Sandwiched in between the final episode of Star Trek and the 1977 release of Star Wars, Space: 1999 occupies an odd bit of historical real estate and has an even odder tone of voice, though it’s easier to make sense of if you understand where science fiction was when Space: 1999 debuted. It might help explain why a group of rambunctious young sprouts, such as my friends and I were at the time, were so tolerant of what was a rather morose, talky, slow-moving show. But that’s how science fiction was at the time. The original Trek was colorful and had it’s fair share of action, but much like football, if you timed the actual action against the scenes of people sitting around saying stuff, there was far less jumping around and exploding than people recall. And post 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction really shed its pulp trappings and entered a period of pretty trippy, contemplative mood. This was science fiction as I knew it: sort of melancholy, a lot to do with environmental catastrophe, and not really centered on “action.” It’s why we could watch Silent Running at a birthday party and love it. and It’s why we could become obsessed with a show that seemed to feature a lot of Martin Landau frowning and speaking in a hushed monotone.
Hessler and Price are together again (for the first time) for a Poe adaptation that actually has a little something to do with Poe, or at least as much as any AIP Poe film has to do with Poe. Poe’s short story, “The Oblong Box,” has to do with a man who witnesses the obsession of an artist friend on a ship with an oblong shipping crate. So committed is the man, seeming delirious and mad, to this box that when the ship is wrecked during a storm, he sinks to the bottom of the ocean with the box rather than abandon it. Not to spoil the surprise, but it was a coffin containing his dead wife, though no one knew of the contents lest they refuse to travel overseas with a corpse. Hessler’s film does indeed contain a coffin that is referred to as an oblong box. And there is an artist, though he himself has no coffin. Beyond that, this film has as much to do with Poe as does the average movie in which someone inherits a wily, diaper-wearing ape that solves a crime.
My latest article for The Cultural Gutter is now up. In keeping with the season, it’s science fiction with the heart of a horror film. Gothic Galactic takes a look at Mario Bava’s brief forays into the cosmos, specifically the influential Planet of the Vampires, with special guest appearances by Caltiki and Hercules int he Haunted World.
The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on to stammer and giggle and eventually be edited into some semblance of coherence — or at least as much coherence as can be wrung from the colossally oddball Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, movie as famous for it’s depiction of Christopher Lee in new wave sunglasses as it is for Sybil Danning’s werewolf orgy.
One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
The years 1976 to 1986, roughly spanning ages four to fourteen for me, seem to be when I discovered the bulk of what I would end up liking for the rest of my life. At the time, my enthusiasm for entertainment that was sometimes, to be charitable, of dubious merit, could be chalked up to simple naivety — the juvenile tastes of a juvenile. Perfectly acceptable, even if it did mean that I was prone to celebrating things like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata. However, years — nay, decades — later, I find that when I go back and revisit these films so beloved in my youth, rather than having a quiet chuckle at how silly I was back then, I actually enjoy them just as much. And sometimes even more.
Time after time, I’ve sat down to be disillusioned, or to wonder how I could have liked such lowbrow fare when I could have spent my time brushing up on classic works of literature, only to find myself hooting with glee and running about the room in unabashed glee as I witnessed some fantastical orgy of ninja gore or oiled-up barbarians. Think of it as my childlike sense of wonder, if you are feeling generous, or shake your head in sorrow as you realize that I did indeed completely stop growing mentally at age fourteen.
Still, one must assume that even I have my limits, and there must be a film at there that I loved as a kid and would not still love as an adult. I was told countless times by many people I trust that the 1979 fantasy film Arabian Adventure would be that film. Because make no mistake about it — I loved this film when I was it in the theaters. Looking back on it, I could remember very little. I don’t think I ever saw it again after that first time. All I could recall about the film was a genie, something about Mickey Rooney inside a giant golden clockwork robot, and magic carpet dogfights. Heck, I didn’t even remember that it starred venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. I have no idea why I didn’t remember him but did remember Mickey Rooney. I don’t think I was a big Mickey Rooney fan in my youth. In fact, I think I’ve only ever seen two Mickey Rooney films in my entire life.
Anyway, for years I snooped around, hoping to discover that Arabian Adventure had suddenly appeared on home video in some format that wouldn’t require me to shell out $30 for someone’s crappy VHS bootleg with a label hand-written in pencil. But for one reason or another, it always seemed to be MIA, and so I was left celebrating the merits of the film while all those around me who had seen it more recently made with the ominous proclamations of, “You’re going to be disappointed with that one, chief.” Impossible! I mean — seriously: magic carpet dog fights!
Finally, after years of waiting outside a temple, seated in the lotus position and refusing both food and water, ignoring the rain, the snow, the scorching heat, the jackals, the police telling me to move along, after all of that, one day I performed my hopeful little search on Netflix, and low and behold, there it was. Arabian Adventure! Needless to say, I had to bump certain classics, like Kickboxer IV (oh, the things I’ll do for Michelle Krasnoo…the things I’d let her do to me…), a little lower on the list, but it was worth it to move this long-awaited gem from my youth to the top of the queue. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. Would Arabian Adventure prove to be, as has been predicted by soothsayers and friends with my best interests at heart, a massive disappointment, forcing me to call into question everything I’ve ever held dear, permanently casting a gloomy shadow of resentment and melancholy over my childhood? Or would my seemingly indefatigable ability to pleased by damn near anything triumph, reinforcing the idea that I see the world through the rose-colored lenses of a child and also have the brain of a seven-year-old?
Well, I’ve rewatched the movie now, and let me say this: magic carpet dogfights.
Yes, it’s true; my bottomless lack of taste (I’m watching Navy SEALS as I write this) and sound judgment wins again! I enjoyed Arabian Adventure to no end, reveled in every clunky special effect, thrilled to scenes of guys gliding around on magic carpets suspended by wires, and looked with the kind eyes of an old friend upon the visage of Mickey Rooney running around inside not one, but three giant golden clockwork robots. And then there’s venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee as the evil caliph Alquazar, doing his usual shtick and sporting a big ol’ mustache. And then there’s a kid with a monkey, a beautiful princess, a dashing prince, a scheming fat guy, some chick who lives inside a sapphire, Peter Cushing as the world’s least convincing Arab, and did I mention that this movie has magic carpet dogfights? Yes, I did.
And what makes my adoration of this film all the more shameful is that it has all these things, but doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with them. The prince and princess are boring. Mickey Rooney is irritating and seems to have been bitten by a radioactive community theater performer and thus been imbued with all the proportional over-acting and hamming abilities that come with such a position in life. The special effects,while ambitious, are rarely any good. The entire movie plays like a fan-made “greatest hits of the Arabian Nights” highlight reel. And none of that seems to matter to me.
So here’s the deal. The film begins with young Majeed (Puneet Sira) and his pet monkey arriving in a matte painting of the ancient Arabian city of Jhador, populated primarily by second unit stock footage of camels and guys sitting around in doorways. Majeed has arrived in the middle of sweeping events. People are plotting the overthrow of the ruthless Caliph Dracula (venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee), while Caliph Dracula himself is plotting to recover the mystical Rose of Elil, a sacred artifact that will, in some vague way, grant him the ultimate power to rule over the world, or something to that effect. Artifacts that grant you the power to rule the world are rarely clear on exactly how they plan to go about it. They are, in that way, very much like your modern politician — all full of promises and rhetoric, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, the promises tend to fall apart. But that’s small potatoes to worry about for a guy who has somehow managed to imprison his own soul in a fire pit and spends his free time taunting it. For its part, the soul spends most of its time being sort of petulant and whiny and generally making you understand why Caliph Dracula imprisoned it in the first place.
Unable to retrieve the rose himself, for it must be plucked by a pure and righteous hand, Caliph Dracula enlists the aid of dashin’ Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias), who has fallen in love with Princess Zuliera (Emma Samms) despite having never actually seen or met her, and who seems completely oblivious to the fact that Caliph Dracula is evil and enjoys crushing his subjects beneath the iron fist of his mad tyranny. But he looks damn good in his swashbuckling Arabian prince outfit. Majeed ends up in possession of a magic gem that contains a trapped sorceress (Capucine) who, grateful for him releasing her, grants Majeed three life-saving wishes. Through typical movie convolution, this results in Majeed suddenly appearing on the back of a magic carpet piloted by dashin’ Prince Hasan and Khasim (Milo O’Shea), a spy assigned by Caliph Dracula to accompany dashin’ Prince Hasan and stab him in the back (literally) once he has the rose. Needless to say, Khasim is vexed that this half-naked young rascal has suddenly appeared out of nowhere on their magic carpet, and so he spends the bulk of their flight trying to knock him off.
Their quest for the magic rose leads them on a variety of adventures that involve a murderous genie (big Milton Reid, sporting weird googly eyes), a trio of fire-breathing monsters that end up being controlled by Mickey Rooney, and a lake of guys who try to grab your legs. As far as trials go, I have to admit, I’ve seen more challenging. I mean, Hercules had to clean stables that hadn’t been cleaned in dozens of years, and dashin’ Prince Hasan has to defeat Mickey Rooney? That hardly seems fair — especially when Majeed does all the work. I mean, maybe the psychotic laughing genie would have posed a threat if he had been able to hit the broadside of a mosque with his magic firebolts, but he proves incapable of hitting a squirming fat guy all of five feet away — and then he gets defeated when dashin’ Prince Hasan tips over a bottle! That’s Scooby Doo quality adventure right there. The quests get more challenging when Khasim pulls his power play. Before too long, dashin’ Prince Hasan and Majeed find themselves leading a revolution, rescuing a princess, fighting with Caliph Dracula in a lake of fire, and engaging in magic carpet dogfights with Caliph Dracula’s all-carpet air force of guy’s who primary skill seems to be to wave their swords awkwardly at dashin’ Prince Hasan, while he waves his sword awkwardly at them, causing hem to fall off their magic carpets. Someone should look into seat belts or something for those things.
Lyz at And You Call Yourself a Scientist — one of my absolute favorite movie sites on the web — said of Arabian Adventure, “It is hard to imagine any but the least discriminating of viewers — of any age — really enjoying this film.” And I can’t really debate her on this matter. Instead, about all I can do is admit that it has been my goal to live the sort of life and put forth the sort of opinions that would result in my eventual tombstone reading, “America’s Least Discerning Viewer.” My other choice for an epitaph was, “It Took a Dozen Texas Marshals to Finally Bring Him Down.” Anyway, I freely admit that pretty much all of the criticisms that someone could lay at the feet of Arabian Adventure stick with the tenacity of an extra-gooey Wacky Wall Walker fresh out of the gum machine capsule. None of these should come as any shock if you are familiar with the writer-director team who brought you this movie. Because the last couple of movies they brought you were just as bad or even worse (and yeah — I liked them, too).
Director Kevin Conner and screenwriter Brian Hayles are responsible for a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired fantasy adventure films: At the Earth’s Core, starring Doug McClure, Caroline Munro, and Peter Cushing (and featuring one of the single greatest lines and deliveries in movie history: “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!”), and the one-two punch of The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot, both starring just Doug McClure. Hayles and Conner (they toured with Seals and Croft, I think) also made Warlords of Atlantis, which stars Doug McClure but is not based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story . It does often get me confused when I think it’s War Gods of the Deep, which featured Vincent Price and Tab Hunter — and buddy, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure. Oliver Tobias, also, is no Doug McClure.
Anyway, the films of Conner and Hayles are almost universally reviled by everyone except, apparently, me. And I have loved every last one of them. Even The People that Time Forgot. Even Arabian Adventure, though it could have really used some Doug McClure. In fact, given that the wooden dullness of our prince and princess is one of Arabian Adventure‘s greatest weaknesses, the film could have been improved immensely if dashin’ Prince Hasan had been played by Doug McClure and Princess Zuleira played by Caroline Munro. But I guess Doug McClure was too rugged and Joe Don Baker-esque to play a dashing prince (since he specialized in playing cool Americans in British films), and Caroline Munro had already been an Arabian princess in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Still, man that would have been awesome, or at least more awesome than Oliver Tobias and Emma Samms — both of whom look the part but offer very little in the way of charisma.
As bad as Conner and Hayles’ previous movies may have been, at least each of them had something that could keep people from being totally cranky about watching them. Land that Time Forgot enjoyed the services of Doug McClure and features WWI German U-boat guys fighting dinosaurs, and that’s enough for me. People that Time Forgot enjoys the services of Doug McClure with a caveman beard and Sarah Douglas in expedition jodhpurs. And At the Earth’s Core? My Lord! It’s got Doug McClure fighting night immobile paper mache monsters, Caroline Munro in a loin cloth waving a knife around, and Peter Cushing in one of the most hilarious “absent-minded professor” roles ever. Plus, it has the line “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!” — which is bested only by Cushing’s line in Horror Express where, indignant at the suggestion that he could have been possessed by the monster stalking the train, exclaims, “Monsters?!?! We’re British!”
Arabian Adventure does not have the benefit of charismatic players like Munro, McClure, or Peter Cushing — which is an odd thing to say, since it features Peter Cushing. Cushing is one of a handful of “special guest stars,” which is a nice way of saying that they owed Conner some sort of a favor or something. Cushing appears in a bit role as a holy man imprisoned in Caliph Dracula’s dungeon, and as an Arab holy man, Peter Cushing is a very convincing 19th century British scientist. The other guest stars — Mickey Rooney and Milo O’Shea — have larger parts and even pass themselves off fairly believably as Arabs (by the standards of fat Irish guys pretending to be Arabs), but each one seems intent on outdoing the other in the field of hammy over-acting. I suppose that’s good, because no one else seemed all that interested in putting any effort into their parts. Actually, that’s not true. I firmly believe that Oliver Tobias tried really hard. But he’s the film’s Keanu Reeves. He’s earnest, good-looking,and really wants to do a good job; he just can’t. But at least the script gives him some chances to shine, even if he fails as an actor to rise tot he occasion. He gets to have badly executed sword fights, fly around on magic carpets, jump over stuff, and tip over a genie bottle. Poor Emma Samms is saddled with a character so thinly written that the poor actress was doomed to be boring before the first frame was ever shot. Her princess is a sheltered woman who has never left the confines of Caliph Dracula’s palace. She has nothing to do but walk from room to room, and eventually sit around and listen to Caliph Dracula’s imprisoned soul complain about being imprisoned. Eventually, dashin’ Prince Hasan rescues her. Or really, Majeed rescues her and dashin’ Prince Hasan happens to be int he same general area and of legal age, so what are you gonna do?
