Last month, during that holiday that ended in “Ween,” I talked a lot about Christopher Lee becoming one of Hammer Films’ two biggest stars, along with Peter Cushing, and his work for the British studio in the ’50s through the ’70s. He unquestionably made some of the best horror movies in Hammer’s canon, but the studio didn’t just make horror, not by a long shot.
In fact, they made all kinds of movies, from sci-fi, to broad comedy, to adventure films. They even made a couple of swashbuckling pirate yarns, the first of which was the 1962 extravaganza, The Pirates of Blood River.
The thing about Hammer Films is that they had to make due with what they had, budget-wise, and so, co-President Michael Carreras decreed that a pirate movie needed to be made to capitalize on the desire for adventure movies. But they had no money to build a ship…so, these pirates were land-based. Hammer go-to writer Jimmy Sangster came up with a story where the pirates were looking for treasure on the Isle of Wight. Director John Gilling, with whom Lee apparently did NOT get along, co-wrote the shooting script along with John Hunter and they were off to the races, casting 7th Voyage of Sinbad actor Kerwin Mathews as the film’s hero.
The film begins with a village of Huguenots on the English Isle of Wight. Huguenots, if you don’t know, were a Protestant sect stemming from Calvinism that were particularly puritanical. Our hero, Jonathan Standing (Mathews) is in love with a woman who is married to a much older, brutish community leader. One day, their affair is discovered by the elders, including Jonathan’s father Jason (Andrew Keir). As the girl runs away into the river, she is eaten by piranhas. Jonathan is convicted of breaking the laws of their community, and he is sent to a prison colony.
Naturally, Jonathan isn’t happy about being forced into prison servitude, and he tries to escape a few times. Luckily/unluckily for him, a band of pirates arrive, trudging through the rivers and over the hills, in search of a treasure they hear is buried there. The leader of these knaves is Captain LaRoche (Lee), a ruthless French seafarer with an eye patch. He’s joined by many others, but chiefly his first mate Hench (Peter Arne), the young and impetuous Brocaire (Oliver Reed), and the loud and fiercely loyal Mack (Michael Ripper). They save Jonathan hoping he will lead them back to his village, where the treasure is said to be.
The pirates take over the town, hold many captive, and even kill a few of the elders in an attempt to get Jason to disclose the whereabouts of the treasure, which he maintains doesn’t exist. However, the treasure DOES exist, and Jonathan pleads with his father to hand it over to the pirates so that they’ll leave. The pious man says he would never betray his people or his sacred oath, the way his son so brazenly did. Meanwhile, Jason’s silence leads to bad, bad stuff, including a fight to the death between Hench and Brocaire over the right to “take” Jonathan’s sister. But, Jonathan and his best friend Henry (Glenn Corbett) have to stop these pirates before the entire village is destroyed.
What I like about this movie is that you never actually feel the absence of a ship. Pirates raped and pillaged and marauded all the time (we’re told in movies), and they don’t need to be on a ship to do it. This is a great example of Hammer making the most of what they had, which were costumes and swords and village sets. It looks very much like the bulk of Hammer’s output of the era, but without vampires or Gothic vistas. The film quality definitely feels brighter and more heroic. There are some excellent sequences, including a cool blindfolded sword fight between Hench and Brocaire that is a great set piece toward the end of act two.
There is some weirdness to the film, most of it having to do with cuts and the British Board of Film Censors. Initially, this was going to be an X-certificate movie, with no one under 16 admitted. But, Hammer knew they wanted to appeal to the younger boys, so they asked what was needed to get an A-certificate, meaning children accompanied by an adult could go. Later, a distributor told them if they could get a U-certificate, which was for any age, with or without adults, they could go on a double bill with a movie called Mysterious Island. Hammer cut things further, getting rid of most of the explicit violence and perceived sexual abuse, and making some of the fight scenes, a scene of men hanging, and the piranha attacks all but indecipherable. Even with those, there’s a lot more action and danger in this movie than pretty much any all-audiences movie ever made.
While not as indelible as Hammer’s horror output, The Pirates of Blood River still has most of the hallmarks of their cinema, being able to entertain while pushing envelopes. Lee is electric as LaRoche and conducts himself with an air of menace and sophistication which he did so well. Even if Kerwin Mathews and his broad American accent is unbelievable as a 15th Century English Huguenot, he does the action wonderfully, and the sword fight between Mathews and Lee at the film’s climax is one of the best of the era. Check this movie out if you get the chance.
Images: Hammer Films
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!