ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from NETWORK DISTRIBUTING
RUNNING TIME: 86 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
A pirate ship, fighting in 1588 on the side of the Spanish Armada, suffers extensive damage, and Captain Robeles, who rules over his crew with an iron hand, decides that they must put in at a village on the British coast for repairs. Kidnapping local girl Jane when she sees them, they discover that the villagers are unaware that the English have won the battle, and the Spanish go on to convince the villagers of the opposite, and that they are now their masters. Young lad Smiler is sent to get help but the Spanish create road blocks so no one can go in or out of the village. Spanish nobleman Don Manuel Rodriguez de Savilla doesn’t like that Robeles and his crew want to return to piracy though….
One of my most enjoyable though also most tiring projects I ever did for Horror Cult Films was reviewing every single film made sat Hammer Studios. Therefore The Devil-Ship Pirates is a film I’ve already done a write up of, but in my series I only wrote full length reviews for the films that were horror and fantasy, so it was only a short piece. Therefore I was more than happy to revisit this movie, seeing as Network Distributing were kind enough to present me with not a screener disc but the actual released Blu-ray. This was actually the first non-horror Hammer I ever saw apart from One Million Years BC, BBC2 showing it several times at 6pm, and it told me that Hammer also made other films that weren’t horror. In fact as well as plenty of comedies and war tales they made quite a few costume romps for children’s matinees, The Devil-Ship Pirates originally getting a U’ certificate which is kind of surprising considering its lengthy scene of flogging and a few other moments which titter on the edge of what some may consider to be unsuitable for young children, though then again films set in the past were often treated more leniently by the BBFC than films set in the present. In any case, it’s a rare case of a U’ rated film that’s been upped to a ‘PG’. It was one of three pirate pictures Hammer made, the others being The Pirates Of Blood River and the enormously underrated Captain Clegg. The Devil-Ship Pirates isn’t quite in the latter’s league, but it’s a most respectable effort, possibly inspired by Went The Day Well, with a decent central idea and a quite mature script by Jimmy Sangster which tries to equally balance drama, characterisation and action.
The Pirates of Blood River, also written by Sangster and starring Christopher Lee, was a considerable success at the box office, so Hammer commissioned Sangster to write another pirate-themed story for Lee. Director Don Sharp, who’d just made Kiss of the Vampire for Hammer, didn’t get along well with producer Anthony Nelson Keys who he called: “A general manager type and any idea he had was most obvious. I remember him telling me that he wanted Christopher Lee’s pirate to be clad in blue and I said, ‘A blue pirate. Tony? What shall we call him. Little Boy Blue?’ So he asked me what colour I wanted and I told him grey, which he thought was dull and unthreatening until I reminded him that it was threatening enough for the Nazis!” Filming took place at Hammer’s usual Bray Studios at Oakley Green, Berkshire, reusing sets that had been built for the previous year’s The Scarlet Blade, and nearby Maidenhead. The opening scene was shot in a flooded gravel pit a couple of miles up the road. On the other side of the road council workers were building a motorway so Sharp had the crew lay smoke to obscure trucks in the background. A full size galleon was built in sand pits on a steel structure under the water. Although warned not to have too many people on board at once, one day the tea boat was lifted onto a platform level with the water and too many people rushed over to one side to get a cup of tea. The ship capsized, throwing most of the cast and crew in the water, though no one was drowned or seriously hurt. The structure took several days to right, and the usually very frugal Hammer were happy to blow it up, though the scaffolding went to the bottom and was there for two years with the company who owned the pit still charging hire for it. The film was another hit for Hammer, minus a few seconds of cuts in the UK to a bar fight.