Speaking of which, although I apparently didn’t mind them as a kid, as an adult I usually hate movies starring children. I don’t care for children in general, so watching a movie about one just seems pointless to me. But young Indian actor Puneet Sira seems possessed of all the charisma and charm that is lacking in Samms and Tobias. It’s hard not to compare him to Sabu, the young Indian star of films like Arabian Nights and Thief of Baghdad. So let me compare him to Sabu. As a Sabu stand-in, he’s exceptional, and we should be thankful that Conner at least took the time to find a likable and talented child instead of just casting Sabu, then in his…oh. Umm, then in his grave. OK, backing away from whatever Old Man Sabu joke I was hoping to make…
Which leaves us with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Although his character is called Alquazar in this film, I prefer to refer to him as Caliph Dracula for two reasons. First, I know doing stuff like that irritates venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee (who I’m sure reads this site all the time) to no end, and any chance I have to irritate venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee is a chance I can’t let pass me by. Second, he basically gives the exact same performance he gave in Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Dracula AD 1972, and the Fu Manchu movies (they apparently let him keep the mustache from those films, because he has it on here), and honestly — most of the movies he’s ever been in. Don’t get me wrong — he does it very well most of the time, but it does tend to get a tad familiar. His character here is given very little to do other than wait around in his lair while his minion does all the hard work (a la Dracula AD 1972), so venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee doesn’t really seem to be giving it his all.
Eventually, he gets in a really clumsy battle with dashin’ Prince Hasan, then chases Majeed up a rock, but that’s about it. Oh, and he turns a fat guy into a frog. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it very much, and once again, I can’t help but think how much better this film would have been if they’d cast someone else — Vincent Price, for example. Oh, now there’s a movie! Vincent Price, Doug McClure, and Caroline Munro! If I had myself a magic sapphire genie, that would be my first wish. My second wish would be that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee wrote me an email about how my jokes hurt his feelings, and then he ends the email with a sad face emoticon. Of course, my third wish would be that George Clooney was my friend. We’re both Kentucky boys, after all. Since Doug McClure is, sadly, no longer with us, I’d let Clooney be in my remake of Arabian Adventure. I don’t know who I’d get for Alquazar. Luckily, Caroline Munro, now nearly 60, is every bit as hot and talented as she was in her 20s. Maybe I could cast Alec Baldwin as Alquazar. Or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee!
So you may be asking yourself how I can spend the bulk of a review talking about how crappy a film is, then use that as criteria for concluding that I love the movie. Hey, this is Teleport City, baby, and the scientific method simply does not apply. And yeah, Arabian Adventure fails on a lot of levels for a lot of people. But not for me, because I had as much fun watching it today as I had watching nigh those many years ago. The lack of charisma in the leads doesn’t bug me. The fact that venerated horror film icon is giving a “just collecting a paycheck until I can go on to better films like Howling II and An Eye For An Eye” performance doesn’t bother me. The weak effects don’t bother me. The film is childish and clunky, and I love it. I love the magic carpet dogfights. I love the crummy sword fights. I love all the opulent but obvious matte painting backgrounds.
Speaking of obviously painted backgrounds, now is as good a time as any to breach the subject of the special effects. In 1977, as you may have heard, Star Wars was released upon the unsuspecting masses, and whatever its merits as a film (and I’m not trying to seem edgy by being a Star Wars hater — I loved it then and I love it still today), there’s no real credible way to deny the profound impact it had on special effects. It represented a quantum leap forward, and while you can say that nothing was ever the same after that, the fact is that there were a few stragglers that came in post-Star Wars but with very pre-Star Wars effects. Sometimes this had to do with the effects supervisor. Sometimes it had to do with the budget. In the case of Arabian Adventure, I’m pretty sure it was both.
Like most sci-fi and fantasy films that came in the wake of Star Wars, Arabian Adventure billed itself as a Star Wars like special effects extravaganza. If Star Wars was like watching Harry Houdini make an elephant vanish, Arabian Adventure was like watching a clumsy kid try to pull off a trick from his Blackstone the Magician illusion set. It’s cute, even charming in its way, but also sort of awkward and embarrassing.
