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Enemies of the Empire! Sony's 2-disc Icons of Adventure DVD set was originally intended to exploit last year's major Pirates of the Caribbean release. The films included are a mixed bag of non-horror Hammer films, but the horror influence is strongly present in three out of four. They're indeed rarities that have seen little exposure beyond occasional pan-scan bookings on cable television.
Two of the violent thrillers involve sinister colonial subjects in a period setting, and two are later pirate movies. The first of the pictures was considered the most sadistic and unwholesome movie yet released by Hammer, and single-handedly inspired a tightening of BBFC censor restrictions. The films that followed cut way back on gore and mutilation but retained the racist attitudes of a country fresh from a decade of giving up control of many of its colonies. The first two movies make very offensive generalizations about India and China, and as such are fascinating evidence of the true nature of colonialism.
1959's The Stranglers of Bombay is a retelling of the story of the Thuggee Cult in India in the 1820s. It's an adventure tale that dwells on torture and mutilation for most its effects; politically, it's one of Hammer's most interesting movies. Guy Rolfe (Mr. Sardonicus) plays Captain Harry Lewis, a British officer held in low esteem because of his rapport with the Indian population, and his concern over wave of mysterious disappearances. The East India Tea Company hold the franchise on both commerce and civil administration for the whole of the Indian district. All they care about is keeping the caravans moving, and Lewis's pleas to investigate the mass disappearances fall on deaf ears.
What Captain Lewis's superiors don't know is that a secret cult of Kali-worshipping stranglers has been looting the country for centuries, murdering perhaps millions of people over that time. The Thugs are trained to infiltrate rich caravans, strangle everyone and bury the bodies. Like an evil Mohandas Gandhi, the Thugee High Priest (George Pastell of The Mummy and From Russia with Love in a stunning performance) incites his followers' bloodlust and brainwashes them into a mortal terror of betraying the cult. To please Kali the master, one crazed Thug prays while walking to his own execution, pushes away his jailers and enthusiastically hangs himself. This non-horror movie generates a powerful, perverse aura of death.No Indian will admit to the cult's existence. Given the job that Lewis should have, Snobbish officer Connaught-Smith (Alan Cuthbertson) refuses to take the tales seriously. Little does he know that Patel Shari, an important Indian merchant (Marne Maitland) and his own Lt. Silver (Paul Stassino of Thunderball) are high ranking Thugs who terrorize their followers into blind obedience. Disloyal Thugs have their eyes ripped from their heads, their tongues cut out and their hands chopped off. Not only does director Terence Fisher show these victims wallowing like pigs in a cage, he adds the delicious detail of a beautiful female cultist who enjoys watching them suffer. She's played by Marie Devereaux, one of Hammer's most impossibly bosomy starlets.
The historical Thuggee cult is said to have been an almost completely Indian-on-Indian crime conspiracy. 1 Stranglers takes the pro-colonial attitude that the childish natives need the British to protect them from their own savagery. The sinister Patel Shari can barely stomach the awful mutilations he orders, but he's a cool customer when playing the innocent for the Brits. When Lewis complains that his superiors are calling a mass grave of Thug victims a cemetery, Patel replies with the incredibly relevant phrase, "Then it is a cemetery. Whoever rules decides the truth." Lewis is supposed to be sympathetic to his many Indian friends, but when he hears the Moslem call to prayer, he says disdainfully, "Allah is with us there is peace in the land. I suppose you get to believing it if you keep on repeating it." The movie lets this statement go unchallenged.
Stranglers moves from one grotesque situation to another, leading to the chilling spectacle of a British soldier waking to discover that practically everyone in his caravan is already dead, and that the Thugs are converging on him, silk garrotes at the ready. Lewis is captured and staked out in the hot sun, with the smiling cult girl hanging over him, refusing to give him water. Then the High Priest lets loose the cobra. ...The combo of sex and sadism outraged British pundits, who demanded and got changes from the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC). The censors cracked down immediately, forcing Hammer to emasculate their planned script for The Brides of Dracula. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom arrived just as the critics were looking for a movie to blame for the 'collapse of decency in the film industry'. It was pulled from screens almost before it was released.
Stranglers of Bombay had a very slight U.S. release in 1960 and pretty much disappeared; it certainly wasn't considered TV material. Restored by Sony in 2000, this American version is a couple of minutes shorter than the original, but no gore sequences seem to be affected. A hard cut up front from black to a statue of Kali (accompanied by James Bernard's savage music score) indicates that the UK version may have elided more historical scene setting not covered in the opening titles. Another highly recommended treatment of this same theme called The Deceivers was produced by Merchant-Ivory and starred Pierce Brosnan.
