Fun, action-filled Hammer pirate adventure. Sony Pictures' essential Choice Collection line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has raided a previous Sony DVD set, 2007's Icons of Adventure, for a stand-alone release of The Devil-Ship Pirates, the 1964 period actioner from England's famed Hammer Studios (released here by Columbia Pictures) starring Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, John Cairney, Duncan Lamont, Ernest Clark, and Michael Ripper. Potential double-dippers won't need to purchase this stand-alone (the 2007 commentary track has been included--a very nice bonus indeed for a Choice Collection offering), but newcomers to the title (myself included) who enjoy the genre and the studio, will find The Devil-Ship Pirates quite to their liking.
July, 1588. Two days into a disastrous naval battle with the English fleet, the Spanish Armada limps its way up the Channel. One of its boats, the Diablo, manned by cutthroat privateers and captained by Robeles (Christopher Lee), is badly damaged and in need of repairs. Spanish naval advisor Don Jose Margella (Joseph O'Conor) insists that Captain Robeles sail with the Armada to continue the fight, but when the officer tries to incite a mutiny, Robeles kills Margella and hatches a desperate plan: he'll beach the Diablo in the nearby English marshes to effect repairs, and then ditch the losing Armada to return to pirating in the West Indies. Hoping to remain undetected, the crew is forced to capture Jane (Natasha Pyne), who happens to spot the disabled Spanish ship from her rowboat. Sending scouts Pepe (Michael Ripper) and the bosun (Duncan Lamont) into town with uptight military liaison Don Manuel Rodriguez de Savilla (Barry Warren), Pepe blows their cover by attempting to rape a local, with Pepe and the bosun quickly arrested. Don Manuel, on the spur of the moment, lies to the cowardly lord of the manor and chief law officer, Sir Basil Smeeton (Ernest Clark), that the Spanish Armada has actually won the crucial naval battle and that England is now Spain's. The craven Smeeton is all too willing to lick the boots of these phony conquerors, but blacksmith Tom (Andrew Keir), and his son, Harry (John Cairney), whose arm was paralyzed by Spanish torturers, refuse to bow...even when Captain Robeles marches his men into town to force the locals to repair and resupply his ship.
The last pirate opus Hammer would produce, 1964's The Devil-Ship Pirates is a welcome bit of low-budget "tits and swords," as screenwriter Jimmy Sangster rather colorfully describes the movie in his commentary track. Despite the typically small budget for a Hammer actioner, The Devil-Ship Pirates has a fairly rich look to it, thanks, in part, to future Bond cinematographer Michael Reed, whose wide, action-crammed "Megoscope" frames mesh well with vet helmer Don Sharp's (The Kiss of the Vampire, Rasputin: The Mad Monk, Callan, Hennessy) never-flagging pace. In the commentary track, Sangster identifies his script here as typical of his "Desperate Hours-like" storylines, where Lee's pirates are much like Bogart's gang of escaped cons, waiting out in the village as Bogey waited in Fredric March's suburban American home, while trying to keep a lid on his resourceful, revenge-seeking captives. I can see that comparison, but while watching The Devil-Ship Pirates (for the first time), Ealing's famous WWII home front occupation classic, Went the Day Well? came immediately to mind, with the foreign pirates tenuously occupying a small English village (like WTDW's Nazis), while a traitor amidst the townsfolk works with the pirates to secure a stronger foothold. Even The Devil-Ship Pirates' plot device of having a little boy run off to a neighboring village to seek help (and the suspense that results from his extended absence, as well as the timeframe of the too-late arriving militia), seems lifted directly from Went the Day Well?.
Regardless of its influences, The Devil-Ship Pirates, for what should have been just a simple little B pirate outing (one that didn't even have enough money to stay largely at sea), has a surprisingly busy script, with all sorts of interesting dynamics going on around the edges of its frequent swordplay and (attempted) pillaging and raping. A good amount of suspense is generated not only by little Smiler's (Michael Newport) rescue mission, but also by the knowledge that the pirates only have four days before the spring tides recede and beach them permanently, and of course the worry that eventually someone is going to figure out that the Spanish actually lost the sea battle. Character conflicts, as well, multiply outside the challenging logistics of the pirates' bold plan. Lee's vicious captain has utter contempt for his first mate Warren, with the two embodying a "pirate versus navy"/"villain versus aristocrat" contest that, although not fully developed in the script, has a bit of sting thanks to Lee's nasty edge ("I'll strip you one by one of your fancy ideas until you're no better than the rest of us," he snarls at Warren).
And of course, the two opposing factions in the village--Keir and Cairney's scrappy, defiant plebs versus gutless Clark and Peter Howell's lily-livered town vicar--further ratchets up the tension. Although I wish Sangster could have had more room here to comment on how the official establishment institutions of "the Law" and "Religion" are the pusillanimous forces that almost get the village wiped out (Suzan Farmer's Angela Smeeton, excusing away her traitorous father, also seems like a potentially rewarding conflict that is unfortunately underdeveloped), Sharp and Sangster squeeze in enough of these thematically-intriguing asides to keep us more fully engaged in The Devil-Ship Pirates than we had any right to expect (even something as small as composer Gary Hughes's deliberately ironic, heroic march music, set against the sight of the pirates moving into town, is an amusing, deft touch by the savvy moviemakers).
A pirate movie with ideas is all well and good...but it better have some colorful action to even qualify within the genre, and The Devil-Ship Pirates fits that bill quite nicely, too. Several reviewers have mentioned that the detailed opening credit sequence depicting the Armada's battle is lifted from some other, more expensive pirate movie (and that's what I thought, as well), but unless I heard Sangster and art director Don Mingaye wrong on the enclosed commentary track, they seem to imply it was shot specifically for this movie...and it looks quite good, regardless (the model work is seamless). The swordplay, judiciously spaced throughout the movie, is impressive for its understated simplicity and welcome frequency, with the memorable close-out delivering a satisfying wrap-up (a real-life accident with the full-scale Diablo prop was turned, with typical penny-pinching Hammer efficiency, into a slam-bang, explosive finale). Anyone into British and particularly Hammer moviemaking from the 1960s will appreciate the veteran cast here, including Keir's stolid blacksmith, Lamont's shifty bosun, Ripper's comedic relief "Pepe," Clark's obsequious lord of the manor, and Cairney's grim rebel (only Warren's sibilant Manuel seems a tad too genteel at times for the subject matter). Those tuning into The Devil-Ship Pirates primarily to check out Christopher Lee won't be disappointed with his malevolent turn as Captain Robeles here, creating a pirate unlike, say...Robert Newton's rascally "villain" Long John Silver, with Lee's Robeles coming off as a cold, vicious killer wholly without sentiment or any other even remotely redeeming moral features--another welcome detail of the unexpectedly competent The Devil-Ship Pirates.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.