Special effects supervisor George Gibbs shoots for the moon and ends up a fair distance from his target. He was early in his career, having worked previously with director Kevin Conner on Warlords of Atlantis, and then doing some model work on Richard Donner’s Superman before moving on to this film. Hamstrung by a small budget and limited resources, I think he intended to rely heavily on the gee whiz quaintness of his approach and on the untrained eyes of young children. The most ambitious effects are the magic carpets, realized through a combination of rear-screen projection, hoisting guys around on wires, and then letting little plastic guys tear around scale models of the city. None of these work terribly well, but there is a charm to watching little action figures on flying carpets wobble about in between scale model minarets. The other big effects are the genie — which is simple superimposition and animation, and sahib Rooney’s giant monsters, which are miniatures that rely on forced perspective shots that are sometimes effective and sometimes make Majeed look like a giant.
Still, I always appreciate a crude effect, and Arabian Adventure is endearing in its unwillingness to live within its means. This film certainly didn’t kill Gibbs’ career, and he went on to create all sorts of wildly uneven visual or effects for everything from 1980′s Flash Gordon to Conan the Barbarian. Obviously, the got really good at his craft pretty quickly, and he went on to work on films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Brazil, Alien 3, and more recently, From Hell and Doom. His work in Arabian Adventure is without a doubt a throwback to effects that probably weren’t even considered all that good in 1969, let alone 1979, but like I said — they’re sort of cute. In fact, pretty much everyone who worked on the effects for this film went on to very successful, and in some cases award-winning, careers. It goes without saying that none of those awards were for Arabian Adventure.
I have a tremendous weakness (one of many) for fantastic romanticized visions of ancient Arabia, and as pedestrian as some may find it, Arabian Adventure manages to satisfy the kid in me. I mean, don’t misunderstand — this film is nowhere near the caliber of the old Arabian Nights film, or either the Douglas Fairbanks or Sabu versions of The Thief of Badhdad. And it’s not in the league of the 1960s Sinbad movies with effects by Ray Harryhausen. But as dumb Saturday matinee fare, I still enjoy Arabian Adventure despite the sundry flaws. It would make a perfect double bill with Sinbad of the Seven Seas starring Lou Ferrigno.
Release Year: 1979 | Country: England | Starring: Puneet Sira, Oliver Tobias, Christopher Lee, Milo O’Shea, Emma Samms, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Mickey Rooney, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Brian Hayle | Director: Kevin Conner | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Ken Thorne | Producer: John Dark
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So someone at England’s Hammer Studios, possibly Anthony Nelson Keys or Michael Carreras, walks up to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and says to him, “Jimmy, old boy, we want to make a pirate film, and we want you to write it.” Sangster, fresh off the astounding success of his scripts for Hammer’s most famous films — Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and Curse of Frankenstein, among others, excitedly agrees. It’ll be fun to bring the Hammer style into the realm of swashbuckling pirate movies. Sangster’s mind is undoubtedly already formulating a story when Keys and/or Carreras adds, “Only here’s the thing: we don’t have any money for a boat, so don’t write a script that features a pirate ship.”
A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Sangster, by his own admission, was somewhat baffled by the whole idea. Of course, pretty much every pirate movie sets a good deal of its action on land. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood spends at least as much time on land as he does standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” But he does spend time standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” And his films feature plenty of ship-to-ship action, raids, and cannon fire. Ditto the Disney films. Plenty of on-land action, but also plenty of ship-to-ship shenanigans. It’s hard to believe that even the tiny budgets within which the average Hammer Studio film had to operate couldn’t be stretched in some way to come up with a pirate ship for their pirate movie, since hard to believe that anyone would make a pirate movie without a ship. But no. Sangster’s task remained the same: write a pirate movie without a pirate ship.
By 1962, Hammer had become synonymous with horror films, even though the studio’s output before the release of the above-mentioned “big three” delved into pretty much every genre, as most studios would. But once Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein were released, it was all about Hammer horror. Any other type of production was pushed to the back burner, both by the studio itself and by the public, who proved in those early days to have a near insatiable appetite for the lurid, colorful style of sex and blood Hammer routinely used to outrage critics and members of the decency police. But the desire remained, however flickering, to make sure Hammer didn’t become just a horror factory, and doing a period piece pirate film seemed like a nice fit. They could recycle most of the props and costumes from their other films. And although they weren’t horror films, pirates lent themselves to easy adaptation to horror film tropes, what with all the skulls and creeping about and stabbing each other that went on in them. They just couldn’t have a boat, although they were afforded a few seconds of stock footage of someone else’s boat to show during the credits.