1960's The Terror of the Tongs is Hammer's attempt at a Fu Manchu- like story, centering on a 1910 Chinese gang called The Dragon Tong and its Hong Kong henchman Chun King (Christopher Lee, with eye makeup that makes his eyelids begin halfway down his nose). Filmed in bright color and directed by Laurence Olivier associate Anthony Bushell, Tongs is a silly, racist tale that would seem to be an allegory for Communist subversion. Working for evil Tong leaders in Mainland China, Chun King wants to keep anti-Tong Chinese (friendly pro-Brit merchants) from learning more about his organization, which steals cargoes, extorts money from businesses and deals in the slave trade.
The Tong also imports opium to Hong Kong, an evil that the film forgets was commenced by the British fifty years before as a means of pacifying the natives. The Tong assassins murder Chun King's enemies with hatchets while 'hopped up' on opium - a laughable misreading of the effects of opiates. After killing anti-Tong agent Mr. Ming (Burt Kwouk, The Pink Panther's Cato) Chun King's goons inadvertently murder the daughter of sea captain Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone). They then spend the rest of their movie fumbling the relatively simple job of silencing him as well. One Tong agent supposedly wants to kill Sale, but instead blabs every detail about the Tong's activities. The film's strongest scene is when Chun King instructs his brutish torturer (Milton Reid) to stick needles into Sale's chest: "Tell me - have you ever had your bones scraped?"
Yvonne Monlaur looks darn good as Lee, decked out in China Doll garb, her tight dress slit almost to the waist. Monlaur's French accent is so strong, when she laments that there is no city in the world where she would fit in, we immediately think, Paris! Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster says it all when he has Lee tell Captain Sale that Occidentals are foolish to think that Orientals will ever be civilized. Then she tells him for the umpteenth time that all she wants is to stay with him and "take care of him." Her tight silk dresses, by the way, come in red, green and purple.
Good actor Charles Lloyd Pack has fun playing make believe as a murderous Tong doctor, and Marne Maitland is back as a ragged dockside beggar who appears to suffer from a skin disease -- his face is crumbling away. The film's art direction is colorful but cheap, with the same multicolored bead screens hanging in several different sets.
Because of tightened censorship, the movie dials back the sadism and gore, leaving an unconvincing "Yellow Peril" story. Captain Sale solves problems with his fists, taking care not to dislodge the heavy makeup on the Anglo actors. The movie veers from unpleasant scenes (the death of Sale's daughter) to inadvertently funny ones, as when Mr. Ming's bullets fail to stop a charging Tong assassin. Ming just stands there and lets the man bury a hatchet in his chest. In a warm up for his series of Fu Manchu movies, Christopher Lee is appropriately grave but does little but sit and mumble vague threats in a monotone. Anyone trying to make a point about racist attitudes in film is given a wealth of offensive examples -- the picture presents its demeaning stereotypes proudly.
Forever trying to extend its range beyond the horror market, Hammer reached for success with Robin Hood movies, Viking movies and even some pirate pictures. This 1962 release is mainly fun for Hammer fans looking to spot favorite actors. Christopher Lee gets some good screen time as a cultured French pirate clad completely in black, including his eye patch. Hammer contract player Oliver Reed gets some attention as one of the pirate crew, as does the always-dependable Michael Ripper. Marie Devereaux returns as a Huguenot maid who comes to a bad end early on, leaving the field of romance open for pout-chinned Marla Landi (The Hound of the Baskervilles). Landi tries to avoid the advances of lusty pirates by wearing a provocative dress hardly appropriate for a religious sect described as 'French Calvinists.'
The Columbia connection provides Americans Glenn Corbett and Kerwin Mathews as handsome but unexciting leads. Also hampering Pirates of Blood River somewhat is a strange story built around Hammer's inability to mount a full-on pirate film. The only pirate ship is seen in one matte painting. All the action takes place in familiar Hammer locales like the gravel pit, where one shot uses a miniature village set to good effect. The Huguenots have fled persecution in France but we have to deduce for ourselves that the setting must be somewhere in South America: French Guiana?
