THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER
THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES
Icons of Adventure Collection
U.K. | 1962, 1964
Directors:
John Gilling, Don Sharp
Starring
Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir
Michael Ripper, Kerwin Mathews
Glenn Corbett, John Cairney
Color
| Not Rated
BLOOD RIVER: 87 Min.
DEVIL-SHIP: 86 Min.
Format: DVD(R1 - NTSC | 2-disc set)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
6
    9   10 = Highest Rating  
Two films from the Icons of Adventure Collection
Movie Rating applies to both films

DVD Rating is for entire 2-disc
/4-film set
Much to the delight of fans, Sony which controls the Columbia film catalog recently released a topnotch double-disc collection of non-horror Hammer titles, all from the early 1960s, under the banner Icons of Adventure. Of the quartet of movies included in this set, three star genre titan Christopher Lee; in two of these he portrays the villainous skipper of a bloodthirsty pirate crew. (Was there really any other kind?) It's interesting to note that, in either one of these pirate films, Lee is given more to do, and has significantly more dialog, than all his turns as Dracula for Hammer combined.
    While this review is chiefly concerned with the set's pirate flicks, we hope to someday cover the remaining titles in the Icons set, which are certainly not without interest: 1960's The Stranglers of Bombay (set in colonial India, directed by Terence Fisher) and The Terror of The Tongs (1961), in which Lee played a Chinese crime lord four years prior to appearing as Asian supervillain Fu Manchu in Harry Alan Towers' series of pulp adventures.
    It may seem odd to set a pirate movie entirely on land, but such is the case with 1962's The Pirates of Blood River. This was mainly for budgetary reasons, but it should be noted that not all the exploits of history's fabled buccaneers took place on the Bounding Main. (One need only consider Capt. Henry Morgan's 1670-71 assault on Panama, which involved extensive marching and battles fought inland.) Filming on water is notoriously difficult, as well being expensive to fake, so Jimmy Sangster's story co-scripted by John Hunter and director John Gilling completely dispenses with any maritime activities. Indeed, the pirate ship is seen only via stock footage during the opening credits, then later briefly glimpsed as a matte effect in the background.
    Sometime in the late 1600s, apparently somewhere in the proximity of South America, there exists a small settlement of European refugees on a remote island. (The film's time frame and geography are intentionally rather vague.) Protestant fundamentalists, the settlers left Europe a century earlier to escape religious persecution and have remained unmolested ever since. That all changes when the village elders engage in some persecution of their own... Handsome Jonathan Standing (American actor Kerwin Mathews) is caught red-handed in an affair with the buxom young wife of a prominent citizen. The woman is accidentally killed while fleeing arrest; in a panic she wades into a river teeming with deadly piranha. (The "Blood River" of the title, I suppose. It's ridiculous nowadays to think that the film ran into trouble with British censors over this scene of mild, PG-level gore.) Jonathan is seized and hauled before a tribunal of elders. One of those sitting in judgment is his own father (Andrew Keir), whose religious piety blinds him to common sense and fairness.
    With most of the community sympathetic to Jonathan's plight, the tribunal decides to be lenient instead of being put to death (for adultery!) he is sentenced to 15 years hard labor in the island's penal camp. After enduring the brutality of the camp guards for a time, our hero makes a desperate bid to escape. He has barely reached safety in the surrounding swamp when he runs smack dab into a shore party of menacing pirates. Their leader, Capt. LaRoche (Lee, rakish in an all-black ensemble complete with matching eyepatch and do-rag, affecting a convincing French accent), plans to march across the island in search of the main settlement. His stated goal is to use the isle as a secret base of operations. Jonathan offers to guide LaRoche to the settlement on condition he restrain his crew of scalawags from raping and plundering. Keen to overthrow the oppressive elders, Jonathan pledges to grant LaRoche safe haven if he'll assist in a bloodless coup. The captain shakes on the deal.
    Never, ever trust a pirate, me matey. LaRoche believes there is a hoard of gold stashed somewhere in the settlement. He's not a sadist or needlessly cruel, but if innocent people have to die in order for him to get his hands on the treasure, then so be it... Nothing personal, mind you, just business. Before long Jonathan realizes the true intent of his erstwhile benefactor. (LaRoche and crew just can't help doing piratey things.) Teaming up with strapping brother-in-law Henry (fellow Yank and Columbia contract player Glenn Corbett), he leads the settlers in resistance to the marauding freebooters. Huzzah!
    Made two years later, The Devil-Ship Pirates has a somewhat similar plot a small, isolated community is terrorized by rapacious buccaneers but differs in that the narrative is given a definite historical/geographical context and a few of the scenes actually take place on the water. It is the summer of 1588. Spain's vaunted Armada is decisively defeated in the English Channel, crushing King Philip's dream of conquering Britain. (We're shown a bit of this during the opening credits. The miniatures are excellent, so who cares if it's just footage from some other film?) In the midst of the battle one of the smaller Spanish ships, the Diablo, defies orders and disengages from the fight, making a dash for safety... Discretion being the better part of valor and all that.
    The Diablo is a pirate galleon, her crew sailing with the Armada as naval mercenaries. In command is the ruthless Capt. Robeles (Lee), who decides the time is right what with the fleet beaten and his own vessel heavily damaged to resign the king's commission. Before making for the West Indies, however, the Diablo will have to undergo extensive repairs. Taking advantage of a dense fog, Robeles oversees a bold gambit to secretly beach her on a sparsely-populated stretch of the Cornish coast. Since his crew is depleted by battle casualties, the captain plans to press-gang English locals (especially craftsmen) into doing most of the work. Time is of the essence. The tides will allow only four days for the job; Robeles worries that any militia forces in the vicinity could react even sooner.
    The plan comes off even better than the pirates could've hoped when they're able to trick the residents of an isolated village into believing that the Armada actually won the battle and England has surrendered to Spain. Pretending to be the vanguard of Spanish occupation forces, they force the villagers to assist in repairing the Diablo with the cooperation of a craven local squire (Ernest Clark). But not everyone falls for the ruse, especially handicapped war veteran Harry (John Cairney). He convinces a handful of others that the Spaniards' claim of victory just doesn't hold water. As true English patriots they must resist the invader any way possible...
    Thoroughly old-fashioned (they'd seem out of date in look and style within five years of their release), both pirate films not only make a rousing double feature but provide a fascinating side-by-side comparison, sharing as they do writer (Sangster also penned Devil-Ship) and many of the same actors, not to mention production personnel. In essence, though, they're simply good fun, suitable for the whole family. Devil-Ship is the better written and directed of the two; Blood River has significantly more action. Both are colorful, briskly paced and handsomely mounted, the 'Scope cinematography and meticulous production design lending a grandeur belied by their relatively small budgets. Fans will enjoy seeing many of the familiar Hammer players along with appearances by the likes of Desmond Llewelyn ("Q" in the 007 series) and a young Oliver Reed (as a brawling pirate). Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) is especially good in Blood Rivers' thankless hero role; both he and Corbett whose flat California accent sticks out like a sore thumb throw themselves wholeheartedly into the action scenes.
    Hammer vets Christopher Lee, Michael Ripper and Andrew Keir essentially play the same character in both movies, as captain, pirate crewman and villager respectively. As expected, Keir (Quatermass and the Pit) gives first-rate supporting performances, with his part in Blood River being more integral to the story. Ripper's roles are virtually identical the only difference being that in Devil-Ship he's supposed to be a Spaniard named Pepe, which is a bit of a stretch given his thick Cockney accent. (He's such an exuberant performer, however, that he somehow pulls it off.) Lee, of course, dominates the proceedings and gets to show off his fencing prowess. His pirate commanders fulfill the same function of major villain yet he plays them each quite differently. The Frenchman LaRoche is often sardonic, almost laid back; he's fatalistic in outlook but adverse to needless violence. Robeles, in contrast, is merely an evil bastard, a harsh taskmaster and quick-thinking man of action with utter disdain for the concepts of duty and honor. To achieve his ends he'll kill without the slightest hesitation or compunction. (Lee doesn't attempt a Spanish accent for his Devil-Ship role.)