In some ways, perhaps, this rather large restriction ended up helping Sangster, because the end result is a cracking good adventure story in which you barely even notice that the pirates never set foot onto a ship. Onto a raft, yes, but never a ship. I’d expect no less from Sangster, who is, in my opinion,easily one of the best screenwriters who ever entered the business. Unable to fall back on pirate movie standards like the cannon battle and a scene of guys with swords clenched in their teeth swinging from one ship to another, the harried screenwriter delivers instead a landlocked pirate film that, in many ways, plays out like an American western, albeit one with far more men adorned with a variety of colorful silk scarves.
American Kerwin Mathews — Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — stars as fiery young Jonathon Standing, the member of a Huguenots settlement on a remote island somewhere that I don’t think is ever clearly defined. The Huguenots were basically the early Protestants, frequently at odds with Catholic kings and churches and prone to being persecuted and going to war with dominant Catholics throughout the 1500s, well into the 1600s. The island settlement, then, is one of relative secrecy, and it is lorded over by a council of religious elders who dole out law based on strict Protestant interpretations of the The Bible. This apparently worked well for many years, but by the time Jonathon Standing comes around to make out with buxom Hammer glamour regular Marie Devareaux, the council has become largely corrupt, creating tension throughout the townsfolk, who feel that the elders have given in to petty power obsessions and greed rather than dictating the word of God. Jonathan’s own father is the head of the council, but even if some vestige of an honest and noble man still exists within old Jason Standing (Andrew Kier, actually the same age as Kerwin Mathews), he is too weak-willed against the other members of the council for it to matter. In fact, when Jonathan himself violates the rules of the town by comforting the abused wife of one of the council members, Jason condemns the popular young man to hard labor in the colony’s prison — a virtual death sentence, we learn. The conviction of Jonathan only serves to make the crowds angrier, but like most angry crowds, there is much muttering beneath the breath and complaining, but no one is quite ready yet to take up the torches and pitchforks.
In prison, Jonathan fares poorly, as his popularity with hoi polloi makes him a target of the sadistic guards. So it isn’t long after his clothes have been reduced to prison regulation tatters that he escapes, leading his captors on a wild chase through the island’s swamps before coming face to face with Count Dracula! Well, with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, here playing French pirate captain LaRoche and sporting a deformed hand and an eyepatch. LaRoche makes about as nice as a ruthless, cold-hearted pirate can and cuts a deal with Jonathan. In exchange for the Huguenots not telling anyone LaRoche and his crew use the cove as a rest stop, LaRoche will…actually, I sort of forgot what his end of the bargain was.
It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as Jonathan leads them toward the settlement, the pirates start killing and making demands about a treasure they claim is hidden within the town. Jonathan knows they are mad, that there is no treasure, but that doesn’t stop the motley band of cutthroats from laying siege to the town. The townsfolk rally to their own defense and seem to be holding their own for a while, but their wooden walls were meant to defend against wild animals and jungle critters, not well-armed pirates. LaRoche and his gang soon capture the town, promising to hang people until the elders give up the treasure. It’s up to Jonathan and his young friends to wage a guerrilla style war against the occupiers, culminating in a fairly unsurprising revelation about the alleged treasure and the giant statue of the town founder and a fairly exciting duel between Jonathan and LaRoche.
Despite the lack of a pirate ship, Pirates of Blood River has a tremendous amount going for it. Chief among its many assets is the cast, buoyed by a likable Kerwin Mathews and an exceptional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, who gets to stretch his acting chops a little more than usual in the role of LaRoche. Lee was a big star by 1962, but two of his biggest roles had been entirely speechless, and one afforded him like three lines and five minutes of screen time. He was known, therefore, far more for the characters he played than he was as venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee the actor. Pirates of Blood River lets him come out from behind the bandages, scar make-up, and fangs and, in their place, wear an eye patch and speak with a French accent. LaRoche is a good character, one that interests viewers because it’s obvious that there is much more to the him than we are ever allowed to discover. How did he lose his eye? What happened to his hand? How did he become a pirate? Why is he so haunted and determined?
None of these questions are ever answered, and that allowed LaRoche to be interesting without being over-exposed. We are teased with his mysterious past, but it’s never demystified for us. Free from the fetters of playing a creature, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee seems to really be giving it his all, channeling perhaps Basil Rathbone’s backstabbing French pirate from Captain Blood. He also handles the swordplay well. The duel between he and Mathews is excellent, and even though he is tall and lanky and playing a guy with one eye and a gnarled arm, you never really doubt that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee could whup you if he wanted to.