One has to laugh at the fact that, due to the usual Hammer low budgets, the two pirate films made either side of this one stayed on land, but this one actually sets its first few scenes at sea and even opens with a naval battle which the IMDB says is from another film but which Sangster and art director Don Mingayes on the audio commentary for the Sony Region 1 DVD release say was newly created. Medium shots of the side of one ship, long shots of couple of ships firing at each other and close-ups of cannons firing are intercut with a good rhythm and, while it’s hardly Ben Hur, it all comes off rather well considering how little money was at hand. We focus on The Diablo, a pirate ship that’s fleeing the battle badly damaged. It contains some familiar faces among the crew members, most notably of course the legend that is Michael Ripper who we get to see topless. Friction arises between Captain Robeles and the Spanish naval captain on the ship, something Robeles solves by shooting the other man in the back. This was amazingly the first Hammer film where Lee was top billed. He’s in top threatening form, delivering lines like “next man to talk loses his tongue” with relish. This film being aimed at the kiddie market, said threats are usually just threats, but we really do believe that Robeles is capable of things like this. The captain later dies in the presence of Don Manuel Rodriguez de Savilla, who doesn’t like being among all these pirates who seem to want to go back to pirating. Robeles gives his men just four days within which to repair the ship, and two lookouts, one of whom is Ripper’s character Pepe, kidnap a local girl named Meg who pretends that the nearby village is a fortress but is not believed. The same two men try to capture another girl, Jane, but she flees and her pursuers run into her brother Harry who bests them wielding an oar in the first of the film’s several and mostly short fight scenes.
A net helps to subdue the two and the villagers are considering what do to with them until Robeles and must of the others show up and tell them this awful news that the Spanish Armada was victorious. A bit of time is spent on the varying reactions of the villagers to these visitors. Head Sir Basil, whom we immediately recognise as a dangerous fool, wants to welcome them with open arms and even orders everyone to let a Spaniard sleep in their house otherwise they’ll be dispossessed. The latter understandably isn’t received too well. The lily-livered vicar is of similar bent. However, one of Hammer’s more interesting dull young hero types Harry, who’s spent two years in a Spanish prison and has one useless arm to prove it, is suspicious of what they’ve been told even if he can’t quite put his finger on the truth. Jane and Jane’s sister Angela’s father doesn’t like these intruders either, has no bones about showing it and therefore needs to watch his step. Another villager Miller also isn’t too sure, Philip Latham completing the foursome of performers that also include Lee, Suzan Farmer [Angela] and Andrew Keir [Harry and Jane’s father] who would go on to be in Dracula, Prince Of Darkness the following year. Robeles orders that barricades are to be erected to prevent people from leaving, and that the villagers should assist them in various ways, from helping to fix the ship to making clothes, though we don’t get to see any of this. Meanwhile Rodriguez seems to want to switch sides, though what can he actually do?
Basil says to Robeles regarding his men, “exuberant bunch of lads aren’t they, I hope they won’t do too much damage”. “They’ll do as much damage as I let them” is the brilliant reply. Due to its target audience and rating, the film rather soft pedals what these pirates would do when in a place like this. They rush for the pub, and are then sometimes seen sitting with willing female companions, but of course in reality there would be much sexual pressure involved. Pepe gets to harass Meg again, but it’s played for laughs and she seems to actually like him. It’s a bit dodgy, but then how often do you see one of Ripper’s characters with a lady? We basically have two heroes; Harry, and Rodriguez who signals quite early on that he’s a nice guy, even if in reality he’d probably hate the English far more than the pirates would. There’s also a little boy called Smiler, nicely played by Michael Newport, who’s very heroic indeed, being rather callously sent out past blockages to deliver messages and then taking part in a very strong scene where he’s taunted by Robeles to prove the possible indifference of the villagers. What with so much footage taking place in the main village square, High Definition means that the seams in the main village set show a bit, but these days it’s probably harder to get used to the idea of everyone speaking English even though of course that was almost the norm at the time. Most of the pirates have cockney accents and we have to keep reminding ourselves that Rodriguez [played by Barry Warren] especially is Spanish. Warren actually gives a sharp performance as the disgusted royalist whose small gestures slowly convince the village rebels of his fidelity to their goal of liberation.
