DVD: Pirates of Blood River, The (1962)

August 19, 2016 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: n/a

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 10, 2008

Genre:  Pirates / Adventure

Synopsis: An isolated Hugenot community is besieged by nefarious pirates who refuse to leave until the village leader hands over hidden gold.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with writer Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye, and Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn / Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / Liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Although best known as the prime purveyors of Britain’s gothic and classic monster films, Hammer Films also indulged in a few unrelated genres – crime, suspense, and pirate (!) – of which some contained occasionally more than a few ‘horrific’ elements. In the case of The Pirate of Blood River, the nastiness lay in a river filled with piranha fish, of which scenes unsurprisingly bookend this otherwise straightforward tale of pirates that lay siege to a small, insular village before the locals give up, and find themselves under the rule of cruel thugs.

Christopher Lee reportedly relished the chance to stretch his thespian skills in playing a French pirate, donning an authentic French accent to ensure is Captain LaRoche was wholly believable amid Hammer’s usual limited budgetary resources.

Photographed scenes tend to flip between what appear to be legitimate south seas locates – palm trees, a brutal valley serving as the island’s penal rock colony – and Bray Woods, where Hammer filmed most of their forest scenes for character intros, travelling woodsy montages, and confrontations in an open clearing. Most of the intercutting works – strategically placed palms or ferns add a semblance of continuity in spite of the often glaring differences in bright southern light and dimmer British skies – and the sets are fairly convincing, with another angle of Hammer’s standing Dracula castle once again doubling as a village corner, this time dressed with a bulbous wooden front.

Columbia’s star-in-waiting Kerwin Matthews (The Three Worlds of Gulliver) is Jonathon Standing, the very earnest, liberal-minded great grandson of the village’s founder, caught diddling with the wife of a council elder. When she’s killed by the piranha in a very cleverly designed sequence, Standing is sent to a penal colony to smash rocks for 15 years, but soon escapes, only to be snatched by wandering pirates searching for the ideal hideaway for their community of thugs.

Standing accepts LaRoche’s bargain of guaranteeing village safety in exchange for living under their dominance, but LaRoche’s promises of riches convince the less astute pirates that gold lies somewhere hidden within the village environs. Pirates has shades of bigger budgeted tales of siege – Castle Keep (1969) and The Last Valley (1971) – and yet while only two-thirds of their respective lengths, Pirates nevertheless succumbs to a state of filmmaker and scenarist ennui: once evil has settled into its despotic throne, how to push the drama towards its natural conclusion of villagers reclaiming their rightful domain?

Director John Gilling, who adapted Jimmy Sangster’s story with American scribe John Hunter, engages in a lengthy man-to-man fight between a pair of blindfolded pirates (one played by a young Oliver Reed, soon to appear in Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf), but it’s mostly filler material that distracts the audience from the script’s obvious limitations: with one main set (the council hall and town square), the drama needs some padding before the inevitable darkness rebellion that pushes the film into more intriguing areas.

That’s where Gilling starts to exploit some of the seeded conflicts shared among the unruly pirates: the captain’s greedy share, his treatment of the men, a bullheaded determination to lug ‘the treasure’ back to the ship in spite of dwindling men, and more importantly, building a parallel between delusional LaRoche and Standing’s father Jason (Andrew Keir), whose utter devotion to God ensures his fate will follow a kind of Herzogian doom.

The fight scenes are decent, if not a little erratic, and some of the camerawork has focus issues (perhaps due to the Megascope anamorphic lenses?), but the colours are quite vibrant, as are the costumes. Unconvincing is the villagers’ ability to engage so successfully in combat when their own primordial history on the island shows a lack of experience when dealing with invaders. (The existence of a penal colony close to a village makes even less sense; the colony’s populace is larger than the Hugenot village, which seems to contain less than two dozen men.)

Lee is re-teamed with The Hound of the Baskervilles’ heroine Marla Landi, although her role is limited to being Jonathon’s sister Bess, and her voice has been re-dubbed with a robust British accent. Desmond Llewellyn (the venerable Q from the James Bond franchise) has a minor role as a father with a limited lifespan, and peppering the cast is ebullient Peter Arne (Khartoum, The Oblong Box) as second mate Hench. As the love interest to Bess, the already unemotive Glenn Corbett (Homicidal) is given the film’s worst dialogue.

IconsOfAdventure

Pirates was originally released as part of Sony’s 2008 set Icons of Adventure: Hammer Films collection, and the dual-layer DVD shared space with The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), which also stars Lee and Keir, and featured another score by Gary Hughes.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports an excellent transfer of the already visually vibrant film, and retains the excellent commentary track with writer Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye. Moderator and Hammer Film historian Marcus Hearn clearly used the track’s recording date as an opportunity to mine as much info from the pair for posterity, and there are lengthy portraits of working at the studio, especially from Sangster, who moved to writing after starting out as a producer during the company’s early years.

Director Gilling gets a slightly harsh assessment by the trio – WWII shell-shock reportedly changed his temperament, with sometimes vicious results on set – but the cast and crew are given full marks for achieving their usual miracles on the film’s tiny budget. Hearn extracts enough memories to capture a dedicated creative team that stayed with low-paying Hammer because the work was challenging, the environment was less corporate and more familial, and the camaraderie was tight.

Hammer’s diversions into exotic lands & cultures were great fun, and Sony’s Icons of Adventure Collection also includes The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), The Strangers of Bombay (1959), and the Sangster-penned The Terror of the Tongs (1961) – films which will hopefully enjoy their own BR special editions.

 

 

© 2016; revised 2017 by Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s Blog: 2017 / 2016IMDB  — Composer FilmographySoundtrack Album
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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