Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Crimson Pirate is a delightful kids' film, a fantasy that revels in action and adventure
without the slightest worry about things like history or 'quality filmmaking.' It's simple, direct
and robust, with plenty of funny slapstick and even a few jokes for adults - many of which secretly
love it. Burt Lancaster is clearly in his element, swinging bare-chested from ropes
and facing down every
challenge with his huge grin. He's the healthiest-looking male specimen since Douglas Fairbanks.
You can forget about a certain just-out pirate groaner - Warner's DVD has restored this buccaneer
feast to eye-popping clarity.
Carefree pirate Captain Vallo (Burt Lancaster) and his agreeably
scurvy crew plunder the Caribbean in accordance with the Pirate's Code, as voiced by first mate
Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher). From Baron Jose Gruda (Leslie Bradley) they seize a ship full
of arms intended for the suppression of revolt, and make a deal to earn a fortune by
capturing a rebel leader. Vallo and his athletic, mute sidekick Ojo
(Nick Cravat) contact the rebels, and Vallo falls in love with the leader's daughter,
Consuelo (Eva Bartok). Various double-crosses ensue when Vallo changes loyalties, but with the help
of amazing inventor Professor Prudence (James Hayter), Vallo routs the royals and wins the day.
The Crimson Pirate must have packed in the kids for Saturday matinees, giving them a
big-budget Technicolor dose of the kind of action reserved for low-rent Republic serials.
critics won't find much of significance in the film, but who cares about them? Any kid from 4 on
up loves this colorful show.
That rascal Vallon addresses the audience directly right up front, warning us to
keep a sharp
lookout for tricks, the pirate's stock-in-trade. The whole movie is nothing less than a clever circus
act, a happy workout for ex-trapeze star Lancaster and his old partner from the big top, Nick Cravat.
Cravat is a prince among sidekicks - he's short, even stronger-looking than Burt, and devilishly funny
when doing silent clown-comedy schtick, like Harpo Marx. If Cravat wasn't comfortable reciting
making his character mute was a perfect solution. He and Lancaster run, jump and fly through the
air in lock-synch with each other, like dancers. They put the Art back into stuntwork, as
Gene Kelly had tried in The Three Musketeers.
The comedy is half Three Stooges, half Chuck Jones. Gags aren't concerned with physical limitations
or even basic physics - people can hide in plain sight, and Vallo's crew swims 200 yards underwater.
no blood when men are clonked on the head, run through with swords, or mowed down by cannon fire.
The whole enterprise brims with such good spirits, it's not even sadistic.
The English production is a hoot. The vaguely Spanish setting doesn't specify a country (the better
not to offend a potential market) and the tacky costumes are all over the place, probably
chosen for basic colors. The Caribbean is represented by a beautiful harbor (Spain? Portugal?
The Canary Islands) unspoiled by factories or radio towers. Nothing tries to be more realistic
than a cartoon, liberating the story to concentrate on one gag-laden scene after another.
Roland Kibbee's script has Lancaster's chesty, mercenary pirate defect to the side of
virtue for the sake of a woman (the interesting Eva Bartok of
Blood and Black Lace). The tricks
that worked for Zorro and Robin Hood work even better for Vallo, including various ridiculous
disguises. When he and Ojo impersonate flower girls, Ojo has to hold a bouquet in front of
his beard to keep up the illusion.
There aren't any politics to speak of, beyond making fun of the effete Royals and their goonish
guards. One aged aristocrat parts from his bevy of beauties with the line, "Now wait here, my
foxy woxy woxies!" Burt is a
revolutionary only to please his girl, and there's no undercurrent of righteousness whatsoever. The
non-stop action is interrupted only for a brief bit where Ojo explains wordlessly that Vallo is
in love, a great mime gag.
Most swashbucklers distort political history while staying fairly accurate
to the time period, but The Crimson Pirate has a field day with anachronisms and fantastic
fun. James Hayter's amiable professor comes up with four or five epochal inventions in less than a
week, including a lighter-than-air balloon, nitroglycerin, tanks, a machine gun and a submarine. The
story tosses out reality in favor of what kids want to see, the kinds of games they'd play in
their own back yards. This kind of juvenile whimsy went missing in films for most of the 1950s, and
it's to Hecht and Lancaster's credit that they saw the need and filled it.
As the sentimental/treacherous first mate, Torin Thatcher wears some kind of Celtic kilt-thing, and
snarls in his best Sokurah voice. He's pretty funny when he protests that letting female prisoners
go without molestation is an infraction of the Pirate's Code. Leslie Bradley is a fine
intelligent villain. He remained in mostly
obscure roles, and ended up unrecognizable as the old Lawgiver in Roger Corman's
Teenage Caveman. James Hayter (Land of the Pharaohs) is amusingly sober as the
genius professor, and distinctively white-haired Noel Purcell stands out among the rebels.
Unbilled but immediately spottable are Dana Wynter as Bradley's ocean-cruise guest - she was going
by the name Dagmar at this time - and our good friend Christopher Lee, who carries a lot of
exposition as a second-tier baddie. We see him engaged in a couple of swordfights, but he's mostly
shoved aside in favor of more cartoon fun. Sadly, if they shot a death scene for Lee, it's gone.
He simply disappears at the conclusion. Fans will remember him from other English Warners
Captain Horatio Hornblower; in the crowded field of Brit actors, he and Peter Cushing
apparently got film experience by snagging breaks in American guest productions.
The light tone renders irrelevant the occasional error, like the large, modern ship clearly visible in
a couple of establishing shots.
Listed as associate art director is Ken Adam, later to design the world of James Bond. A trained
engineer, he perhaps helped with the anachronistic inventions and the sets tweaked to accommodate
the circus stars' precision stunts.
Perhaps the best thing about watching The Crimson Pirate now is the fact that there are so
many stunts where Lancaster and Cravat are really doing what we see them doing, often without
nets, and of course without wires or other digital dodges. 1
We want to applaud them after every back-flip and bruise-inducing collision. They clearly believe
in their mission of redeeming the 12-year-old in all of us. Fifty years later, with Burt Lancaster
gone for almost a decade, this fun show is still a delight.
Warners' DVD of The Crimson Pirate is wonderful. I remember this title on bleary off-tint
color television from around '62, and it's great to see it sparkle in the DVD format. The transfer
perfect; I can only assume that there was a very good composite element available. The colors pop
and the night scenes look rich. The added resolution doesn't reveal any technical
secrets - all the stunts still look authentic. Only the crane-mounted giant balloon is a
little on the phony side.
The extras are limited to some informative text files. The menus are nicely rigged, and we're glad for the
original poster art on the cover, even though it's typical for early-50s Warners: two-color and ugly.
Poor Burt looks like a butterfly pinned in a display case.
The Crimson Pirate makes us hungry for more Lancaster swash - His Majesty O'Keefe,
anybody? - and Republic's overachieving kiddie adventure with Fred MacMurray, Fair
Wind to Java. I read a couple
of years ago that Scorsese had secured financing to restore that one, but since then, silence.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Crimson Pirate rates:
Supplements: text files
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: July 18, 2003
1. The 'real' stunts were
always the thrill of action movies, a lost art. Today's digital futzing is used not just for
dangerous action, but to streamline production. Nowadays, there's no guarantee that anything on a
screen began as filmed reality of any kind, and big action scenes are often so absurd and overdone
that they might
as well be animated cartoons. When they bring back Indiana Jones, 60-year-old Harrison
Ford will doubtlessly be leaping about with an agility far surpassing his younger self. Are
movie audiences that clueless about what's 'real' and what's not? This may explain a lot of voting
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson