The Pirates of Blood River (1962)
Proving they were more than purveyors of Gothic Horrors, Hammer Films, produced this enjoyable Sunday afternoon actioner that follows a band of pirates inland looking to slaughter a settlement and steal the riches that supposedly lie hidden among the inhabitants.
Top billed Kerwin Mathews is the son of the settlement’s commander and keeper of the faith, Andrew Keir. He’ll run afoul of his father and the laws of the church by taking up with a married woman, It doesn’t end well for either one of the lovers. Piranha claim the lovely lass in a scene in keeping with the thrillers the company would produce while Kerwin is sentenced to fifteen years in a penal colony.
Tyranny and persecution are what lies ahead for Mathews, the one-time Sinbad/Gulliver of the Harryhausen universe. It’s brutal slave labor and at his first opportunity he’ll be making a break that leads him through swamps and bogs. Shackled and left for dead in the swamp after catching a flesh wound, Mathews, will stumble on to dry land and find himself surrounded by a colorful gang of rogues led by Peter Arne, Michael Ripper and Oliver Reed. Ripper thinks it best to bring the exhausted Mathews back to the ship to meet the Pirate leader.
”He’s not like other men. He don’t even sweat.”
It’s a striking Christopher Lee donning an eye patch and sporting a gloved, crippled hand as the pirate leader. He’ll strike a bargain with the naïve Mathews to lead them to the settlement. Lee claims he wants a place to lay low while Mathews wants to bring justice and convince his father, that the settlement needs to move forward in governing and not be so literal in their governing and punishments.
And so the journey inland begins which gives Hammer a chance to keep the budget within reason. No sea battles featuring Spanish galleons and filming at Bray Studios with some location shots picked up at Black Park Lake and other convenient spots. Lee again presents a deep voiced commanding presence as he rules with a stern glare when needed. By his side in one of his more enjoyable Hammer roles is the always lovable Michael Ripper. In this outing, Ripper, scores a much larger role than usual with plenty of dialogue. He’ll stand by his Captain for a good majority of the film but like any cutthroat, won’t take kindly to Lee’s sense of humor when it’s he himself who is the subject of Lee’s wrath.
Peter Arne and not surprisingly, Oliver Reed, are the real roughs of the gang. Reed was on a run of films for Hammer before going on to international stardom. He had already appeared for Hammer in minor roles in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and The Sword of Sherwood Forest before his breakout role in The Curse of The Werewolf in 1961. He’d continue his association with the studio in films like the excellent thriller Paranoiac, Night Creatures and The Brigand of Kandahar not to mention narrating 13 episodes of the 1994 documentary series, The World of Hammer.
Back to our story. While Lee and company prove to be less than trustworthy and making an enemy of Mathews, American born actor Glenn Corbett, also stars as a peaceful man of the settlement betrothed to Mathew’s sister, Marla Landi. Corbett will lay low while Lee’s men storm the settlement capturing all within it. Lee’s in a bargaining mood. If Keir will divulge the location of the treasure the settlement is hording, he’ll not hang anyone. But to give Keir a taste of just how brutal he can be he’ll unleash Ripper to play a game of who holds the short straws. The two losers among the settlement’s elders are immediately put to death.
There is indeed gold at stake and a long trek back through the jungles (of England?) to Lee’s command. Plenty of skirmishes between Lee’s pirates and the team of Mathews and Corbett ensue. All with a capital A for action and adventure.
You don’t need to be a Hammer fan to enjoy this colorful sword and musket picture. A first rate cast has been assembled from Hammer regulars like Lee, Ripper and Reed to the always likable Corbett who starred in a number of popular 60’s and 70’s TV shows and a pair of Duke westerns, Chisum and Big Jake. Andrew Keir is another fine addition to the Hammer stock company whose best role was probably the title character in Quatermass and the Pit. He’d play opposite Lee in Dracula : Prince of Darkness and also take over for a mourning Peter Cushing in 1971’s Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb.
Lee would tangle with Oliver Reed a number of times in the years ahead but none more enjoyable than when they crossed swords in the star studded Musketeer trilogy from director Richard Lester.
Reed as Athos and Lee as Rochefort.
Pirates features an appropriately rousing score to open the film from Gary Hughes who also was credited on Hammer’s The Devil-Ship Pirates, The Crimson Blade, The Viking Queen and A Challenge for Robin Hood. Other names that Hammerphiles will point out in the credits are producer Anthony Nelson Keys, leading lady Marla Landi who played opposite Lee’s Henry Baskerville in 59’s Hound and writer Jimmy Sangster scoring a screenplay credit. Sangster is one of the most common names among those behind the scenes at Hammer having contributed screenplays to both the Frankenstein and Dracula series among others at the studio.
Serving as director is John Gilling. Gilling would helm some of Hammer’s more flavorful mid 60’s efforts including Plague of the Zombies. A film which has steadily grown in stature with the advancement of home video and it’s becoming easier to locate. He’d also direct the memorable The Reptile followed by his final film for the studio, The Mummy’s Shroud.
Took me years to see this and other Hammer efforts that focused on pirates and swashbucklers. Thankfully now it’s easy to locate on DVD or more recently on blu ray editions via Twilight Time and the excellent series of Hammer boxsets from Indicator.