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Pirates of Tortuga

Pirates of Tortuga
Fox Home Video
1961 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 97 min. / Street Date April 20, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Ken Scott, Let�cia Roman, Dave King, John Richardson, Rafer Johnson, Robert Stephens, Rachel Stephens
Cinematography Ellis W. Carter
Art Direction Jack Martin Smith, George Van Marter
Film Editor Hugh S. Fowler
Original Music Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Written by Jesse Lasky Jr., Melvin Levy � and Pat Silver
Produced by Sam Katzman
Directed by Robert D. Webb

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Pirates of Tortuga is a fairly foolish adventure tale cobbled together to cash in on the big wave of juvenile action fare engendered by the big success of Hercules with Steve Reeves. This particular show was made in Hollywood but is just as cheap and artless as its European competition. With a mostly dreary cast and a cornball script, it didn't inspire a comeback for the pirate adventure genre.

The movie owes its appearance on DVD to this month's big release of Master and Commander. Fox has accompanied it with a number of sailing ship-related titles, like the vastly superior A High Wind in Jamaica.


Privateer Bart (Ken Scott) and three adventurous pals sign on to secretly crush the kingdom of Morgan the Pirate (Robert Stephens) operating from the Carribean Island of Tortuga. An unlikely ally is Meg (Leticia Roman), a London street thief who accidentally comes along for the ride, and uses a stolen locket to pass herself off as a high-born lady.

Producer Sam Katzman is best known for a long string of ultra-cheapie films at Columbia in the 50s. Besides helping to launch the career of Ray Harryhausen he made some of the first Rock'n Roll musicals while cranking out increasingly impoverished Sci-Fi fare like Creature with the Atom Brain and the equally insubstantial Night the World Exploded. But Katzman also did higher-budget stuff, like the 3-D Fort Ti.

He had a hit for Fox in 1960 with Wizard of Baghdad, a horrible non-comedy with Dick Shawn that wasted the talents of Diane Baker. This followup assembles a really blah cast for as generic a pirate saga as can be imagined. Ken Scott has the presence and vocal delivery of John Phillip Law, only more wooden. His rascal buddies trying so hard to act devil-may-care are pretty terrible. Dave King plays a rogue called Pee Wee. He later had his own television show but here comes off as a poor man's Dick Miller, if such a thing is possible. John Richardson of Black Sunday and One Million Years B.C. fame doesn't show any great promise either. We want to like Leticia Roman (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) but her part is terrible and her acting too broad to be believed. She spends almost all of her screen time with a huge grin, showing most of her teeth.

The script is the main culprit. Besides sounding as if it were written in 1926, it forces everyone to constantly use bad puns and phrases like "blasted swabs."

The big surprise in the cast is the celebrated Robert Stephens (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) as Morgan the Pirate. He's pretty embarrassing to watch, trying to bring a non-part to life by overplaying ... or maybe he's just trying to disguise himself. He must have thought he was getting into a big Errol Flynn-type production, only to find himself in a Sam Katzman poverty row picture.

Katzman's production is efficient but lackluster. The color photography is bright and cheap, with three dumb shots for every interesting one. The sets are flatly lit and poorly dressed, looking like good scenery for a pirate spoof on a television variety show. The most annoying thing is the huge number of recycled stock shots, presumably purloined from Fox Technicolor productions of the 40s. Crowd scenes and deck battles cut from clean-looking and dull new photography, to cropped enlargements from the old flat movies with better costumes and much better lighting. All the shots of ships at sea are old model stock shots, the kind that never seem to have anyone on board. The color match isn't terrible, but some of the old shots don't have good Technicolor registration. One otherwise handsome model shot of a boat leaning in the wind has bright red, green and blue edges to all the sails!

Rafer Johnson gets top billing on the DVD box even though he plays a token "soulful" pirate who trades wisdom with the heroine as she learns how to be a lady.

Fox's DVD of Pirates of Tortuga looks splendid, as if the negative hadn't been touched since 1961 - which is very possibly the exact truth. The enhanced picture gives us a great look at the bad costuming, cheap lighting and poorly-directed crowd scenes. The good audio track shows the limitations of the film's budget sound job - Bert Shefter and Paul Sawtell may have cobbled an original score, but it sounds like library cues that don't always seem to be playing back at speed.

There's a corny trailer on board, exactly what one would expect from Sam Katzman. It's in perfect shape, right down to the reversed lettering on the re-purposed stock shots. The disc's box art and menuing are very handsome indeed. Although we shake our heads that this particular show got the DVD nod when there's so many more deserving titles in the Fox vault, it's encouraging that a cheapie like Pirates of Tortuga is getting quality treatment. Fox is slowly doing well by its library.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pirates of Tortuga rates:
Movie: Fair ++, Good for nostalgia's sake
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 28, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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