A Movie A Day: PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962) For me? An island like this. Peaceful. Full of golden women and no men.
Published at: Aug. 17, 2008, 6:19 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Boy am I totally loving this DVD set so far. Yesterday’s TERROR OF THE TONGS was a great little crime flick from Hammer, featuring an awesome performance from Christopher Lee as the Chinese overlord of a horrible hatchet-wielding crime syndicate in early 1900s Hong Kong. Today we follow Lee to a swashbuckling adventure called PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER, also a Hammer production and from a story by yesterday’s screenwriter Jimmy Sangster.
I wish Columbia or whomever put out this set would make the cover of the DVD reflect the fun and dazzling Technicolor glory of the movies.
Shot in “Hammerscope” the widescreen transfer is gorgeous on this tale that seems to have everything thrown in. We start at a colony formed in secret by people escaping persecution, but within a couple generations the religious rulers of this colony have become just as intolerant and unjust as the people their grandfathers sought escape from.
One man is willing to stand up to them and when he’s caught with another man’s wife that’s all the excuse they need to try him. Oh, and he’s the son of the head of the colony, who exercises only a little restraint, casting Kerwin Mathews out instead of hanging him.
Off to a harsh prison camp he goes, but we know he’s too cunning and heroic to stay there for long. Mathews was Sinbad afterall (7th VOYAGE). No prison will hold him for long. Plus we know there has to be some pirate actions at some point. It’s in the bloody title.
Escape he does and runs right into a band of no good dirty pirates who take the wounded and exhausted Mathews before their Captain, the one-eyed Frenchman LaRoche, played with a flawless accent by Christopher Lee.
And did I mention that one of Lee’s main pirate henchmen is noneother than one of the ultimate badasses of cinema history? Oliver Mother-Fathering Reed.
The filmography puts this film a year after his memorable turn in another Hammer production CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, but previous to that his parts are listed as “Chorus Boy,” “Plaid Shirt,” and “Spectator at Sideshow,” so this was just as he was becoming an icon.
Outside of the THREE MUSKETEERS/FOUR MUSKETEERS one-two punch, I had no idea Oliver Reed was in a movie with Christopher Lee. A quick IMDB search (or not so quick… why do they make it so damn difficult to search for joint ventures?) shows Reed had a bit part in 1960’s THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL starring Lee and that they also appeared together in a 1990 retelling of TREASURE ISLAND with Charlton Heston as Long John Silver and Christian Bale (!) as Jim Hawkins. Wow. What a cast… gotta find that one.
Anyway, count me plussed to see Oliver Reed as a man barely in check, happy to rape and pillage his balls off, but kept in check by one of the only men who could stare Oliver Reed in the eye and not blink, Christopher Lee.
At first Mathews and Lee form a partnership. Lee is impressed that this colony is unknown to the world and sees the value in having use of its ports and is willing to help Mathews get home and put pressure on the town elders to change their ways and regain the freedom the colony founders intended.
Of course this doesn’t last long. The second they get to the outskirts of the colony, Reed and another pirate try to steal two women and murder the husband/father of the two damsels. Turns out Lee is under the impression that the town is hiding a vast fortune and doesn’t really give a damn what his crew does to the townspeople.
This doesn’t sit well with Mathews, so he becomes prisoner again as the colony prepares to defend itself.
But why is it called PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER? Where’s the blood river? I’m glad you asked. In the opening scenes we see Mathew’s love (and another man’s wife) flee from her angry and abusive husband when the two are discovered. She tries to swim for it, but the river bordering the town is filled with piranha. Poor girl.
So you know that’s going to come back and it does, although I wish the second appearance of the piranha had been handled a bit differently… the way it is, it’s like they just appear and aren’t used to the advantage of the good guys like I had hoped they would have been.
Lee is as great as he always is, but it’s a little weird seeing him so young, brown-haired and unlined features. He’s usually either in heavy make-up or befanged and I’m so familiar with his later work that it’s crazy to see him young. His charisma and quiet menace has been with him all along, though. That’s not something he gained with age.
Mathews is fine as our lead, Jonathan Standing. He’s not exactly multilayered as a character, but he’s likable and represents perfection in spirit and attitude. I’m noticing a trend with these Sangster flicks… the lead always seems to be a one-dimensional good guy whereas the villains are given some really great and complex characters. LaRoche has his own morality, but is afraid of mutiny and with every mistake or complication he’s one step closer to losing control of his outfit.
Yesterday’s Lee Chinaman Chung King was likewise multilayered as a character. He was more traditionally evil than LaRoche, but when the final conflict comes he takes a very noble stance and doesn’t pull any typical villain maneuvers.
I’m beginning to see that Sangster’s stories love their villains more than their heroes even though they know the villains must be defeated by the end of the picture. Interesting.
Sangster can’t get all the credit for this really fun picture, though. He has a Story By credit and John Hunter and John Gilling are credited for the screenplay. Gilling also directed and everybody I’ve mentioned really brought it. The flick doesn’t feel like a cheap B-movie at any point. The direction is tight, the script is fast and really tries to hit a lot of different notes throughout, from the wrongs of religious persecution to how the greed of man can lead to evil no matter how noble their intentions, all wrapped in a fun swashbuckling tale with damsels in distress, killer fish, sword-fights and the hunt for a huge treasure.
Final Thoughts: A really fun flick, one that doesn’t deserve to be lost in the shuffle. I’m really enjoying these non-horror Hammer entries. This one is filled with some beautiful scenery, great performances and a fight scene with Oliver Reed and another pirate in a blind swordfight over a wench as Christopher Lee lords over the whole thing like the man-God he is. What more could you want?