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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Pirates of Blood River (Blu-ray)
The Pirates of Blood River (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // Unrated // October 17, 2017 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at ]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 11, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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Hammer Films is best remembered for its Gothic horror films, especially the Dracula and Frankenstein movies starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. But the company made pictures of all kinds: comedies, film noir, science fiction, war movies, and even musical shorts. In the early 1960s especially, when horror was just beginning to dominate the company's lineup (but also hobbled by censorship problems in Britain), Hammer made a number of especially fine suspense thrillers (usually written by Jimmy Sangster) and moderately ambitious swashbucklers. At the time Hammer enjoyed concurrent financing-distribution agreements with Universal, mostly for remakes of their classic horror films, but chiefly with Columbia Pictures, that company looking for second features to support their own product.

Except for a couple of brief stock shots and a single matte painting, there are no pirate ships to be found in The Pirates of Blood River, a colorful but badly structured swashbuckler with ill-defined characters. Nevertheless, paired with the excellent Ray Harryhausen Mysterious Island, the film was one of Hammer's biggest hits of the period, prompting the significantly better The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964).

The film is expensive looking by Hammer's usual standards, but still quite modest compared to major Hollywood studio productions. (At a guess, I'd say this probably cost in the general range of $350,000-$400,000.) There are lots of costumed extras and supporting players, two imported American stars, a large exterior set, and reasonably if not completely convincing vaguely Caribbean jungle terrain nearby.

After being caught having an illicit affair with the wife of one of the village elders, Jonathon Standing (Kerwin Mathews) is banished to a penal colony by his sanctimonious religious zealot father Jason (Andrew Keir, actually several months younger than Mathews). After months of abuse, Jonathon escapes from prison, only to fall straight into the hands of pirates led by Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee), who touts not only the requisite eye patch but also a useless, withered arm. (Lee is also just about the only Frenchman in the film who speaks with a French accent. More on this later.)

LaRoche convinces the unfathomably naïve Jonathon that the pirates will restore democracy (!) to the corrupt village when in fact they're only interested in treasure allegedly hidden there, treasure Jonathon knows does not exist. Upon arrival they threaten to kill two men per day until Jason reveals the treasure's location.

The Pirates of Blood River isn't all that good but so what? What's not to like in such a colorful widescreen swashbuckler pitting filmdom's Sinbad against the screen's foremost Dracula, and featuring Oliver Reed, Peter Arne, and Michael Ripper as lusty, cutthroat pirates? (In his first scene Reed immediately gets into a drunken brawl, beating the hell out of some guy. Art imitating life.) The main problem is that the script makes Mathews' Jonathon the picture's hero by default. The screenplay (by John Hunter and director John Gilling, from Jimmy Sangster's story) suggests an even roguier backstory for the character, but in any case pharisaical and/or corrupt French Calvinists, abusive prison guards, and immoral pirates populate the film.

The late Kerwin Mathews delivers an impressive performance despite the weak material. He does a marvelous job expressing confusion, anger, and disappointment at his father's pig-headedness, and is more expectedly terrific in the action scenes, going for broke in scenes as few others did.

About the casting: fellow American Glenn Corbett, another Columbia contract player, plays Jonathon's brother-in-law. Interestingly, each plays their character with their own flat American accents (Mathews grew up in Wisconsin; Corbett was born in El Monte, California). You don't even blink at Mathews' presence, who's totally in his element, but Corbett seems completely out of place, sticking out like a sore thumb. Why that is I have no idea, though Mathews theorized his "mid-Atlantic Wisconsin college-bred accent" fit in well.

Lee is okay in a murkily defined role. Both the script and Lee try to bring a slightly tragic and sympathetic air to the character, a man more intelligent and refined than the rest of his brood, but he's also a liar, merciless, and generally unlikable. There seems to have been some attempt to draw parallels between Lee's and Keir's similarly bullheaded characters, though this is slight.

Even in its Gothic horror films, usually set in Eastern Europe, Cockney-accented barmaids, Carpathian priests with Scottish burrs and the like were the norm with Hammer. In The Pirates of Blood River, Lee affects an unsubtle French accent, Peter Arne (who had a Swiss-French mother) adopts a realistic, subtler one, while third-pole-positioned Michael Ripper goes for the same broad Cockney he used in almost everything. But even Ripper, beloved by Hammer fans for his near constant presence playing tavern keepers, coachmen, police constables, etc., is profoundly hammy here, as if mistaking the Pirates of Blood River for the Pirates of Penzance.

Nonetheless, this is about as all-star a Hammer as they come. David Lodge and future "Q" Desmond Llewelyn have small parts as townsfolk, while Llewelyn's prepubescent son is played by Dennis Waterman, more than a decade away from TV stardom on shows like The Sweeney, Minder, and New Tricks.

A couple of scenes appear written to remind audiences that this is, after all, a Hammer film. The picture is book-ended with what for the time were pretty gruesome death-by-piranha scenes, its victims screaming and swallowed up in a pool of their own blood. There are also endless murders and threats of rape, underscoring the hypocrisy of the British Board of Film Censors in awarding this a "U" certificate (the equivalent of a "G" rating in America) while Hammer Horrors with an equal amount or even less violence were constantly rated "X" or ordered cut. (The Blu-ray is the slightly longer U.S. cut, but still exhibits signs of prerelease trimming.)

Video & Audio

The Pirates of Blood River is presented in Megascope, Hammer's CinemaScope-Panavision compatible ‘scope process. The 1080p, 2.35:1 video transfer Columbia provided to Twilight Time boasts rich color (green really pops) but the image is a tad soft, not so much so to ruin the presentation, but soft enough that I found myself constantly adjusting my projector's focus vainly hoping to sharpen the image a bit closer to what it should be but isn't. However, the 1.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio is surprisingly robust for what it is, and supported by optional English subtitles. This region-free disc is limited to 3,000 units.

Extra Features

Supplements include an isolated music and effects track, an archival audio commentary with writer Jimmy Sangster (who died in 2011), art director Don Mingaye, and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. There's a lively theatrical trailer, and Julie Kirgo's liner notes.

Parting Thoughts

Enjoyable but hampered by weak characters and a disjointed narrative, The Pirates of Blood River nevertheless is a fun picture and Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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