Crimson Pirate

Crimson Pirate
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Richard Siodmak
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

The Crimson Pirate

This isn’t the first swashbuckler farce, but it is the first great one, a hoot and a half from beginning to end. Burt Lancaster immediately sets the tone by breaking the fourth wall: high atop a ship’s mast, he does an aerial stunt, grins at the audience, and says, “Believe only what you see!” Then he does the stunt backwards by reversing the film and says, “Well, believe half of what you see!” Then it’s “Sail ho!” and we’re off to the first ship battle.

This film is set in the revolutionary 1790s, so we’re in Scarlet Pimpernel territory, and indeed the original script by the blacklisted Waldo Salt was a serious anti-aristocratic call to arms. According to the memoirs of Christopher Lee, who has a small part here as a king’s officer, director Richard Siodmak quickly rewrote it into a cartoony self-parody, full of action but high spirited and frequently hilarious. The chase scenes often bring to mind another Warner Bros. franchise, the Looney Tunes of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng—and that’s meant as a compliment. It even has a fine antic soundtrack by William Alwyn with a catchy main theme that evokes both sailing and circuses.

The setting is a bit fantastical in that the pirates are opposed by the troops and navy of “the King,” an unnamed imperial monarch who combines elements of England and Spain. However, the exterior scenes, which are most of them, are shot on the Italian island of Ischia, with its medieval town, harbor, and port, which grounds the production in reality. And it needs that grounding, because Lancaster and sidekick Nick Cravat, his old circus partner, are in full-on bounding-acrobat mode, knocking down rows of soldiers with barrels, driving Da Vinci-inspired steampunk tank-wagons, and dive-bombing the king’s troops from a hot-air balloon. There’s a solid liberate-the-people revolution ‘n’ romance plot to support all these shenanigans, with good performances from Eva Bartok as the spunky liberator’s daughter, Leslie Bradley as the ruthless aristo villain, and best of all Torin Thatcher as Humble Bellows, the pirate crew’s scurvy by philosophical first mate. But really this is the Flying Burt and Nick Show—Lancaster even gets to act a bit as his Captain Vallo gradually falls in love with the liberator’s daughter and grows some newly uncomfortable scruples. The best scene may be when Nick and Burt, the latter impersonating the villain, crash the island governor’s fancy ball wearing outrageously foppish finery, Burt grinning like the Cheshire cat and Nick eyeing all the ladies’ jewelry through a gilded quizzing glass. It’s just so hard to choose!

ELLSWORTH’S CINEMA OF SWORDS 1952, Part One

Against All Flags
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: George Sherman
Source: Universal Studios DVD

I know it isn’t true, but I like to think that in the late 1990s, when the wonks at Disney were considering what tone to take for the movie they planned to base on their Pirates of the Caribbean theme-park ride, they watched a lot of old pirate movies, saw Against All Flags, and said, “That’s it!” Though a few historical names appear in it, this is a story set in an Age of Piracy beyond history, or at least no closer than next door to it. The bustling Madagascar port of Libertatia is run by the Captains of the Coast, a diverse gang that includes the Latino Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn), Englishman William Kidd, a black Jamaican called Captain Death, and a woman, the fiercely independent Spitfire Stevens (Maureen O’Hara), daughter of the master gunsmith who built the impregnable defenses that protect the pirate port Against All Flags—the navies of the world.

Enter Lt. Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn), who’s been whipped out of the Royal Navy and comes to Libertatia to join the pirates. Flynn looks a trifle puffy and worn down here, frankly, but acting-wise he’s got much of his old pre-war swashbuckler mojo back. That mischievous glint is in his eye once more, and he seems to be enjoying himself, especially in his scenes with O’Hara. (I mean, who wouldn’t be?) She is great here, on top of her game, striding around in thigh-high leather boots and swinging a sword with the best of them, alternately trying to kiss Flynn or kill him. Anthony Quinn just wants to kill him—and he may be the villain, but as Captain Roc he looks damned dashing swaggering about in his black mustachios and gaudy pirate garb. He’s the one who engineers Flynn’s most dangerous challenge, a one-on-one fight in which Hawke must prove his pirate’s bona fides by dueling a giant buccaneer with hooked boarding pikes. Ouch!

