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The Crimson Pirate

The Crimson Pirate
Warner Home Entertainment
1952 / color / 1:37 flat full frame / 105 min. / Street Date July 1, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok, Torin Thatcher, James Hayter, Leslie Bradley, Noel Purcell, Dana Wynter, Christopher Lee
Cinematography Otto Heller
Art Direction Paul Sheriff
Film Editor Jack Harris
Original Music William Alwyn
Written by Roland Kibbee
Produced by Harold Hecht
Directed by Robert Siodmak

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Crimson Pirate is a delightful kids' film, a fantasy that revels in action and adventure without the slightest worry about things like history or 'quality filmmaking.' It's simple, direct and robust, with plenty of funny slapstick and even a few jokes for adults - many of which secretly love it. Burt Lancaster is clearly in his element, swinging bare-chested from ropes and facing down every challenge with his huge grin. He's the healthiest-looking male specimen since Douglas Fairbanks. You can forget about a certain just-out pirate groaner - Warner's DVD has restored this buccaneer feast to eye-popping clarity.


Carefree pirate Captain Vallo (Burt Lancaster) and his agreeably scurvy crew plunder the Caribbean in accordance with the Pirate's Code, as voiced by first mate Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher). From Baron Jose Gruda (Leslie Bradley) they seize a ship full of arms intended for the suppression of revolt, and make a deal to earn a fortune by capturing a rebel leader. Vallo and his athletic, mute sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat) contact the rebels, and Vallo falls in love with the leader's daughter, Consuelo (Eva Bartok). Various double-crosses ensue when Vallo changes loyalties, but with the help of amazing inventor Professor Prudence (James Hayter), Vallo routs the royals and wins the day.

The Crimson Pirate must have packed in the kids for Saturday matinees, giving them a big-budget Technicolor dose of the kind of action reserved for low-rent Republic serials. Conventional film critics won't find much of significance in the film, but who cares about them? Any kid from 4 on up loves this colorful show.

That rascal Vallon addresses the audience directly right up front, warning us to keep a sharp lookout for tricks, the pirate's stock-in-trade. The whole movie is nothing less than a clever circus act, a happy workout for ex-trapeze star Lancaster and his old partner from the big top, Nick Cravat. Cravat is a prince among sidekicks - he's short, even stronger-looking than Burt, and devilishly funny when doing silent clown-comedy schtick, like Harpo Marx. If Cravat wasn't comfortable reciting dialogue, making his character mute was a perfect solution. He and Lancaster run, jump and fly through the air in lock-synch with each other, like dancers. They put the Art back into stuntwork, as Gene Kelly had tried in The Three Musketeers.

The comedy is half Three Stooges, half Chuck Jones. Gags aren't concerned with physical limitations or even basic physics - people can hide in plain sight, and Vallo's crew swims 200 yards underwater. There's no blood when men are clonked on the head, run through with swords, or mowed down by cannon fire. The whole enterprise brims with such good spirits, it's not even sadistic.

The English production is a hoot. The vaguely Spanish setting doesn't specify a country (the better not to offend a potential market) and the tacky costumes are all over the place, probably chosen for basic colors. The Caribbean is represented by a beautiful harbor (Spain? Portugal? The Canary Islands) unspoiled by factories or radio towers. Nothing tries to be more realistic than a cartoon, liberating the story to concentrate on one gag-laden scene after another.

Roland Kibbee's script has Lancaster's chesty, mercenary pirate defect to the side of virtue for the sake of a woman (the interesting Eva Bartok of Spaceways and Blood and Black Lace). The tricks that worked for Zorro and Robin Hood work even better for Vallo, including various ridiculous disguises. When he and Ojo impersonate flower girls, Ojo has to hold a bouquet in front of his beard to keep up the illusion.

There aren't any politics to speak of, beyond making fun of the effete Royals and their goonish guards. One aged aristocrat parts from his bevy of beauties with the line, "Now wait here, my foxy woxy woxies!" Burt is a revolutionary only to please his girl, and there's no undercurrent of righteousness whatsoever. The non-stop action is interrupted only for a brief bit where Ojo explains wordlessly that Vallo is in love, a great mime gag.

