PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (Hammer/Columbia,1962) Twilight Time Blu Ray. 87 min. Color. $29.95. Region Free (A/B/C). https://www.twilighttimemovies.com/pirates-of-blood-river-the-blu-ray/ Limited to 3,000 copies.
Hammer in the late 1950s had found a popular and financially profitable niche with their now classic horror films. The studio, however, also produced a wide variety of titles in other genres. Powerful War films (YESTERDAY’S ENEMY, Hammer/Columbia 1959), Comedies (WATCH IT, SAILOR! Hammer/Columbia ,1961), even crime dramas ( HELL IS A CITY, Hammer/Warner Pathe ,1960).
They even made movies for the popular family market U certificate films. In England, to get the “U” (Universally suitable for all) certificate, a film was thought generally acceptable for ages four and up.
SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST (Hammer/Columbia, 1960) was a surprise hit, and so Hammer decided more swashbucklers would do the same. Hammer had done a Robin Hood film back in 1954 (THE MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST) but each of their Robin Hood tales were standalone stories. *
Oddly, Hammer waited two years to do another swashbuckler, but what they came up with was a winner. PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER was paired with the Ray Harryhausen adaptation of Jules Verne’s MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and upon its release in July,1962, quickly became the highest grossing double bill in the U.K. that year.
To get that important “U” rating, a gory filmed scene had to be excised. In the film, actress Marie Devereux unfortunately flees into a river filled with piranhas, and as the vicious killers swarm around her, she screams as the water around her turns red with blood. This scene was returned in later versions of the film, including its DVD release in a 2-disc set called ICONS OF ADVENTURE (Sony Home Entertainment,2008. The other titles were Hammer’s THE DEVIL SHIP PIRATES (1964), THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (1959) and TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961)). In fact, PIRATES at various times was rated ‘U’, ‘A’ (Those aged 5 and older admitted, but not recommended for children under 14 years of age) and even an “X” certificate (Suitable for those aged 16 and older (enforced by all councils) due to what scenes were edited in or out of a release.
The film opens with a stock shot of a 17th Century sailing vessel (anyone recognize from what movie this was lifted,let me know) and then we are told via credit crawl that the island is a refuge for Huguenots fleeing religious persecution and settling upon an island they named Devon. “But in the years to come, the just laws of the Colony began to yield to greed and tyranny. Happiness became an echo of the past. Freedom-just a memory.”
Now Huguenots were mostly Northern French Protestants who fled for their lives after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 24 August – 3 October 1572, wherein Catholics killed over 25,000 Huguenots in the country, only to have the murderers granted amnesty, as well as the edict of Fontainebleau in 1685 wherein the beleaguered religious sect had to convert to Catholicism or risk ruin, imprisonment of worse.
Devon is a British Iron age name derived from Dumnonia, so it is an odd name for French Settlers to choose. Then again, none of the islanders speak French nor even with an accent but sound very British indeed. Maybe they were some Huguenots who fled first from France to England and from there to the New World?
They are an island whose location is never exactly placed, but piranhas mostly reside in the Amazon and certain Brazilian or Venezuelan rivers. We can thus guess that this island is supposedly located in that general region. Not a wise area for the groups to settle, as the Spanish and Portuguese who occupied those countries were Catholics nations.
This, however could explain why they chose to remain so isolated, and established their harsh fundamentalist governing system. Then again, I am perhaps over thinking this fun romp, so back to the story.
Jonathan Standing (American actor Kerwin Mathews ,forever to be remembered for Columbia’s 1957 classic THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD ) is found with Maggie Mason (Marie Devereux in her final appearance in an Hammer film ),the wife of one of the town elders Godfrey Mason (Jack Stewart ,who had appeared in the early Hammer film A CASE FOR P.C. 49,1951), The religious leaders, led by Jonathan’s stern father Jason Standing (Andrew Keir, to me the best Professor Quatermass due to his performance in QUATERMASS & THE PIT for Hammer ,1967).They seek to arrest and punish the lovers but the poor Maggie flees into the river, suffering the fate of the piranhas mentioned earlier. Jason says that it is a judgement of God.
Jonathan is tried by the council, who, led by his father, sentences for him to be sent to a penal colony for 15 years. Jonathan’s sister Bess (Marla Landi, so good in Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES,1959) tells her father that the council is using him. It seems that Henry (American actor Glenn Corbett, who had starred in William Castle’s HOMICIDAL the year prior) says sarcastically says that Jason’s grandfather who helped found the colony and whose carved likeness stands above the courtroom, would be so proud. Jonathan asks that Henry, besides watching over his sister with whom Henry is in love, also watch over Jason’s father until the tyranny is brought down.
We then see the cruelty of the mining operations wherein the prisoners are forced to work and be tortured, including leaving Jonathan punished by having his hands tied to a cross beam and dangling above the ground (a form of crucifixion Hammer also used in 1965’s THE SECRET OF BLOOD RIVER). Thank goodness this is family friendly?
