Tag Archives: Kerwin Mathews

feat

Battle Beneath the Earth

BattleBeneathTheEarth_010

The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college edukation to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I was able to point at the screen and exclaim, “Der, that can’t not happen! Har!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot, and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.

Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of those six-to-eight year-old boy might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market, and, as such, seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent Sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces–ideally portrayed by a bunch of green plastic army men–in all-out warfare… beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.


Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in many cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)

In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out–seemingly at monthly intervals–a large number of competent but unremarkable B crime thrillers, and also worked in British television. Similarly, writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews, for his part, was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack the Giant Killer–though it was possibly his work in eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here–and leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guaranty that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.


Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble–at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude–a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, obviously over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.

Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore, an old family friend, to visit her brother in the brain hospital. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore, but does show him a “seismographic drawing”–made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.


Part of that further looking into involves Shore visiting his buddy Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film… and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).

The barking of terse commands into red phones is not just noteworthy in itself, of course, but also because it results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect in their slice of the country–at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super duper important–so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.


It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Still, if fun is being made, Battle Beneath the Earth is doing a superhuman job of feigning stone-faced earnestness throughout, never once tipping its hat or giving the audience the slightest glimmer of a wink.

Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop, who, of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, probably makes the largest blip on the radar screens of Teleport City’s readers. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop–perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice–that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live action series, UFO — if not the best, than certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the Sixties.


Anyway, Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up Champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where, while exploring a disused section, he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel whose walls have apparently been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers. This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high intensity lasers. (These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires.) They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.

At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius Dr. Kengh Lee and his key military aid Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.


Now, as far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciating inscrutability. Major Chai, also, is played by a British actor, David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.

By the way, out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings a twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man) and I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.

Now I have to mention here that I will be describing things in Battle Beneath the Earth that will sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate. To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I should call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations, and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns and a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott (which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit).


Similarly, the high tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way, but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)

So, with all that in mind, let’s return to the business of plot synopsis. After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an Atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.

After this failure, team USA gets the jump on Chan Lu thanks to that aforementioned “condition silent” business, and are able to create a brightly-lit wall map showing the locations of his tunnels. Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano, and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen year old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence, and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color, and has a strange vocal inflection that sounds like it’s half accent and half speech impediment which I found a little distracting at times.


Anyway, it is in the bowels of the Earth below that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stands naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.

For all its failings, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate. In my case, this is partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it (though, of course, with much lower production values). In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.

The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.

Release Year: 1967 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Vivienne Ventura, Ed Bishop, Peter Arne, Martin Benson, Peter Elliott, Robert Ayres, Al Mulock, Earl Cameron, John Brandon, Bill Nagy, Paula Li Shiu | Writer: Charles F. Vetter (as L.Z. Hargreaves) | Director: Montgomery Tully | Cinematographer: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ken Jones

The-Pirates-of-Blood-River12

Pirates of Blood River

The-Pirates-of-Blood-River12

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.