(1962) Directed by Peter Graham Scott; Written by John Elder (aka: Anthony Hinds); Additional dialogue by: Barbara S. Carpenter; Based on the novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh by Arthur Russell Thorndike; Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper; Available on DVD.
“I was amazed by what Peter Cushing brought to his character. He enjoyed working with me and I enjoyed working with him. He would come along with an idea in the morning, but wouldn’t tell me until we were about to shoot the scene. We always used to try his ideas, because usually they were very good…” – Peter Graham Scott (from Hammer Films – The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)
Thanks to Fritzi Kramer from Movies Silently for hosting and organizing the Swashathon, featuring more posts about swashbuckling than you can wag a sword at. It’s an honor to be included among such an esteemed bunch of bloggers.
Hammer Films are forever associated with horror, but this perception overlooks the company’s many contributions in numerous genres (Comedy, drama, suspense, you name it). It’s this skewed mindset that likely prompted the folks at Universal International to release Captain Clegg under the American title, Night Creatures, but whoa there! Hold your ghostly horses, because this isn’t that type of movie. While the titular “night creatures” make a brief appearance, the film displays its true colors, or should I say, “colours” (This is a Hammer movie, after all.) as a rollicking good adventure. I suspect American audiences expecting a tale of the supernatural felt Hammer and Universal did a bait and switch, but once you realize what the movie isn’t, it’s easier to accept what it is. Let’s move on, shall we?
Captain Clegg was based on Arthur Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh, and was filmed once before, in 1937, as Doctor Syn, with George Arliss in the title role. Due to a legal tug-o-war with Disney over the source material, it was decided that Hammer could produce their version, but couldn’t use the name Dr. Syn (Disney’s version would eventually be filmed in 1963 as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, starring Patrick McGoohan). Thus, Dr. Syn became Dr. Blyss for the Hammer’s movie.
Set in the remote British island community of Dymchurch (actually shot in Denham, England), circa 1792, the peaceful burg weathers the invasion of the King’s revenue men, led by Captain Collier (Patrick Allen). As a means of subsisting amidst the high taxation, the villagers have devised a liquor smuggling ring, which has managed to slip, to date, under the noses of the Royal Navy. Collier arrives on Dymchurch’s shores, to investigate the suspected illegal activity, as well as rumors about phantoms lurking around nearby Romney Marsh. Collier meets his match in Dr. Blyss (played with gusto by Peter Cushing), the town’s affable leader and spokesperson, who may be more than he seems. Blyss, in fact, is inextricably linked to the dreaded pirate Captain Clegg, whom Captain Collier pursued (albeit unsuccessfully) for years, and is dead and buried in the village square – or is he?
If a role could have been custom-made for Peter Cushing, this would have been it. Mr. Cushing reportedly relished the part of Dr. Blyss, and it shows. In every scene he commands our attention, not by chewing the scenery, but through his charismatic performance. We’re introduced to Blyss as he conducts a sermon in the village chapel, providing due reverence to the ceremony, but with gentle barbs at the congregation. In another scene, we see his sly sense of humor as he sends Captain Collier off on a wild goose chase, using the fabled marsh phantoms as a ruse. Cushing imbues his nuanced performance with equal measures of seriousness and playfulness. Blyss is a man who’s reformed from his checkered past, and lives in the selfless service of his community, which also happens to include a booze smuggling operation.
Although Cushing practically steals the show from everyone else, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar supporting cast. Michael Ripper, who’s normally relegated to smaller parts, gets a beefier role this time around as Blyss’ right hand man, coffin maker and co-conspirator Jeremiah Mipps. Even when his character is short on dialogue, his eyes and expressions speak volumes. Martin Benson is also good as the capricious innkeeper Mr. Rash, instrumental in Blyss’ smuggling operation, but not above selling out to Collier in order to save his own skin. Oliver Reed* does a nice job as Harry Cobtree, another Blyss co-conspirator. Yvonne Romain (who co-starred with Reed in 1961’s Curse of the Werewolf) proves she’s more than just Hammer glamour as the plucky barmaid Imogene, holding her own against Mr. Rash’s lecherous advances.
* Fun fact: According to director Peter Graham Scott, Reed injured his arm in a car crash during production, which necessitated him to wear a cast, and shoot a fight scene with his bad arm hidden. Surprisingly, he insisted on shooting another scene, in which his character was required to fall off a horse, sans stunt double (ibid).
Captain Clegg was thrust upon an unsuspecting American public as another horror movie (it’s even included in the 4-DVD set, The Hammer Horror Series), with a misleading alternate title that promised, but only partially delivered on showing us “night creatures.” But even if the marsh phantoms are a cheat, they’re pretty cool to look at. The main attraction, however, is Cushing, in top form, playing one of his finest roles. It was so hard for Cushing to let go of Blyss (or Syn, if you prefer), that he wrote two screenplays, chronicling the further adventures of Captain Clegg, but the scripts remained unproduced (source: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes). Alas, Cushing never reprised the role, but at least we can enjoy one of Hammer’s finest swashbucklers. Who knew a movie about tax evasion could be so much fun?