Hammer Adventure: The Pirates of Blood River (1962) & The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)

The Pirates of Blood River (1962)

Written by John Hunter & John Gilling
Directed by John Gilling
Starring Kerwin Matthews, Glenn Corbett, Christopher Lee, Peter Arne
US Release Aug. 1962
RT 87 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

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Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

The Pirates of Blood River is as much tale of the Huguenots as much as it is a tale of pirates.  In terms of Hammer Films fictional history, the Huguenots were people who voyaged far from their mother country of France to avoid religious persecution at the end of the 17th century.  Once they settled on the Isle of Devon, though, greed and tyranny returned over time and “freedom became a memory.”  While a pirate ship does sail during the opening credits, we never see it again.

It’s also a good long while before we see any pirates.  Instead, the story begins with Jonathon Standing (Kerwin Matthews) caught fooling around in the woods with Margaret Blackthorne (Diane Aubrey, uncredited).  She runs away and jumps into piranha-infested waters.  “Thy will be done.”  For the crime of adultery, Jonathon is sentenced by his father and judge, Jason (Andrew Keir), to 15 years in a penal colony.  “An eye for an eye.”

Because of his family ties, Jonathon is treated poorly while imprisoned.  When he manages to escape, he’s chased into the swamp and shot, but only pretends to be dead.  That’s when he’s found by pirates, who want to investigate the Isle of Devon because, according to Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee), “It sounds like a wealthy place.”  Jonathon insists that it’s not.  “Since I’ve never been near a fortune, I haven’t thought about what it would be like to have one.”

LaRoche tricks Jonathon into agreeing to take them home with him.  Giving his word to help him get rid of “undesirable elements,” LaRoche and his crew are instead soon shouting, “Women; what are we waiting for?!?”  Dressed in black from head to toe with an eyepatch and crippled left arm, LaRoche says, “We are pirates and sometimes we’re inclined to… harshness.”  After seeing his father killed on the outskirts of town, a young boy runs to the settlement to warn his Uncle Henry (Glenn Corbett).

Henry and company ring the bell and lock the gates, lining the wall with gunmen prepared to do battle.  Jonathon begs his father to surrender… to let the pirates search so they know there’s no treasure.  Ah, but unbeknownst to Jonathon, there is treasure.  So they fight, ceasing fire only when the pirates have collected all the women and children.  “Our terms for leaving you unmolested are very simple,” says LaRoche. “Each day you remain silent (about the location of the treasure), two of you will be hanged.”

Meanwhile the pirates make themselves at home in the building that is both a place of justice and a place of worship.  (This lack of separation between church and state demonstrates one of the reasons freedom has been lost on the Isle of Devon.)  This allows two of them, Hench (Peter Arne) and Brocaire (Oliver Reed), time to have a blindfolded sword fight over the lovely Bess Standing (Marla Landi).  “It’s barbaric!” she cries.  “They’re fighting over you,” LaRoche says, “You should be honored.”

Eventually, the treasure is located in a clever location that I won’t reveal for you here.  The size and weight of it makes returning to their ship problematic and allows the good guys time to move ahead of the pirates to set traps for them.  By this time, LaRoche nearly has a mutiny on his hands.  When he tells his men they should reach the river by a certain time, they ask, “What then?”  He snaps, “I’m not a prophet!”  However, they do eventually plan to build a raft with which they can float their treasure to the ship.

Little do they know this is the piranha-infested river that earlier claimed the life of poor Maggie.  (I assume that’s why it’s called “Blood River.”)  After a double-cross and sword fights among LaRoche, Jonathon, Hench and Henry, the surviving bad guys are engulfed in a sea of tiny bubbles as the water turns red.  In another event that I won’t reveal, we’re given a partial resolution for the original Huguenot story, so that a different kind of villain can also be punished.

The Pirates of Blood River is accompanied with a rousing score by Gary Hughes.  Written and directed by John Gilling, who worked on mid-60s Hammer horror films such as The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile and The Mummy’s Shroud, it sails along at a brisk pace.  Lee is good as usual, but, again, the pirates are secondary for much of the movie.  Nevertheless, it’s fun to watch him brandish a sword.  Even with one eye and one arm, his LaRoche is quite a swashbuckler.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)

Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Don Sharp
Starring Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, John Cairney
US Release May, 1964
RT 86 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

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Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

The Devil-Ship Pirates is much more what I would consider a pirate movie than its predecessor from two years prior, The Pirates of Blood River; however, it’s still mostly landlocked.  Again drawing from history, Hammer this time depicts a July, 1588 battle in the English Channel against the Spanish Armada in which a damaged ship-for-hire, “Diablo,” lands on the coast for repairs.  When told the Diablo is now part of the Spanish Armada, Captain Robeles (Christopher Lee) shoots the messenger.

However, he will later tell inhabitants of a nearby village not only that they are they part of the Armada, but also that the Spanish won the war.  (Robeles threatens to cut out the tongue of anyone who reveals the truth.)  Harry (John Cairney) and Sir Basil Smeeton (Ernest Clark) are skeptical and through the rest of the movie will try to sabotage the pirates’ plans, along with Harry’s father, Tom (Andrew Keir) and a member of the crew who secretly assists them.

These plans include recruiting craftsmen to make repairs to their ship.  For the four days they plan to be there, Robeles and his crew will terrorize the village, harass the women and pillage the wealth.   There’s more fighting, sword and otherwise, here than in The Pirates of Blood River.  After one such skirmish, Robeles explains, “I intended a peaceful occupation, but two of my men have been murdered.”  When she’s abducted, Harry’s sister, Jane (Natasha Pyne) discovers the men aren’t who they claim to be.

The next morning, the townspeople assemble because Tom is going to be hanged.  I don’t remember how exactly they offended Robeles to deserve such sentences, but Harry is also going to suffer lashing… after they get a good day’s work out of him first.  These scenes emphasize the cruelty of the pirates and create sympathy for the opposition, which hatches a plan to cause an explosion on the ship the next night.  The final straw is a sword fight during which Robeles kills Sir Basil.

When six girls are taken hostage, their plot is complicated.  But it all comes together on board the Diablo and there can be no doubt about which side will prevail.  It’s a long climax as if Hammer wanted to get all they could out of their budget for an actual ship on the water.  Harry fights an entire band of pirates, Robeles and the “double agent” fight.  Then Harry fights Robeles, all while the women are escorted off the ship before it explodes.

I find it difficult to write as much about The Devil-Ship Pirates as I did about The Pirates of Blood River.  There’s more action, but the story is less involved. Lee’s Robeles is less nuanced in the former than his LaRoche in the latter.  The quality of filmmaking doesn’t feel the same.  Plus, The Pirates of Blood River has piranha!  The Devil-Ship Pirates has no such a gimmick.  Pirate movies are not a favorite genre of mine, unless there’s singing, so maybe just one of them is enough for me.

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