Propping up the pirate end of things are some of Hammer’s most reliable supporting players, including Michael Ripper in a rare non-innkeeper role. Here he is LaRoche’s supposed best friend, though it’s obvious LaRoche doesn’t consider anyone a friend. Ripper really gets to ham it up, speaking with a bombastic uber-pirate style that would make Long John Silver himself proud. Also int he cast of scalawags is a young Oliver Reed, though he’s not really around terribly long. The entire crew tears into their roles with joyous abandon, as merry and drunk as they are threatening and violent. On the other side of the fence is another set of villains: the town elders. Just as ruthless, just as greedy, only far more devious about it. Caught in between these two forces are Jonathan and the townspeople who respect him as a voice of reason and proponent of liberty. It’s very much a “freaks versus the squares” cultural battle and not unlike what we would see a few years later in Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik: hip young people caught between two opposing yet similar monoliths of status quo society.
For Diabolik, it was a corrupt government and organized crime; for Jonathan, it is a corrupt theocracy and a bunch of pirates. In the end, neither side appeals to our free spirits, and they chose to reject them both. Hammer often found itself in trouble with religious authorities because of the content of their films. They usually weaseled their way out of it at the last second by having Peter Cushing clutch a Bible or something, thus proving that the film was good and moral. In the case of The Pirates of Blood River, despite the absence of a Frankenstein monster, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster really gets to lash out against religious intolerance and hypocrisy. The elders start out kind of jerky, and then you think maybe Jonathan’s father will have some sort of a change of heart at some point. But he only gets worse, and he is willing to see every single person in the town butchered rather than give up the treasure about which only he knows. In the end, he gets his just desserts, as does the dastardly LaRoche, leaving Jonathan to start society anew.
Although this was a decidedly non-horror adventure film, there are still horrific elements in the movie, as there would be in other of Hammer’s subsequent pirate movies. The opening sequence, in which Jonathan is discovered making out with a married woman, is probably the film’s most horrific scene. Pursued through the swamp by vengeful town elders, the poor woman stumbles into the titular Blood River, which happens to be infested with piranhas. As originally filmed, the poor girl screams and thrashes about as blood bubbles up all around her. The piranhas themselves are wonderfully realized by nothing more than having rapidly moving ripples spread out across the water.
Hammer wanted the film to receive a much more family friendly rating, in the spirit of increased returns and inspired no doubt by the exciting but family-friendly Disney pirate films. The scene was eventually cut down to remove the blood, and then restored years later for the film’s long-awaited debut on DVD. It’s a chilling scene, and director John Gilling plays it wise by letting the imagination do most of the work. The screaming and the blood is graphic enough. He doesn’t undercut the power of the moment by cutting to a shot of a rubber piranha. I do regret, however, that they don’t cap the scene with a shot of a perfectly intact, bleach white plastic skeleton bobbing to the surface. That’s always classy. But I guess Hammer was saving all their skeleton-related pirate hijinks for Night Creatures.
I don’t know what other cuts Hammer made to the film that have since been restored. The sword wounds are all pretty bloody. Not Lone Wolf and Cub geyser of blood bloody, but when a guy gets impaled, the sword on which he was impaled comes back all covered in grue. Still, I suppose that’s about as family friendly as Hammer was capable of being, and it’s family friendly enough for me. i don’t come from the school of thought that maintains all children’s fare must be bloodless, harmless, and never ever scare the wee ones. I’d much rather take my family to see Pirates of Blood River than a movie where a sass-talking CGI animal learns a skill that helps him win a contest while referencing pop culture.
That does bring us to another of the film’s sundry assets: director John Gilling. By all accounts, Gilling was difficult to work with even under the best circumstances. In the case of Pirates of Blood River, it seems he was nearly intolerable. Gilling wasn’t meant to be the director originally, but the man they’d assigned to the job had been in a spot of trouble with the American Un-Activities Committee, that embarrassment of a Congressional organization that spent so much time and money trying to ferret out commies and liberals int he motion picture industry. Kerwin Mathews was nervous about working with such a man, fearing that the long arm of stupidity would reach him even in England and ruin his career back home. Not that, by 1962, Mathews had much of a career.
But it was enough that the supposedly bankable American was uncomfortable, so the director was replaced by an unenthusiastic John Gilling. As a director, coming into a production for which there is already a script, a cast, a crew, and sets is usually thought to be rather an unenviable situation, and Gilling wasn’t shy about letting his displeasure be known. Still, however big a jerk he might have been on set, the end results were usually fantastic. That was certainly the case in 1966, when he directed one of my favorite Hammer horror films, Plague of the Zombies. And it’s the case with this film as well. Pirates of Blood River, even without a ship, is a fast-paced, well-made adventure tale. As cranky as Gilling may have been, there’s no doubt that he still put himself into making the best possible movie he could.