I have a minor quibble with the pointlessness of some of the extras included with the Icons of Adventure set, but certainly not with the A/V quality of the films themselves... In a word, gorgeous!
    Disc 1 contains the pirate films while Stranglers of Bombay and Terror of The Tongs reside on Disc 2. Happily, the DVDs are not "flippers"; the movies can be played without ever having to eject and turn over the disc. All films in the set are presented in their original aspect ratios (2.35:1 in the case of the pirate pics), 16x9 enhanced. Other than a few hairs in the gate during the opening credits of Blood River a condition of the original print these transfers are practically flawless. (A slight distortion sometimes seen at the right and left edges of the frame are due to the inferior-quality lenses used by Hammer for its widescreen Cinemascope-style process, dubbed "Megascope".) Colors are lush and vibrant, at times astonishingly vivid; Stranglers' black and white photography is crisp. Strong, clean audio tracks, in the original mono, grace each title. (With the exception of Stranglers, the films also come with French language tracks. Subtitles are available for all in English, French and Spanish.)
    The set's extras constitute a mixed bag. The cartoon Merry Mutineers (1936) and Chapter One of the 1953 serial The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd at least have a tenuous "pirate" connection to the features, but the inclusion of the comedy short Hot Paprika (1935) is a total puzzler. I could'nt have cared less about any of them. Actually related to the films at hand are their original threatrical trailers (all anamorphic) and four separate audio commentaries. For the pirate pics moderator Marcus Hearns chats with Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye. Now quite elderly, the two gents have forgotten almost as much as they can recall. While these tracks have merit and will doubtless prove valuable to "Hammerheads", I feel that interview featurettes would've been a more effective use of everyone's time participants and audience. 6/26/08

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