Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Pirates of Blood River

 

The Pirates of Blood River Poster

(1962) Directed by John Gilling; Written by John Hunter and John Gilling; Story by Jimmy Sangster; Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Glenn Corbett, Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Marla Landi, Oliver Reed, Michael Ripper and Peter Arne; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***½

“Tarted up with palms and banana trees to resemble the Caribbean, Black Park near Pinewood looked most appetizing. It was a cruel deception. In the middle of the park was a lake more stagnant and polluted than anything in Poe and through this filth and the hazards of sharp underwater objects I, as the pirate captain LaRoche, had to lead my piratical stars and a cohort of piratical stuntmen.” – Christopher Lee (excerpted from his autobiography, Christopher Lee: Tall, Dark and Gruesome”) 

A great big shout out is in order for my superb co-host, Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews, for helping make the Christopher Lee Blogathon a reality. I’m thrilled to be a part of this three-day-plus multi-blogger event, covering numerous topics about a man who requires no further introduction. Be sure to check out all the exceptional posts!

Pirates!

A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Well, with Hammer being Hammer, no boat (not counting a matte painting, a snippet of stock footage and a small interior set) means no problem. Instead, writer Jimmy Sangster (who created the first draft of the screenplay and retained story credit) confined the bulk of The Pirates of Blood River to land. In lieu of filming on location in the Caribbean, the ever-cost-conscious filmmakers confined the shoot to locations around England, including a lake in Black Park* for an inlet, and a nearby gravel pit standing in for a sandy cliff. Production designer Bernard Robinson and his team were masters of repurposing set pieces and structures. The Huguenot colony featured in the film, built on the backlot of Bray studios,** was used previously for several other productions, including Brides of Dracula (1960), The Terror of the Tongs (1961), and TheCurse of the Werewolf (1961).

* Not So Fun Fact: Co-star Oliver Reed required treatment at a hospital, due to an eye infection caused by exposure to the dirty lake water.

** Fun Fact #1: One of Hammer’s most ardent admirers of the time was none other than Sammy Davis Jr., who paid a visit to the production. Davis reportedly marveled at how they could make such deceptively sweeping productions on such small sets.

Jonathon Standing

Our story begins on an 18th century Huguenot settlement, located on the Isle of Devon in the Caribbean. Jonathon Standing (Kerwin Matthews) and his mistress Maggie (Marie Devereux) are caught mid-tryst by local authorities. While attempting to flee, Maggie jumps in a river, and is consumed by a school of hungry piranhas*/** (conveniently getting her character out of the way, and providing the justification for the film’s title). Jonathon, on the other hand, stands trial for adultery, and is subsequently judged by a tribunal headed by his own father, Jason Standing (Andrew Keir). He begins his 15-year sentence at a nearby penal colony, lorded over by ruthless guards, but promptly makes his escape. His freedom proves to be short-lived, after an unfortunate run-in with the dreaded pirate captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee) and his band of cutthroats. He makes a deal with the pirates: in exchange for helping him return to the colony, where he can uproot the unjust leadership and establish new rule, he’ll providing safe haven for their ship. But when La Roche suspects the colony is hiding treasure, he abruptly changes the deal, putting the residents in jeopardy.

* Fun Fact #2: How or why piranhas ended up on a Caribbean island is anyone’s guess, since they’re only native to the South American continent (see Fact #2 in this cool article.)

** Fun Fact #3: According to film historian Marcus Hearn, the effect of a school of bloodthirsty piranhas churning the waters was created by simply throwing marbles into the lake.

LaRoche

While this is arguably Kerwin Matthews’ movie, all eyes are directed to Lee* (sporting a French accent), whenever he appears onscreen. LaRoche,** clad entirely in black (in a stark contrast to his brightly adorned crew), is an imposing and enigmatic figure, with his eyepatch and withered left hand. We never learn about his mysterious origins, but we can assume his past was unhappy. He doesn’t fit the stereotypical swaggering, boisterous pirate archetype. Instead of bellowing orders, he remains lost in his thoughts. Despite his quiet, introspective demeanor and physical limitations, LaRoche remains a formidable character. While he carries his left arm like a gnarled branch, he brandishes as pistol and sword with equal dexterity.

* Fun Fact #4: Lee and wardrobe mistress Rosemary Burrows shared what could only be called an amicably contentious professional relationship, across several Hammer productions. Per Burrows, “I remember saying to him once: ‘You know, you really are nasty!’ And he said, ‘I have to tell you, you’re pretty horrid!’ And from that day, that’s what we called each other – in jest of course…” (excerpted from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

** Fun Fact #5: In Sangster’s first draft of the script, La Roche was known as Captain Doom.

Jason Standing

Apart from LaRoche, one of the most complex characters is Jason Standing, played with intensity by the always reliable Andrew Keir. He’s a man with deep convictions, but a tortured soul, nonetheless. Nothing rests easy on his conscience, mired in his unquestioning fealty to the village council and their twisted interpretation of faith, yet aware of the terrible price he pays for his zealotry. Jason arguably emerges as the film’s true villain, using his obstinance as a shield. He’s willing to sacrifice the lives of his community for his ideals, reasoning their immortal souls take precedence over any worldly comforts.

