Pirates of Tripoli (1955), a slightly upscale swashbuckler from producer Sam Katzman's busy "B" unit at Columbia Pictures, isn't particularly good, but I'm betting children to whom movies like this were marketed 60 years ago were probably pleased. In just 70 minutes it packs an awful lot of colorful action, adventure, intrigue, and just enough romance to satisfy mothers dragged along for the ride. Paul Henreid, the Czech Resistance leader standing between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942), stars along with exotic if typecast beauty Patricia Medina.
Sony's manufactured-on-demand "Choice Collection" release gives this widescreen (1.85:1) and color presentation, one of the last filmed in the three-strip Technicolor process, a decent video transfer, though it includes no extra features.
Tunisian conqueror Malek (John Miljan) sacks the Kingdom of Misurata, but Princess Karjan (Patricia Medina) manages to flee to Tripoli, whose ruling cutthroat pirates make it the only unconquered city in all of Northern Africa. The film's uncredited narrator, whose resolutely unenthused delivery is unintentionally hilarious, outlines much of this.
At an inn, Karjan asks roguish sea captain Edri-Al-Gadrian (Paul Henreid) to help her reclaim the throne in exchange for treasures hidden in her kingdom's underwater vault. At first Gadrian refuses to believe her story or identity, and playfully tries to seduce her. But when Malek's men attempt an assassination the truth is revealed and he accepts her offer.
From there follows the usual sorts of adventures, palace intrigue, and epic sea battles one expects from such colorful but unambitious pirate movies. Saucy tavern maid Rhea (Maralou Gray), jealous of Gadrian's lusty flirting with the princess, betrays her pirate friends, selling them out to Malek's spies. Karjan, Gadrian, and his lieutenant, Hammid Khassan (Paul Newlan), sneak into Misurata in hopes of stealing her palace's jewels to then facilitate the cooperation of a Spanish or Italian fleet. Later they sneak back into Misurata yet again, disguised as guards escorting female slaves. And, naturally, there are several big sea battles, climaxing with a clever plot by Gadrian to storm the harbor using a single ship flying the plague flag, with everyone on board pretending to be corpses until the ship drifts close enough for them to storm the docks.
Much of the footage of Pirates of Tripoli's big action set pieces, including possibly all of the special effects shots of the pirate ships, appears culled from The Golden Hawk (1952), another Sam Katzman production, directed by Sydney Salkow. That film credits Jack Erickson as special effects director, and the miniatures are unusually good on what were undoubtedly tight budgets. (Pirates looks to be in the $400,000 range.) The miniatures are quite elaborate and detailed, while the art direction and costuming on what appears to be wholly new footage of Malak's raid and the non-miniature battle scenes aren't bad at all. Most of the film does appear to have been shot on Columbia's backlot and/or Ranch in Burbank, standing sets instantly recognizable to fans of the Three Stooges, whose shorts were often filmed there during the "Shemp" years. (Another possible movie connection: Around the 39-minute mark, Patricia Medina is seen wearing what sure looks like the same costume later worn by Kathryn Grant's princess in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. While that film was shot primarily in Spain, it is not inconceivable Grant was fitted with Medina's old costume at Columbia before she left for the Continent.)
Henreid and Medina, both of whom excelled playing such parts, are fun to watch if unimaginatively cast. Medina particularly was stuck in roles like these (Siren of Bagdad, Aladdin and His Lamp, Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, etc.) before marrying actor Joseph Cotten in 1960, after which she mostly worked on television before retiring in 1978. (They appeared together in the loopy Japanese fantasy Latitude Zero, in 1969.) Similarly, Henreid was wisely setting his sights elsewhere, turning to directing in 1952 and working regularly helming series television from 1957 until the early ‘70s, though he did do some acting after that. He's quite good here though, amusingly, his long skinny legs undercut his suaveness; in some shots he resembles a stork.
But by far the most intriguing performance is by character actor Paul Newlan, an older, bald, lanky man with a mug like a basset hound. Best remembered as Lee Marvin's police captain on M Squad and innumerable guest shots on 1960s television, he's an improbable choice playing Henreid's muscle, strong enough to break iron chains with his bare fists.
The movie also has its share of unintentionally funny dialogue, such as this laughable variation of To Have and Have Not's most famous scene:
(After handing the princess a whistle) Gadrian: "Do you know how to use it?"
Princess Karjan: "Of course."
Gadrian: "If you really have to order me…"
Princess Karjan: "You mean?"
Gadrian: "Just blow."
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 widescreen, Pirates of Tripoli is presented here in a decent 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that retains most of the rich hues of its original three-strip Technicolor photography. It's not the kind of film to warrant a major restoration of the original matrixes (probably long gone in any event) but it's more than acceptable, as is the mono audio (English only, not subtitle options). The disc has no menu screens, simply starting up after the usual FBI and INTERPOL warnings, restarting the picture as soon as it ends. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Old fashioned swashbuckling for undemanding children of all ages, Pirates of Tripoli is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.