Flynn, of course, is actually a Navy spy, come to Libertatia to steal the plans of its fortifications, spike the guns, and call down condign punishment upon the pirates. He has a busy agenda: he must romance Spitfire Stevens, go a-pirating with Captain Roc, rescue an East Indian princess, and survive being lashed to the deadly Tide Stakes as the claw-clacking surf crabs crawl closer, ever closer … but it’s all done with a light hand and tongue not-quite-in-cheek. By the time it comes to a head in a giant sword-fight on the deck of Roc’s brigantine, with Flynn, O’Hara, and Quinn all fencing away like fury, virtue, or at least cunning, is triumphant, and everyone has had a thoroughly satisfying piratical romp. Bonus: watch for Flynn, alone at night at the ship’s wheel, singing “Haul on the Bowline” to himself.

At Sword’s Point
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Lewis Allen
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

This sequel to The Three Musketeers was made by RKO a couple of years earlier but not released until 1952, possibly to get it out of the long shadow of the 1948 MGM version. There have been dozens of screen versions of The Three Musketeers, but Hollywood has never quite figured out how to adapt Dumas’s sequel, Twenty Years After, into a successful film. This story does use some of the elements of that novel, in particular France on the verge of civil war after the deaths of Louis XIII and Richelieu, with the aging Queen Anne trying to preserve order until Louis XIV can come of age, while fractious nobles, personified here by the scheming Duke de Lavalle (Robert Douglas) vie to seize power. However, instead of having the novel’s older versions of the four musketeers step in to sort things out, this tale calls on their grown-up children to rise to the occasion. Is this Hollywood ageism at work? Well, it certainly isn’t sexism, as one of the younger generation is Athos’s daughter, Claire (Maureen O’Hara), and she’s as good with a blade of any of the men—with the possible exception of the young d’Artagnan, who is, after all, played by an Olympic fencer (Cornel Wilde).

But let’s not gloss over the point: this is the first serious movie representation of a female swashbuckler who is the equal of the men—and accepted by them as such! There’s still plenty of flirtation toward Claire by the young Aramis and d’Artagnan—I mean, these are musketeers—but it’s not condescending, and she gives as good as she gets. The ones who underestimate Claire are the villains, and they learn to be sorry they did. The best moment in the picture is when Lavalle, who’s strong-armed the queen into letting him marry Princess Henriette, leads her to the altar, lifts her veil, and finds that Claire has taken his bride’s place, and the princess is safely in the hands of the other musketeers. Claire, faced with the wrath of the most powerful man in France, just laughs in his face.

The plot here is nothing to write home about, being the usual series of swordfights, kidnappings, escapes, pursuits, betrayals, traps, and rescues, but the writers are clearly admirers of Dumas, and there are a number of fun call-outs to the novels, e.g., minor characters named Planchet and Rochefort, and at one point Claire, hoodwinking some guards, assumes the name Countess de La Fère—the family name in the novels of her father, Athos. Plus the costumes are good, Wilde does some nicely acrobatic swashbuckling, and the blue tabards of the King’s Musketeers come out of the wardrobe for the grand finale. All fine, but it’s Maureen O’Hara who walks away with the prize for this film.

Blackbeard, the Pirate
Rating: **
Origin: USA
Director: Raoul Walsh
Source: Amazon streaming video

On November 22, 1718, Edward Teach, the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard, was killed on his ship the Adventure during a fierce boarding action led by Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. By the time he was brought down, Blackbeard had been shot five times and suffered twenty wounds from edged weapons. For the most famous image depicting this event, look no further than the painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris on the cover of your editor’s Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure anthology.

Blackbeard’s career and death are also depicted in this film, in which Lt. Maynard, ordered to Port Royale in pursuit of Henry Morgan and the loot from the sack of Panama … wait, what? Whoa, this story is set in the 1670s, before Ned Teach and Rob Maynard were even born. In fact, this entire moving picture is nought but a tissue of lies! Avast! Bloody pirates—they’ll steal half a century right out from under you if you so much as look the wrong way.

History failure notwithstanding, this was one of the most popular pirate movies of the ‘50s, thanks mainly to Robert Newton’s unhinged and completely over-the-top performance as Blackbeard. Newton took all the mannerisms and speech patterns he’d developed for the rôle of Long John Silver in Treasure Island and cranked them up to eleven, frequently veering into farce and self-parody, but no less entertaining because of that. (So many “Arr”s!) Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t hold up so well. The plot is sadly muddled, starting out with Maynard undercover chasing Morgan but captured by Blackbeard, along with Edwina, a pirate-captain’s daughter who’s secretly stolen Morgan’s treasure, all of them blundering about loudly at cross-purposes, and it never really gets sorted out. Characters’ motives change suddenly from scene to scene, people stranded on islands show up back in port without explanation, and even the big ship-to-ship showdown between Blackbeard and Morgan ends in an unsatisfying draw. It’s a mess.

