has a place in historical reality. The island of Devon hides a secret colony of Huguenots, that’s undergoing a fundamentalist social crackdown. Young Jonathon Standing (Kerwin Mathews) is sent to a penal colony for his adulterous affair with the young wife of a Huguenot alderman. His own father (Andrew Keir) sets the harsh sentence. Picked up by Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee) and his scurvy pack of pirates, Jonathon makes a bad bargain and delivers his community into LaRoche’s hands. The eccentric LaRoche gets the notion that the settlers are sitting on a secret treasure, and can’t be convinced otherwise. But Jonathon’s best friend Henry (Glenn Corbett) knows that there is a treasure — Jonathan’s father has been keeping the secret to himself.
This 1962 release will attract Hammer fans looking to spot favorite actors. Christopher Lee already had genuine swashbuckling credentials, albeit in small roles opposite Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster. Here he’s the film’s showcase villain, a cultured French pirate clad completely in black, eye patch included. Multi-lingual Lee pulls off an odd French accent, which seem odder in that he’s the only one doing so, even though most of the other characters are supposed to be French as well. The actor was surely delighted — it’s a real role with real dialogue. Captain LeRoche is a favorite of Lee fans; he’s sort of a precursor to Lee’s marvelous villain Rochefort in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers. The character’s name in the original Jimmy Sangster script was reportedly ‘Captain Doom.’
The Columbia connection provides handsome but unexciting Americans leads in Glenn Corbett and Kerwin Mathews. As neither was burning up the U.S. box office, you’d have to think that a trip to Hammer was banishment to the Bush Leagues. Mathews plays the role straight and comes off reasonably well — he does have some screen presence, and kids surely still loved him from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, released four years earlier.
This was the golden age of Hammer ‘babes.’ The front office brass seemed to treat their exotic discoveries as house properties, like The Bond Girls. An essential part of every publicity package was a full range of glamour and girlie photography. Marie Devereaux is a Huguenot maid who comes to a thankless bad end practically in the first scene, not making the same impression that she did in The Stranglers of Bombay or even The Brides of Dracula. This leaves the field of romance open for the pout-chinned Marla Landi of The Hound of the Baskervilles, who plays the hero’s sister. This time out Ms. Deveraux and Landi’s fairly modest dresses still seem inappropriate for a religious sect described as ‘French Calvinists’ — they don’t have high collars. But those lusty pirates are appreciative.
When Jimmy Sangster was asked to write the screenplay, his first thought was that the subject matter was out of Hammer’s price range — pirate movies need big shipboard sets and elaborate miniature ship models. Like a western without horses or an aviation picture without airplanes, Blood River does without. Chris Lee’s pirate entourage never sails the high seas. The only pirate ship is seen in one matte painting.
The Huguenots have fled persecution in France, and we have to deduce for ourselves that the setting must be somewhere in South America: French Guiana? All the action we see takes place in familiar Hammer locales like Black Park. English filmmakers often succeeded in making local place stand in for foreign lands. The earlier non-Hammer war movie A Town Like Alice augmented its distant locations with supposed swamp scenes taken in a tiny bit of English real estate that could pass as tropical, with the cast wading through clammy-cold water pretending they are in sweltering heat. But that was in B&W, which disguised some of the foliage. The Blood River pirates creep through beautiful forests that just don’t convince as tropical. In most shots a wilted palm frond or two are plunked down in front of the camera lens to try to suggest a Caribbean atmosphere.
To be kind, by 1962 we were very tired of seeing the same four locations repeated in Hammer Films, especially the massive gravel pit or disused excavation that’s the Hammer equivalent of Hollywood’s Bronson Caverns. It gives the camera a clear horizon but is otherwise lacking in visual character. Whether in The Stranglers of Bombay or The Curse of the Werewolf, the site has all the interest of slagheap. For shots to establish the Huguenot settlement Hammer’s art director built an entire village in miniature, an effect that initially looks good but quickly reveals its desperation. The setters chose to build in a vast, dry hole in the ground? This is right next door to what is supposed to be a vast swamp filled with fresh-water piranha. In terms of topography, what with water tables and all, this is geographically ‘interesting.’
Chris Lee’s crew is given plenty of inconsequential tough dialogue, and Hammer’s eager character actors have a fine time doing Cockney variations on the Robert Newton gold standard for pirate eccentricity. Hammer contract player Oliver Reed gets major attention, as does the always-dependable Michael Ripper. Director Gilling doesn’t seem as interested in the hardworking Huguenots, which come off a bit like Hammer’s Transylvanian peasants, minus a sense of humor. Look closely and you’ll spot 007’s “Q” Desmond Llewellyn as one devout townsman.
We go to pirate pictures for grinning heroes, stylish sword fights and sweeping spectacle. Blood River is essentially a suspense piece, and the action boils down to a series of tame confrontations. The horror touches are limited too: when piranha chow down on a couple of victims, some Mack the Knife-style ‘scarlet billows’ are fairly effective. Some sources say the shots were censored in England, but all we see are bubbles in water.
Chris Lee’s pirates work so hard for their prize we almost think they deserve it, but the screenplay has other ideas. The personal issues are just okay, as John Gilling can’t make the plight of Jonathon and his friends seem all that special. What are they going to do when they win, say ‘hooray’ and settle back into fundamentalist isolation? Meanwhile, we’re wondering where these persecuted Protestants would get so much gold in the first place, and how just six men can carry such a weight. Do the settlers plan to return to France – the gold can’t buy them anything on the Isle of Devon.
In England The Pirates of Blood River became a moderate hit double-billed with Mysterious Island. Perhaps not having an adults-only rating made it more accessible. In America it popped up for several years as a perennial co-feature. The color-scope-pirates connection must have felt good to exhibitors. Chris Lee wasn’t a draw when playing anything but Dracula — if anybody got billing, it was the American actor Kerwin Mathews.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Pirates of Blood River is an excellent encoding of this ‘Megascope’ production, with beautiful color values. John Gilling stages many scenes wide, so the added resolution brings out the beauty of the wooded locations — maybe this show earned its many play dates because it looked so good on the big screen.
Composer Gary Hughes did music for five Hammer adventure pictures. His work is given a separate track, albeit combined with the film’s sound effects. That means that some clever wit with an editing setup and sound studio can write, dub and mix his own comedy version, ‘What’s Up Blood River?’ Repeated from an older (2008) Sony DVD is a commentary track with Hammer authority Marcus Hearn (the source for some of my facts above) discussing the picture with Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes begin with the disclaimer that she’s not a Hammer expert, which is unnecessary. Her observations are perfectly valid, entertaining, and refreshingly non-academic.
Disneyland’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ attraction was only in the planning stages at this time, opening in 1967, so the CPC (Collective Pirate Consciousness) was still stuck in Errol Flynn mode, and later ‘ARRRHH’ Robert Newton impressions. Hammer reserved some of its least classy artwork for its adventure-swashbuckler output. I’ll bet that Chris Lee would approve of the disc cover with his image. It sure beats some of the other promotional art, especially the amateurish pirate-carries-off-maiden key image on the American poster. Yo-Ho-Gimme a break!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Pirates of Blood River Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, audio commentary with Jimmy Sangster, Don Mingaye and Marcus Hearn, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 1, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson