Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Devil-Ship Pirates

It’s Hammer Time!

“The Devil-Ship Pirates” (1964) has a most intriguing scenario for a swashbuckler. After the Spanish Armada is defeated, a lone battered, beaten Spanish galleon finds itself awash on an isolated portion of the English coast. While the crew attempts to repair the ship, the Spanish captain and his officers convince the nearby villagers that England has been defeated by the Spanish and they are now an occupied nation. They order the villagers to help repair the ship, which needs to be done in four days so they can sail on the next tide. They need to keep the ruse up for those four days before the villagers discover the truth. It’s like “Mission: Impossible” Elizabethan style.

It’s no world-beater, but I had an enjoyable time watching “The Devil-Ship Pirates.” It packs a lot of story and incident in its 85-minute running time.

Despite its limited budget, Hammer Studios could make its films appear a little more lavish than they are. So what that 99 percent of a pirate movie takes place on dry land? There’s still plenty of action to be had.

Christopher Lee took a break from scaring audiences and appears in good form as the supremely arrogant captain of the Spanish ship. I’ve always enjoyed Lee in his swashbuckling appearances. He wears costumes well and fences with great skill. From doing battle with Errol Flynn in “The Warriors” (1955) through his marvelous Rochefort in “The Three Musketeers” (1973) and “The Four Musketeers” (1974), and the various mid-level Hammer swashbucklers in between, Christopher Lee with sword in hand is always good for an entertaining time.

Other familiar faces from Hammer films show up, including Andrew Keir and Suzan Farmer, who would co-star with Lee a year later in “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” and Michael Ripper, co-star of far too many Hammer films to mention.

An actor named John Cairney appears as one of the villagers, the blacksmith who is not going to accept Spanish tyranny under any circumstances. His left arm is crippled but he has enough strength in his right arm to effectively wield a weapon – whatever is handy - against the Spanish. Cairney’s voice and appearance were familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him. Then about halfway through it dawned on me. He played Hylas in “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963). Some actors can claim awards or starring in a top-grossing film, but to star in a Hammer and a Harryhausen one year apart is worth about a dozen prizes.

Director Don Sharp keeps things flowing nicely, though the film does suffer from the typical Hammer failing of having its English actors speak in their normal voices, whatever the role. Here, the Spanish sailors sound like they’ve come from an audition of “Alfie.” The only way to tell the Spanish apart from the English is the Spanish sailors wear darkened skin make-up.

But that’s part of the fun of Hammer movies. You could have a Dracula flick set in Transylvania or Baron Frankenstein carving up dead bodies in Central Europe, and you still have everyone sound like they’re from the South of London.

The DVD wide-screen transfer, on a disc with three other Hammer adventure films, is a real treat. Such bright and vibrant colors! How come we can’t have color like that in movies today?

I have “The Pirates of Blood River” (1962), “The Terror of the Tongs” (1961), both starring Christopher Lee, and “The Stranglers of Bombay” (1960) (thuggees and Kali worshippers) to look forward to. Good stuff. As Charlie Brown would say, “Happiness is a Hammer movie.”

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