Released in 1962, it’d be a little disingenuous to claim that the movie was influenced by something like Vietnam, even though there is a definite counter-culture air about the story. More than likely, and as I alluded to earlier, the film was influenced both by previous pirate films and by Westerns. The Huguenot settlement, with it’s rough-hewn wooden walls, has the look of a pioneer fort. And the pirates laying siege to it is reminiscent of Western movie Indians doing the same. However, at some point in the film, the roles are reversed, and the pirates become the victims of hit and run warfare waged by Jonathan and his band of fighters who, despite being outmanned and outgunned, use their intimate knowledge of the jungle around them to pick the pirates off a few at a time, leaving the brigands harried, demoralized, and eventually, mutinous. That the pirates are French only supplies another link to the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but as Sangster has never mentioned this in an interview, I think it’s more a case of coincidence and hindsight equipping us with the ability to infuse the film with influences and meanings that aren’t there. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it keeps film studies professors in business and away from actual film work, where they would do untold amounts of damage with their crackpot experimental videos.
So make a pirate movie, they told Jimmy Sangster, one in which the only time the pirates are in the water is when they board a poorly made raft that sinks shortly after being launched. Whatever the challenges may have been, he pulled it off. And Hammer pulled it off. The Pirates of Blood River was well received by audiences, and in true Hammer fashion, that meant they would do their best to milk the popularity for as long as they could. Over the next couple of years, Hammer produced several more pirate films, usually with the same cast. They even sprang for a mock ship for one of the films, and they intended to recycle it for other pirate films until it caught on fire. Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, was released in 1962 as well and continued the Hammer style of making pirate movies set entirely on land. In 1963 came The Scarlet Blade (the only Hammer pirate film that, as of this writing, remains unavailable on DVD). And in 1964, with The Devil Ship Pirates, they finally sprang for that mock-up of a ship, even though that film, like the others, takes place largely on land and sets. But that was about it for Hammer pirate movies. The ship accidentally caught on fire and thus couldn’t be reused (though the burning was incorporated into the film). As if that accident signified something more, production of Hammer swashbucklers more or less came to a close with that film as the studio focused itself almost entirely on horror films.
So while it may not have the panache of an Errol Flynn movie or the budget of a Disney live action film,and while it may not have a pirate ship in it, The Pirates of Blood River is still a solid adventure tale, with plenty of action, a dependable cast, and a look that fools you into thinking this is a much higher budget film than it actually is. It’s nice to see these old Hammer swashbucklers getting some attention.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Hammer Studio’s lord of the undead, the prince of darkness, the king of vampires, Count Dracula. When first we met him back in 1958, he was a snarling beast, a barely contained force of nature that ripped into his prey with lusty abandon and was explained by his arch-nemesis Dr. Van Helsing in purely rational, scientific terms. Dracula, and vampirism in general (as expounded upon by Van Helsing in Brides of Dracula), was nothing more than a disease, like any other disease, and what we regarded as “supernatural” was really nothing more than an explainable part of the rational world that humanity had simply not yet learned how to explain. As Hammer’s Dracula series progressed, however, Van Helsing faded from the picture and was replaced by a procession of forgettable guys named Paul, usually in league with some sort of religious authority figure. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, we have a monsignor who seems to have some degree of faith in faith’s ability to defeat Dracula, but he’s far more reliant on his trusty bolt-action rifle than he is on the Lord Almighty.
And so we enter the dire straights of Hammer Films in the final throes of a long, drawn-out death much like those experienced by Dracula himself. As has been detailed elsewhere and will be summarized here, by the 1970s, England’s Hammer Studios — the studio that pretty much defined and dominated the horror market through the 50s and 60s — had fallen on hard times. The old guard had largely retired or died, and the new blood was flailing about, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once mighty production house. The problem was that everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how. In retrospect, though they may have seemed painfully antiquated at the time of their release, many of Hammer’s releases during the 70s were quite good and often experimental (by Hammer standards, anyway). This movie isn’t really one of them, but it’s still pretty enjoyable in a completely ludicrous way.
It seems fitting that my first post-thanksgiving review should be of a film this goofy. Thanksgiving back home in Kentucky was grand, as it included a visit to Churchill Downs where I raked in a small fortune in winnings (and by small, I mean small, like fifty bucks), bourbon drinking, fried chicken and fried biscuits at Joe Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Family Restaurant, a visit to the Bass Pro Shop where I got to go on a light gun safari (end conclusion — you don’t want to hire me as your crack shot assassin — the only thing I could consistently hit was the turtle, and that was by accident), and a late-night conversation with my sister, my best friend from high school, as well as another friend newly met, about cadaver dissection in East St. Louis, machine gun battles in Guyana, and watching sub-dermal parasitic worms from the Amazon crawl around beneath the skin of your ankle.