Mack

The film also features a much more substantial role for Michael Ripper,* usually relegated to playing a constable, barkeep, or similar ancillary character. He stands out, as LaRoche’s capricious right-hand man, Mack, whose loyalty proves to be merely skin deep. In a moment of drunken indiscretion, he openly mocks his captain, serving to erode LaRoche’s tenuous grasp on his crew. Ripper often delivers his lines with a devilish grin, hinting that his character is scheming something. Oliver Reed and Peter Arne also provide some good moments as pirates Brocaire and Hench, respectively. In a memorable scene, proving there’s little honor amongst thieves, they duel with blindfolds for the right to defile Jonathon’s sister, Bess (Marla Landi).

* Fun Fact #6: With 33 credits to his name for Hammer films alone, Ripper owns the distinction of appearing in more of the production company’s films than any other actor.

LaRoche and Jonathon

When The Pirates of Blood River debuted in the U.K., playing on a double bill with Mysterious Island, it chalked off another success for Hammer, paving the way for more swashbucklers. As a piece of entertainment, it’s somewhat uneven, due to its lack of shipboard action, and the fact that the romantic possibilities are reduced to nil at the beginning. Anyone looking for those elements might be disappointed, but the film compensates with some fine performances by Lee, Ripper, and Keir (especially Lee’s idiosyncratic portrayal of La Roche).  

 

Sources for this article: Christopher Lee, Tall, Dark and Gruesome, by Christopher Lee; The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes; The Hammer Vault, by Marcus Hearn; Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey; “14 Fun Facts About Piranhas,” by Helen Thompson, Smithsonian Magazine

The Christopher Lee Blogathon


20 comments:

  1. I love the sound of this film, only Lee could be a soulful pirate and it sounds a great cast. Will definitely have to check it out now with the Hammer connection. Thanks for being such a fabulous co-host and really looking forward to our next blogging excursion!

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    1. Thanks, Gill! I couldn't imagine anyone else playing LaRoche in this movie. It's well worth checking out! And thank you for being such an excellent co-host!

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  2. Arrrrr ye matey, that's a crackin' good article filled with fun facts! And a great quote to lead things off with! I finally got around to reading Lee's autobiography this year, and was constantly cracking up at quotes just like that one. He was the drollest of wits! I've always been fascinated by filmmakers with huge aspirations and little or no money, and the tricks they come up with to make their productions look much bigger and lavish than they really are. As you say, Hammer was one of the best at squeezing blood out of a stone, so to speak. BTW, I just saw another of Hammer's pirate epics, The Devil-Ship Pirates, a couple of nights ago. Of course Lee is the pirate captain, and Andrew Keir and the omnipresent Michael Ripper are also featured (Ripper steals the show as usual; Sangster also scripted). They must have had a bit more $ to work with, because these pirates actually had a ship to work with! :)

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    1. Thanks, Brian! It was fun writing about this movie, and the tricks and work-arounds their meager budget demanded. That reminds me, I need to give The Devil-Ship Pirates a re-watch, especially in the context of this film. I understand there was a spectacular (nearly tragic) accident with the floating ship set in that one. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. I haven't seen this one yet. Thanks for the review! :)

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    1. It's a lesser-known Hammer film, but worth seeking out. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I was curious to see which film you'd choose, Barry, and your choice was a wonderful surprise. I haven't yet seen this film, but you've got me pumped to see it, even if it is a bit uneven.

    P.S. You always have the best collection of Fun Facts.

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    1. Awww... Thank you very much! :) I'm glad you enjoyed the Fun Facts. I suspect when it played on a double bill with Mysterious Island, most folks were there for the Harryhausen film, but The Pirates of Blood River is not without its relative merits. The performances alone are a compelling reason to see it.

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  5. Great choice Barry. I always had a soft spot for this one (along with The Devil Ship Pirates). Lee and a great cast helps this immensely.

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    1. Thank you! I agree that the amazing cast really boosts this film. I had fun covering this one.

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  6. Good review, Berry! đź‘Ť

    As always, your fun facts are informative and very entertaining! Using marbles to simulate a piranha attack is brilliant!

    I'm not sure if this is the type of film I would typically watch, but Christopher Lee's performance sounds amazing!

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    1. Thanks so much, John! I'm not exactly a pirate aficianado either, but it's hard to resist such a winning cast. Lee was terrific, as always, and it was one of the rare Hammer films that gave Michael Ripper a decent-sized role.

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  7. Christopher Lee as a pirate? Sounds awesome, and Oliver Reed and Kerwin Matthews as well? This is one not to miss!!
    - Chris

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    1. It's good fun (despite the missing pirate ship), and the cast is wonderful. Recommended! Thanks for stopping by, Chris!

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  8. This film is included on the Hammer Collection set I recently purchased but I haven't made it far enough through to have watched it yet. After reading your review, I feel I need to move it up in the rotation. Great article!

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    1. Thanks, Michael! It's lacking in some of the usual elements we typically associate with pirate movies (namely a ship), but I think it mostly compensates with a quality cast. Let me know what you think.

      I've been eyeing that Hammer set for a while. There are some duplicates in my collection, but there are several that I haven't seen.

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  9. Who could imagine Christopher Lee as a pirate in a river full of piranhas? Well, Hammer could, of course! This sounds like a fun movie. Thanks for co-hosting this great blogathon!
    Cheers!

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    1. It's a fun little movie, despite the missing pirate ship!

      Thanks for visiting, and for joining the blogathon! :)

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  10. I'm trying to imagine Christopher Lee speaking with a French accent and it's not working out very well. Guess I'll have to see this movie. :-)

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    1. He does a credible job, to my untrained ears. It's well worth checking out, for the casting alone. Thanks for stopping by!

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