Jonathan escapes with an older prisoner who drops dead from exertion. Jonathan flees into the swamps and is presumed killed by the guards. He however, was shot in the arm, and is found by Mack (the great Michael Ripper, who appeared in more Hammer films than any other actor) Hench (Peter Arne, THE HELLFIRE CLUB, Tempean Films,1961) and Brocaire (Oliver Reed, right after his starring role in Hammer’s CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) and a group of pirates. They bring him to their boat (a wonderful Les Bowie glass matte) and to Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee, who does speak with a French accent). LaRoche is a soft-spoken, intelligent character, adorned with an eye patch and withered arm and Lee makes the most of his performance. Eleven years later , he donned and eye patch once again and demonstrated his wonderful swordsman skills , with Oliver Reed now an international star in THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Salkind, 1973 ).
The pirates say that they would travel back to Jonathan’s colony, which has remained hidden for a 100 year, and help Jonathan establish a just rule, in exchange for a haven and a place they can safely refresh their supplies. They trudge through the river (Michael Ripper disappearing briefly below the surface, Lee trudging on, probably inwardly cursing once again being soaked and walking through muck in another film, like his end in THE MUMMY, Hammer ,1959). Brocaire gets into a fight in the water with another pirate, which is stopped by a stare from the Captain. Filmed in brackish water that smelt awful (Black Park), Oliver Reed got inflamed eyes while Lee got a stomach infection.
Of course, the pirates have no intention of a peaceful co-existence, believing that there is a hidden treasure within the colony. Can Jonathan and the settlers rid themselves of their occupiers?
The film is an exciting, thoughtful thriller. The underlying distrust of an oppressive religious leadership is heavy, considering this is again thought of a family film. Hammer would expand on the idea of Religious close mindedness in greater detail in their horror film TWINS OF EVIL (1971). For the most part, though, this is a thrilling and well-made period adventure piece, that once again Hammer’s wonderful technicians make look so much more expensive than their limited budgets should allow. Michael Ripper has a much larger role than many of his films, and you get to see what a truly fine actor he was. When drunk, he foolishly mocks his Captain, satirizing his bad eye and injured arm.
Now TWILIGHT TIME has released a magnificent blu ray of this fun Hammer action adventure.
The previous Sony DVD was fine, and a bargain when released with the other three titles.
This new Blu Ray release, however, is a revelation. A 1080p High Definition / 2.35:1 / Color print really shows off the Megascope cinematography (kudos to Arthur Grant ,who worked brilliantly at Hammer from 1957 to 1972 ). The colors are incredibly rich, and the sharpness makes this look like a new film rather than a 55-year-old movie.
The 1.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio is surprisingly rich, with the dialogue, soundtrack and effects all quite clear and crisp.
As for extras,
the optional English SDH subtitles are clear and easy to read, following the action and dialogue perfectly.
There is an isolated music and effects track, wherein you can really enjoy how much both add to the enjoyment of this film. Composer Gary Hughes seemed to be Hammer’s going to man for their 60s swashbucklers, as he also composed their THE CRIMSON BLADE (1963), THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES (1964), THE VIKING QUEEN (1967) and A CHALLENGE FOR ROBIN HOOD (1967). You also appreciate how much care Hammer put into their sound design, with not only gunshots and screams added in, but so many tiny details that perhaps go unnoticed by most moviegoers that subconsciously make the scene stronger. Kudos to Alfred Cox (sound editor) and Jock May (sound recordist). They also knew when to pull back on sound, as during the wonderfully suspenseful scene between Hench and Brocaire, wherein both men are blindfolded and have a sword fight. It is without music, and the sounds are dropped down to those of clashing blades and items scattered during the conflict.
An informative audio commentary runs the length of the picture (taken from a previous DVD release) with film historian Marcus Hearn (THE HAMMER STORY, co written with Alan Barnes, Titan Books, 1997), who keeps things going by dropping in some wonderful facts, and prodding the memories of writer Jimmy Sangster (who passed away in 2011) and art director Don Mingaye (who is as of this writing, still alive at age 88).
They discuss their experiences with the studio, writing and budgeting, memories of various actors (look for Desmond Llewelyn, later gain fame as Q in the James Bond series) and crew, and having to write a pirate movie without a ship (save for the opening stock shot and glass matte). They also verify that director John Gilling was while a brilliant craftsman was subject to mood swings wherein he could be quite nasty. Christopher Lee even found him difficult to work with.The commentators attribute this to a head wound that Gilling had, which left him with a large scar. Gilling did give us several horror classics, such as FLESH & THE FIENDS (Regal 1959) and the Hammer “Cornish “horrors, THE REPTILE and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (both 1966). They also talk about how surprised Sammy Davis Jr, a huge Hammer fan, was when he visited the set of this film.
Julie Kirgo as always supplies a nice overview appreciation of the film in the booklet enclosed with the blu ray.
Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer.
Today, to do a pirate film costs over $200 million dollar and is CGI crazy to the point wherein the actors often become ciphers to the visual chaos. However, releases like this show you what talent before and behind the camera could do with a very small budget.
Recommended to fans of Hammer, Christopher Lee, and adventure fans of all ages (just watch out for those piranhas!).
-Kevin G Shinnick
*-the other Hammer Robin Hood film was A CHALLENGE FOR ROBIN HOOD (Hammer/Warner Pathe ,1967). WOLFSHEAD: THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD was a failed tv pilot from 1969 that Hammer acquired but did not produce, and released theatrically as a B feature in 1973.
STILL TIME TO ENTER TO POSSIBLY WIN A DVD/BLU RAY of BETTER WATCH OUT . December 1,2017 deadline.