Watchable land-locked swashbuckler from Hammer. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection of hard-to-find cult and library titles has re-released The Pirates of Blood River, the 1961 Hammer actioner (handled here in the States by Columbia Pictures) starring Kerwin Matthews, Glenn Corbett, Christopher Lee, Peter Arne, Marla Landi, Oliver Reed, Andrew Keir, Michael Ripper, David Lodge, and Dennis Waterman. Cut prior to its original release to receive a general audiences "U" rating from the British censors, one can only wonder if what was left on the editing room floor might have boosted The Pirates of Blood River's name recognition with fans of the studio and of vintage 60s action-adventures. As it stands, The Pirates of Blood River is likeable-enough comic book action, aided by Hammer's usual colorful dash when putting over these relatively cheapo period productions. The commentary track with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye that accompanied The Pirates of Blood River's inclusion on Sony's 2008 Icons of Adventure disc collection, has been ported over here--a nice bonus for a Choice Collection title--along with the same crisp, anamorphically-enhanced "MegaScope" widescreen color transfer.
The tropical Isle of Nevon, at the end of the 17th century. Populated by Protestant Huguenots who escaped France's religious persecution 100 years ago, Nevon has devolved into its own prison of intolerance. Ruled by an intractable religious court, headed by "God's representative" on the island, Jason Standing (Andrew Keir), Nevon has become a place of fear, where "democracy is just a memory." Proof of that comes when Standing's son, Jonathon (Kerwin Mathews) is caught having an adulterous affair with Maggie (stacked Marie Devereux), the wife of one of the religious court's members, Godfrey Mason (Jack Stewart). Tried for his "crime" and sentenced to 15 years hard labor at the island's torturous penal colony, Jonathon eventually escapes...only to be captured by a visiting pirate band, led by Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee). The silky, educated LaRoche makes Jonathon an offer: lead his band back to Jonathon's village, and LaRoche will restore democratic rule in exchange for using the island as a safe base of operations. Jonathon foolishly agrees, only to find out later that LaRoche is only interested in secret treasure he's sure is hidden somewhere in the village. The pirates attack the fortified village and win, and LaRoche is in charge, threatening to kill two villagers every day that Jason Standing refuses to tell him where the supposedly non-existent treasure is hidden. Soon, though, the tables are turned on LaRoche and his men, courtesy of Jonathan and other guerilla-fighting villagers.
I hadn't seen The Pirates of Blood River since 2008 when I bought Sony's Icons of Adventure set...and I bought that set mainly for The Stranglers of Bombay, not for this ship-less pirate outing. Watching it again six years later, it hasn't magically improved any, but it is still fun to watch, sort of the way it's pleasurable to leaf through your old comic books or a stray Illustrated Classics from your childhood. The enjoyment level comes as much from the nostalgia for that early 60s robust Hammer house style--as well as nostalgia for your own past when you were a kid, enjoying these old Hammers on Saturday afternoon and late night TV--as it does for anything actually in the movie. When I was a kid in the early 70s, the old Hammers (they weren't that old then, come to think of it!) were always go-to selections on the TV dial because they still seemed fairly racy and violent compared to standard TV programming at that time (today, they're G-rated Disney by comparison). On some level, we probably knew that The Pirates of Blood River's gloomy, dark, rain-soaked skies certainly weren't in the Caribbean, and that the Huguenot village set looked strangely similar to the ones used in Hammer's Curse of the Werewolf and The Brides of Dracula, and that that nagging feeling we had that something like a boat shouldn't really be missing from a pirate movie, was a correct one. But who cared about all that when we were still processing the opening scene which showed buxom Marie Devereux getting devoured by hundreds of piranha fish, as she screamed in the suddenly scarlet river? That's the kind of lurid, pulpy, trademark Hammer scene, mixing sex and violence into one titillating dynamic, that you didn't get from comparable movies from that time period, and that made kids like me actually take note and remember the studio's name...when most other movies just passed by anonymously.
Pleasurable nostalgia for that long-gone Hammer house style aside, The Pirates of Blood River is okay action moviemaking, with a dumb story and good set pieces. Written and directed by Hammer vets Jimmy Sangster and John Gilling, The Pirates of Blood River's script doesn't bear too close attention, lest the lapses in common sense and logic become readily apparent (you're going to trust a pirate to restore your village's democracy? And who didn't know the statue was made of gold? Even my 10-year-old kid got that the second time they put it in a lovingly long close-up). Luckily, the action set pieces are handled with some brio, particularly the noisy village assault...although again: why the hell does Kerwin Matthews leave the safety of the battlements to ride outside--with inferior forces--for a doomed attack? The blind sword fight between Oliver Reed and Peter Arne is cool for a minute or two...until you realize how silly they look, stabbing stiffly out into space and back, like old-timey robots (you wouldn't be slashing all over the place, trying to hit something?), while spectators stand six inches away from blindfolded guys stumbling around with swords.
Once the pirates try and make their way back to their painted matte ship, The Pirates of Blood River starts to resemble a Western, with the retreating pirates subbing for the beleaguered cavalry as Matthews's guerrilla fighters take the place of harrying Indians. Soon, the pirates are picked off one by one via buried stakes (pretty graphic), felled trees (you couldn't just sidestep them?), and a good shoot-out that takes time for everyone to re-load their muskets. And of course those piranha attacks are pretty sweet--the most memorable visuals in the movie (apparently, marbles were shot over the water to simulate the little buggers churning up the river). Columbia contract player Kerwin Matthews does well (as always) with this kind of physical role (sensitive, yet rugged), while Columbia contract player Glenn Corbett looks like he wants to be anywhere but in some cold, miserable, god-forsaken English swamp (never what you'd call an "expressive" actor, he's even more ridiculously flat here). Familiar U.K. faces like Peter Arne and Andrew Keir and Hammer vet Michael Ripper do exactly what they were paid to do (make cardboard characters stand out a bit). As for The Pirates of Blood River's real star, Christopher Lee's French pirate captain isn't a particularly memorable creation of his (his energy seems strangely low...), but when has it ever not been enjoyable to watch him work on screen, with that silky, menacing delivery that always seems to threaten camp ("Sometimes we are inclined to...harshness," he offers, after Desmond Llewelyn gets skewered), but which he rigorously controls with an absolutely straight face? Lee looks like he knows precisely what kind of penny dreadful The Pirates of Blood River really is, but that doesn't stop him from giving a good accounting of himself...as does this unpretentious pirate movie itself.
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.