The lengthiest piece of excitement is a chase through the countryside which suddenly switches to a set; it’s a very nice looking set and the area of quicksand which one character gets stuck in looks quite convincing, but the cut from one to the other, and then back again, is rather jarring. Lee, a very good fencer in real life [though it seems that there were so many things that he could do and do well], finally gets to show off his skills in the climax where he’s able to face off against both of the main good guys on the burning ship, though this time around I was more struck by the way Miller starts to shoot at some pirates as they’re escaping in a small boat; are we intended to assume that he polishes them all this way, in rather cold blood? There are times when The Devil-Ship Pirates threatens to become a more complex look at issues such as loyalty and division; I like the way, for example, that the two major establishment institutions of law and religion prove to be very dangerous, even though more could have been made of this if Sangster had been a bit more daring. Was he making jabs at appeasement and pacifism? Possibly. The nature and short length of this film means that it can’t spend too much time on the ideas it throws up, another one being the conflict between soldiery and piracy [“I’ll strip you one by one of your fancy ideas until you’re no better than the rest of us“], not to mention developing its many characters, but at least it certainly has a few brain cells; it’s not just empty costume stuff with only a few action scenes to keep us awake. Sharp keeps things moving even though he uses very little camera movement or close-ups, giving a stage feel in places though this isn’t exactly unappealing. Because it was shot in a particular anamorphic process called Megascope, characters on the side of the screen tend to look thin; it’s not too distracting though. Gary Hughes’s music score is solid fare though the jovial military march theme doesn’t really fit. However, much else about this one comes off rather well, even if it’s hardly a neglected minor classic.
Described as a “High Definition restoration from film elements”, this Blu-ray release of The Devil-Ship Pirates presents a very crisp picture with nice colour balance and even grain management. The DVD I had frame elements go through slight contortions whenever there was a camera pan, no doubt due to the Megascope process. These are not noticeable on the Blu-ray. What a fine job they did here.
The Unlevel-Ship Pirates: A brand-new featurette on the making of this classic Hammer swashbuckler [22 mins]
This featurette concentrates almost entirely on the disaster involving the ship and its destruction. I was initially disappointed, but the recollections of Hugh Helton [second assistant director], Pauline Wife [continuity], Annette Whiteley [Meg] and Dinny Powell [stuntman] do through up a lot of interesting details of the whole affair. For example we learn that this was the first time the whole tea tray was brought out to the ship, here that many people claimed that they’d lost more than they actually had to get more money, and have Whiteley describe to us how she had to jump off the ship into extremely muddy water into which she sank due to to her costume; she was really terrified. Shorn of the snazzy editing of the featurettes that we’re more used to, this is an engrossing watch for fans despite hardly any of the major principles being alive to discuss matters.
Hammer Time: a Brand new interview with actress Annette Whiteley [17 mins]
Further recollections from Whiteley during the same sitting reveal how she loved her comic bits with Ripper, how she was dragged by Duncan Lamont to judge a local beauty contest and deliberately going for the girl who’d made the least effort only for her to actually win, and Natasha Pyn’s ordeal when filming her quicksand scene; at one point she stood in the wrong place and really sank into the mass of burnt pork that was being used. It really sounds like the filming was event filled and a lot of fun.
Boy’s Own Adventure: A brand new interview with actor Michael Newport [22 mins]
Newport played little Smiler, but certainly remembers a fair bit, even being talked to by Sangster when he got given the part. He comments on the decidedly ’60s hair fashions, on how he kept on getting food when he wasn’t acting but was present for most of the major scenes, and recalls the camera lights making him squint and Sharp’s unsympathetic reply. Overall though he seems to have had a whale of a time.
Extensive image gallery
Limited edition booklet written by Neil Sinyard
As well as Sinyard’s writing which brings up some interesting points such as these Hammer costumers being tougher than the usual kiddie fare of the time which is probably precisely why they were so popular, we also get a copy of the Associated British-Pathe press book, revealing that the film was released in a double bill with the peplum The Invincible Seven.
Hammer fans are being spoiled by Blu-ray releases these days. Network no doubt felt obliged to make some effort and have certainly come through with a fine restoration and good extra material for this undeniably lesser but still rather interesting offering from Hammer. Recommended!