One could overlook the ham-handed story if the performances supporting Newton were entertaining, but the rest of the cast is just bland and forgettable. Worst is Keith Andes, who plays Maynard, the English naval lieutenant and ostensible protagonist, exactly as if he were a tough-talking New York district attorney going up against the mob—imagine a slim Peter Graves but with no sense of humor. We’re supposed to root for this guy against Blackbeard and the other pirates, but it’s flat-out impossible. His intermittent romance with Edwina (Linda Darnell) is likewise arid and unconvincing, no matter how hard Darnell tries to look adoringly at him. Yeah, no.

At least there’s a lot of action, solidly directed by Raoul Walsh; the cutlass duels in particular are quite good. The shipboard scenes are also decent, with the quarters below decks properly close and cramped, including visits to the lazaret and the orlop (or, as Newton calls it, “the arr-lop”). And Blackbeard’s crew are as filthy and repulsive a set of brutes as you’re likely to see in the otherwise over-tidy 1950s, so bonus points for that. But you won’t be able to swallow the story unless you swallow a stiff rum or three first.

Captain Pirate
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Ralph Murphy
Source: Columbia Pictures DVD

The black-and-white Fortunes of Captain Blood (1950) must have done well, because Columbia upped the production ante for this Technicolor sequel, which is quite good despite its reeeeally stupid title. (I blame Columbia’s marketing department.) Like Fortunes, it stars Louis Hayward and Patricia Medina in a story loosely based on a book by Rafael Sabatini, in this case Captain Blood Returns (1932). The writers borrowed some incidents, characters, and names from Returns, but this is an original story, and a good one; it hews closely to the historical feel and personality of Sabatini’s tales, which hinge on the balance between Peter Blood’s ruthless cunning and innate decency.

The plot here is a member of the “The only way to prove I’m not the murderer is to catch the real killer” club, piracy chapter. Blood, now a retired and respectable Jamaica planter, is on the verge of marrying Doña Isabella, whom he rescued in Fortunes, when he’s arrested and accused of returning to piracy to attack the port of Cartagena, on the evidence of Isabella’s Spanish cousin and that of Hilary Evans (John Sutton), Blood’s rival for her hand. With Blood in prison, Isabella takes over; at her behest Blood’s first mate reforms his old crew (there’s a fine rallying-the-crew montage delightfully scored to the tune of “Drunken Sailor”), Evans’s ship is boarded and captured in Port Royal harbor, and Blood is freed to sail off and try to determine who really raided Cartagena in his guise.

What follows is a high-seas detective story on the Spanish Main that takes Blood and his crew from Port Royal to Tortuga, Martinique, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Bello, bargaining with, bamboozling, and bullying a series of gratifyingly unsavory characters of every stripe, always just ahead of the pursuing English and Spanish navies. There are some tense action scenes, in which Hayward shows that he’s not only improved his already-capable fencing skills, but has added judo into the bargain, throwing scurvy dogs and Royal Marines around with equal abandon. The final duel with Sutton in a burning fortress is pretty thrilling. Does Blood finally track down the true culprit, clear his name, and marry Doña Isabella? What do you think?

The Crimson Pirate
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA
Director: Richard Siodmak
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

This isn’t the first swashbuckler farce, but it is the first great one, a hoot and a half from beginning to end. Burt Lancaster immediately sets the tone by breaking the fourth wall: high atop a ship’s mast, he does an aerial stunt, grins at the audience, and says, “Believe only what you see!” Then he does the stunt backwards by reversing the film and says, “Well, believe half of what you see!” Then it’s “Sail ho!” and we’re off to the first ship battle.

This film is set in the revolutionary 1790s, so we’re in Scarlet Pimpernel territory, and indeed the original script by the blacklisted Waldo Salt was a serious anti-aristocratic call to arms. According to the memoirs of Christopher Lee, who has a small part here as a king’s officer, director Richard Siodmak quickly rewrote it into a cartoony self-parody, full of action but high spirited and frequently hilarious. The chase scenes often bring to mind another Warner Bros. franchise, the Looney Tunes of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng—and that’s meant as a compliment. It even has a fine antic soundtrack by William Alwyn with a catchy main theme that evokes both sailing and circuses.

