Friday, June 1, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Pirates of Blood River (1962)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

At the end of the 17th century, a group of Huguenots fled France and settled on the tropical, piranha-infested Isle of Devon somewhere in the tropics. Now, two generations later, what once was supposed to be a colony providing freedom from persecution has become the tyranny of a handful of older men with impressive facial hair under the leadership of Jason Standing (Andrew Keir, as intense as always, even though the script doesn't provide him with much to work with here). The bible-wielding elders sentence people to death or life in their own little penal colony for breaking that obscure set of religious laws known as "the ten commandments" (or something of that sort). The less bearded classes aren't too happy with the political state of affairs, yet they're still too respectful of their elders and their elders' leather-vested henchmen to openly rebel.

Standing's own son Jonathon (Kerwin Mathews, one of the better romantic leads for this sort of film) is especially dissatisfied with life on the island, thinking his father lets himself be manipulated into a cruelty that is quite against his nature by his colleagues. Rather lacking in holiness himself, Jonathon's also in love with a married woman who is mistreated by her husband, and plans on fleeing the place together with her. Alas, before the couple can realize their plans, the elders are catching them in the act of rubbing their cheeks together, provoking the poor woman into running into a river full of piranhas.

Graciously, the elders don't sentence Jonathon to death for his unbiblical behaviour, but rather to spend some time in the colony's penal colony, which, as it turns out, is just as much of a death sentence, just a slower one.

Things at the colony are rough, and Jonathon's background makes him not exactly well-liked by the warden, but eventually, the young man escapes. Only to run right into the arms of the pirate band of Captain LaRoche (Christopher "I'm French, no, really" Lee) which counts among its members some beloved Hammer mainstays like young Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper. For a pirate, the Captain seems civilized enough, and claims to be willing to help Jonathon out with peacefully getting rid of the rule of the elders if the younger man only agrees to let the pirates stay in the Huguenot village for rest and recuperation whenever they need it.

In a turn of events that only surprises Jonathon, the pirates are really in it for the raping and the pillaging. LaRoche is convinced that the founders of the colony have hidden away a treasure of gold somewhere (he might even be right), and he's willing to do absolutely anything to get it. Of course, hoping for gold and actually finding it are two things, especially when some of the Huguenots turn out to be quite competent guerrilla fighters.

John Gilling's The Pirates of Blood River is the least among Hammer Film's handful of seafaring averse pirate movies, slightly hampered by a script that sets up conflicts for its first thirty minutes it will then not bother to resolve later on by anything else but hand-waving.

The whole religious oppression angle is very much side-lined - except for two or three wavering dialogue scenes - once the pirates arrive at the colony, and is only ever resolved by the fact that LaRoche kills off the elders one by one, which sure is a solution, but not one that's thematically satisfying. On the positive side, pirates.

Said pirates are a bit sillier than in the other Hammer pirate movies, too, for some genius (Gilling? Anthony Keys? Jimmy Sangster?) decided it would be a bright idea not just to camp up their appearance, but also to let them all - except for Michael Ripper, whose dialogue instead tests out how often a man can use the pirate-appropriate word "matey" without giggling - speak with painfully fake accents. Reed - in an unfortunately minor role - and Lee - doing his evil glowering shtick with some enthusiasm and thanks to that to very good effect - seem to be trying to outdo each other in the badness of their "French" accents. Though this aspect of the movie clearly has camp value (too bad for me I abhor the concept), it's standing in stark opposition to the film's earnest dramatic tone and makes it quite a bit more difficult to take certain scenes seriously.

This isn't to suggest there's nothing enjoyable at all about the movie if you're not into pointing at especially silly pirates; this is, after all a Hammer production made in the early 60s, a time when the high professional standards of the studio and the people working for it made it quite impossible for them to produce a bad movie. Gilling - who directed two of my favourites among the studio's non-series horror movies with The Reptile and Revolt of the Zombies - may have his problems with the film's pacing in the early scenes, but once the final half hour arrives, he milks a lot of excitement out of the guerrilla warfare between the Huguenots and the pirates trying to get away with their ill gotten gains. At that point, there's little left of the silliness of the film's earlier scenes. High camp is replaced by a certain grimness that makes up for a lot of what came before.

My true disappointment isn't so much with the film's problems at the beginning anyway but rather with the idea how fantastic the film could have been if it had been quite as good as those last scenes right from the start. As it stands, the sympathetic viewer needs a bit of patience and the ability to ignore a problematic set-up to enjoy The Pirates of Blood River, but with that patience, the film is still very much worth seeing.

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