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 the pirate Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee), Jonathon makes a bad bargain and delivers his community into LaRoche's hands. The pirates are convinced that the settlers are sitting on a secret treasure, which Johnathon's best friend Henry (Glenn Corbett) knows to be true -- Jonathan's father has been keeping the secret to himself.
The pirates talk tough but Blood River boils down to a series of tame action scenes. When a couple of people are eaten by piranhas, some Mack the Knife-style "scarlet billows" are fairly effective (but, we are told, were censored in England). These pirates work so hard for their prize we almost think they deserve it, but the screenplay has other ideas. Meanwhile, we're wondering where persecuted Protestants would get so much gold, and how just six men could carry such a weight. Except for the interesting cast (including a brief glimpse of Desmond Llewellyn, James Bond's "Q") the film has some pretty forest settings and little else.
Jimmy Sangster fumbled the script for Blood River but atones with The Devil-Ship Pirates, a much more successful venture blessed with crisp direction by Don Sharp. This picture has only Christopher Lee as a starring name but his Spanish pirate character is both interesting and forceful, in a script shaped to Hammer's production capabilities. The studio also built a full-sized ship replica to tell the tale of privateer Captain Robeles (Lee), who puts his damaged craft Diablo ashore in England after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. To repair the ship and get on his way, he convinces a small town that Spain has won the battle, and that England is being occupied. Local nobleman Ernest Clark is quick to collaborate but the local blacksmith (Andrew Kier) and his son Harry (John Cairney of A Night to Remember) organize resistance. They find an ally in Don Manuel Rodriguez de Sevilla (Barry Warren, of The Kiss of the Vampire), a loyal Spaniard unhappy that Robeles has abandoned his commission and is reverting to criminality.
The tight script essentially replays the same story as the patriotic WW2 picture Went the Day Well? When invaders take over a small English town, the citizens are shocked to find ready collaborators in their midst. John Cairney's young hero is interesting because he has a lame arm from a previous fight with Spaniards. Local beauties Suzan Farmer (Dracula, Prince of Darkness) and Natasha Pyne are capable actresses outside the busty Hammer mold. The Spanish pirates all seem to have cockney accents, but the dependable Michael Ripper compensates with a spirited performance. Even though it doesn't strive for horrific effects, The Devil-Ship Pirates is a better-than-average adventure movie.
Sony's presentation of the Icons of Adventure DVD set follows up on their entertaining Sam Katzman set from last year. All of the films have excellent enhanced transfers. Stranglers is in moody B&W and the other three are in bright color. The aspect ratios are correct and original trailers are included. The rare American trailer for Stranglers ends with a startling credit for a scary-sounding process called "Strangloscope"!
On the commentary tracks author Marcus Hearn interviews writers Jimmy Sangster, David Zelag Goodman, art director Don Mingaye and editor Chris Barnes. Goodman seems content to offer weak reactions to the film he's watching, and soon drifts far off topic. The others discuss general Hammer history and other studio films besides the ones they worked on. The commentaries will be essential listening for Hammer fans already fascinated by these relative rarities.
The two-disc set segregates the films into pirate fare and colonial horror fantasies. The pirate movies are accompanied by the first double-length chapter of the thoroughly goofy Sam Katzman 1953 serial The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd. Stock shots tie together a meandering plot that consists almost exclusively of flashbacks. In its own way, it's almost as weird as an Alain Resnais picture. Merry Mutineers is a grotesque Scrappy cartoon (don't forget the "S" on the front of his name), about toy boats crewed by celebrity caricatures. They're mostly from MGM movies -- Wallace Beery, Charles Laughton -- and only Columbia's The Three Stooges are incompetently drawn. But the short hasn't a single laugh. Over on the other disc is Hot Paprika, an Andy Clyde two-reeler about a bank clerk who goes to a South American banana republic because he thinks he has a terminal illness. The comedy is uneven but too weird to be dull. The 'bonus trailers' turn out to be promos for colorized Harryhausen discs and Sony's western collection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Icons of Adventure rates:
1. The issue hasn't been completely resolved, but in the last twenty years new researchers have claimed that the real Thuggee cult may have been a diversion / fabrication by the East India Company to cover up their own bad management and corruption. The Kali Cult theme of crazed fanatic Asian killers has persisted, and mars otherwise excellent movies like the classic Gunga Din and Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Such stereotypes form the basis of the notion that Asians "Don't value human life like Occidentals Do", a notion used by colonials and neo-colonials for killing non-whites in wholesale lots.
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