Most swashbucklers distort political history while staying fairly accurate to the time period, but The Crimson Pirate has a field day with anachronisms and fantastic fun. James Hayter's amiable professor comes up with four or five epochal inventions in less than a week, including a lighter-than-air balloon, nitroglycerin, tanks, a machine gun and a submarine. The story tosses out reality in favor of what kids want to see, the kinds of games they'd play in their own back yards. This kind of juvenile whimsy went missing in films for most of the 1950s, and it's to Hecht and Lancaster's credit that they saw the need and filled it.

As the sentimental/treacherous first mate, Torin Thatcher wears some kind of Celtic kilt-thing, and snarls in his best Sokurah voice. He's pretty funny when he protests that letting female prisoners go without molestation is an infraction of the Pirate's Code. Leslie Bradley is a fine intelligent villain. He remained in mostly obscure roles, and ended up unrecognizable as the old Lawgiver in Roger Corman's Teenage Caveman. James Hayter (Land of the Pharaohs) is amusingly sober as the genius professor, and distinctively white-haired Noel Purcell stands out among the rebels.

Unbilled but immediately spottable are Dana Wynter as Bradley's ocean-cruise guest - she was going by the name Dagmar at this time - and our good friend Christopher Lee, who carries a lot of exposition as a second-tier baddie. We see him engaged in a couple of swordfights, but he's mostly shoved aside in favor of more cartoon fun. Sadly, if they shot a death scene for Lee, it's gone. He simply disappears at the conclusion. Fans will remember him from other English Warners productions like Captain Horatio Hornblower; in the crowded field of Brit actors, he and Peter Cushing apparently got film experience by snagging breaks in American guest productions.

The light tone renders irrelevant the occasional error, like the large, modern ship clearly visible in a couple of establishing shots. Listed as associate art director is Ken Adam, later to design the world of James Bond. A trained engineer, he perhaps helped with the anachronistic inventions and the sets tweaked to accommodate the circus stars' precision stunts.

Perhaps the best thing about watching The Crimson Pirate now is the fact that there are so many stunts where Lancaster and Cravat are really doing what we see them doing, often without nets, and of course without wires or other digital dodges.  1 We want to applaud them after every back-flip and bruise-inducing collision. They clearly believe in their mission of redeeming the 12-year-old in all of us. Fifty years later, with Burt Lancaster gone for almost a decade, this fun show is still a delight.

Warners' DVD of The Crimson Pirate is wonderful. I remember this title on bleary off-tint color television from around '62, and it's great to see it sparkle in the DVD format. The transfer is almost perfect; I can only assume that there was a very good composite element available. The colors pop and the night scenes look rich. The added resolution doesn't reveal any technical secrets - all the stunts still look authentic. Only the crane-mounted giant balloon is a little on the phony side.

The extras are limited to some informative text files. The menus are nicely rigged, and we're glad for the original poster art on the cover, even though it's typical for early-50s Warners: two-color and ugly. Poor Burt looks like a butterfly pinned in a display case.

The Crimson Pirate makes us hungry for more Lancaster swash - His Majesty O'Keefe, anybody? - and Republic's overachieving kiddie adventure with Fred MacMurray, Fair Wind to Java. I read a couple of years ago that Scorsese had secured financing to restore that one, but since then, silence.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Crimson Pirate rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: text files
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: July 18, 2003


1. The 'real' stunts were always the thrill of action movies, a lost art. Today's digital futzing is used not just for dangerous action, but to streamline production. Nowadays, there's no guarantee that anything on a screen began as filmed reality of any kind, and big action scenes are often so absurd and overdone that they might as well be animated cartoons. When they bring back Indiana Jones, 60-year-old Harrison Ford will doubtlessly be leaping about with an agility far surpassing his younger self. Are movie audiences that clueless about what's 'real' and what's not? This may explain a lot of voting patterns.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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