The setting is a bit fantastical in that the pirates are opposed by the troops and navy of “the King,” an unnamed imperial monarch who combines elements of England and Spain. However, the exterior scenes, which are most of them, are shot on the Italian island of Ischia, with its medieval town, harbor, and port, which grounds the production in reality. And it needs that grounding, because Lancaster and sidekick Nick Cravat, his old circus partner, are in full-on bounding-acrobat mode, knocking down rows of soldiers with barrels, driving Da Vinci-inspired steampunk tank-wagons, and dive-bombing the king’s troops from a hot-air balloon. There’s a solid liberate-the-people revolution ‘n’ romance plot to support all these shenanigans, with good performances from Eva Bartok as the spunky liberator’s daughter, Leslie Bradley as the ruthless aristo villain, and best of all Torin Thatcher as Humble Bellows, the pirate crew’s scurvy by philosophical first mate. But really this is the Flying Burt and Nick Show—Lancaster even gets to act a bit as his Captain Vallo gradually falls in love with the liberator’s daughter and grows some newly uncomfortable scruples. The best scene may be when Nick and Burt, the latter impersonating the villain, crash the island governor’s fancy ball wearing outrageously foppish finery, Burt grinning like the Cheshire cat and Nick eyeing all the ladies’ jewelry through a gilded quizzing glass. It’s just so hard to choose!

Ivanhoe
Rating: ****
Origin: USA
Director: Richard Thorpe
Source: Amazon streaming video

In 1814 the poet Walter Scott began publishing his Waverly novels of recent Scottish history, before switching, with Ivanhoe in 1820, to the Medieval era and the history of England, co-inventing (along with Jane Porter) the modern genre of the historical adventure novel in the process. Ivanhoe was a landmark in other ways as well, for its sympathetic treatment of Jews in Western societies, for establishing the character and tone of our modern version of Robin Hood, and for promoting the Medieval background as a setting for adventure tales, still as popular today in the 21st century as Scott made them in the 19th. (That’s right: no Ivanhoe, no Game of Thrones.)

This blockbuster 1952 MGM film was also something of a landmark: its success made movies of knights in shining armor a Hollywood staple for years to come, it brought Scott’s sympathy for the plight of the Jews undimmed to the big screen, and it launched Elizabeth Taylor to the heights of stardom. Its titular hero, however, is another Taylor, Robert, in the rôle of Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a knight in the service of King Richard the Lion-Hearted newly returned from the Crusades. Richard has been imprisoned by Leopold of Austria, and Ivanhoe has vowed to raise the money for his ransom, and to fight for the Saxons against Prince John and Norman oppression while he’s at it. As if that weren’t enough, he also wants to marry the Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine), but to do that he’ll have to regain the lost favor of his fierce Saxon father, Sir Cedric (Finlay Currie, with an amazing head of hair). To do all this Ivanhoe must win the Big Tournament, but he can’t enter without money to buy horse and gear—which is how he meets Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of a moneylender. Do sparks fly? Yes, they do.

Of course a hero is only as good as his villains, and Ivanhoe has some dangerous foes in Prince John (the wolfish, sneering Guy Rolfe) and the foremost of the Norman knights, the arrogant Bois-Guilbert—played by George Sanders, and now you know we’re in for a good time! The movie was filmed in and among the castles of Scotland, so the scenery is fabulous, and the castle interiors are properly cramped, stony, and asymmetrical. Some of the weapons are wrong for the period, but the knights’ armor is right, suits and coifs of chainmail rather than the plate armor of later times. The film is bookended by two knightly tournament scenes, both classic in their way, but they’re outdone in the middle by the exciting siege and assault on a castle, when the Saxons, led by Robin Hood (Harold Warrender), finally rise against the Normans. If you’ve ever looked at a Medieval castle and wondered how the devil attackers could get across a moat and up a sheer wall in the face of bolts and boulders, Ivanhoe shows you how.
The movie’s not without flaws: except for a few weak jokes from Wamba, Ivanhoe’s jester-turned-squire, it’s a humorless affair, and here and there it drags a bit. Robert Taylor looks the part but his acting is rather dry and stiff, and the same can be said of Joan Fontaine. Of the leads in the love triangle, only Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca the Jewess really shines, almost literally; when she’s onscreen you can’t look away. And it’s not just because she’s stunning, she’s also far and away the best actor in the picture. Only Sanders comes close: after Bois-Guilbert loses his black villain’s heart at first sight of Rebecca, he’s conflicted at every turn, and never sure of himself again. Additional kudos must be paid to Felix Aylmer for his fine performance as the Jewish patriarch Isaac, and to Miklós Rósza for the rousing score, one of his best. A whole series of Medieval movie epics will follow in the wake of Ivanhoe, but few will be as good.