A well-done if minor pirate adventure, with a better-than-expected cast. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) Limited Edition Collection line of library titles has released the 1953 U.A. pirate adventure, Raiders of the Seven Seas, starring John Payne as the notorious Barbarossa, with Donna Reed and Lon Chaney, Jr. along for the boat ride. Studio-bound as all get-out, with sporadic action and some snappy dialogue, Raiders of the Seven Seas probably satisfied the kids at the matinees back in '53, but today, its B-movie allure should best appeal to fans of the attractive stars here, as well as genre completists. No extras for this so-so transfer.
Morocco, the early 1500s, outside the Palace of the Sultan. Having sullied the honor of his patron's new bride, Barbarossa (John Payne) makes his way out to sea as the Sultan's men pursue him across the desert. Swimming to a ship, Barbarossa discovers it's a Spanish slaver, bound for Tortuga. Holding the captain at knifepoint, Barbarossa frees Peg Leg (Lon Chaney, Jr.), spurring the captured prisoners on to mutiny. Devising a Trojan horse plan, Barbarossa lands at Tortuga and overtakes it...but not before he spies the lovely daughter of Tortuga's Counsel-General, Alida (Donna Reed), who was ruling Tortuga in her father's absence. Desirous of the haughty beauty, Barbarossa takes her captive with the hope for ransom from the Spanish government. Spanish Captain Jose Salcedo (Gerald Mohr), Alida's fiancÚ, wants to bring the wrath of the entire Spanish armada onto Barbarossa, but career rival Captain Goiti (Henry Brandon) fears risking the safety of the fleet. It's not long before the cagey Barbarossa orchestrates not only securing his gold ransom, but also keeping Alida for himself and the public humiliation of Salcedo. When Salcedo retaliates by massacring the women and children of Barbarossa's pirate crew, Barbarossa vows revenge.
This is just the kind of pirate movie I was writing about in my review of James Mason's "anti-pirate" pirate movie, Hero's Island. The kind with silly, flowery dialogue, and gaudy Technicolor« sets and costumes (thinly dressed, though, due to the small budget), and lots of sword play, and an anti-hero who's really a true-blue hero underneath who wins the love of a beautiful woman who initially hates his guts. You've seen it all a thousand times before. But importantly...that's not necessarily a criticism. Raiders of the Seven Seas may be by-the-numbers genre work, and it's certainly not on the same level as Mason's strange, wonderful film, but it's solid and workmanlike and basically entertaining in its own right.
Probably the best element of Raiders of the Seven Seas, besides the good cast, is its light, assured tone. Co-written, produced, and directed by Sidney Salkow (Sitting Bull, the atmospheric The Last Man on Earth, still the best version of Matheson's I Am Legend, and numerous episodic television), Raiders of the Seven Seas strikes just the right balance between "fun" and "adventure," never straying too broadly into comic slapstick, while even managing to portray a massacre of women and children in not too heavy a manner (it happens off-screen, and the story moves on immediately). Amusing sequences pepper the screenplay (co-written by John O'Dea, also of numerous episodic TV, like Sky King, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), such as the mood-setting opening, with Payne flashing a wicked smile as he eludes his pursuers, or the Tortuga sequence, where Payne and Chaney, Jr. laugh and snicker like little boys at the lineage portraits of the ugly women of the Counsel-General's family (Payne goes so far as to draw a moustache on one, as any smart-assed teenager would do). Overripe dialogue, entirely appropriate for this kind of boilerplate, gives some snap to the proceedings, such as, "I like a good hater―they love unreasonably," and Payne's response to seeing Reed later than night, "Good, you lucky, lovely creature." I suppose if you're in the mood for some Red baiting (and who ain't in these troubling days?), you could read some mild Cold War analogies here, including Payne's frequent declarations concerning freedom versus slavery, and at the final fade-out, little Datu (Skip Torgerson) suggesting a place for the pirates to go where all men can be free: America. But politics certainly isn't Raiders of the Seven Seas' raison d'etre.
Recently, I've been lucky enough to catch some later titles from actor John Payne, and increasingly, I'm seeing him as an unjustly neglected star who could do just about anything in any genre of film―musical, comedy, drama, western, action/adventure, noir―and do it well. Here he channels Errol Flynn and he's not bad at all. He has the right physique; he moves well in the swordplay; and he has that requisite insouciant, smart-assed manner that befits a nose-thumbing pirate. Donna Reed, not shown to her best advantage here, looks like she's already embarrassed by this effort―made doubly ironic when you take into account that she would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the blockbuster, From Here to Eternity, the same year the minor Raiders of the Seven Seas came out (and there's not much chemistry with Payne, either). However, the supporting cast is fine, with a roster of familiar faces like Anthony Caruso, Henry Brandon, and Anthony Warde to keep things lively. Raiders of the Seven Seas certainly isn't top-flight pirate shenanigans, but it's playful and light, and that's enough to keep it afloat.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.