Thursday, November 23, 2006


By sheer coincidence, I saw these two archetypal pirate movies, made in the same year, on the same day. I had ordered CRIMSON PIRATE from Netflix after reading some very positive comments about it, and the day it came, BLACKBEARD popped up on Turner Classic Movies, so I thought they would make a nice pairing. Instead, viewing the two just strengthened my resolve to avoid pirate movies (I may be the only person in America who found PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN to be a total bore, though I will admit that Johnny Depp does a good Keith Richards). CRIMSON has some plusses, mostly rich Technicolor, the physique of its star Burt Lancaster, and a tongue-in-cheek tone, but I was a little weary of all the capital-F fun by the end. The plot has pirate Lancaster and his crew hijacking a ship belonging to a baron who is on his way to put down an island revolt led by El Libre, but when they find that the ship has more arms than riches, Lancaster works out a scheme in which the pirates will sell the arms to the rebels, then, for a fee, betray the rebels and El Libre to the baron. Once on the island, Lancaster falls in love with El Libre's daughter (Eva Bartok), faces up to his band of pirates who are tired of playing politics and just want to get back to plundering, and decides to double-cross the baron. The swashbuckling antics are well executed by the athletic star and his mute sidekick, Nick Cravat, who in real life had worked with Lancaster in the circus, and the opening scene, in which the pirates have splayed themselves across the ship pretending to be dead plague victims, is excellent. But the rest is just too much sound and fury to too little purpose. Torin Thatcher and Christopher Lee are standouts in the supporting cast. [DVD]

Oddly, Thatcher, whom I know best as the villain in the 60's fantasy JACK THE GIANT KILLER, is also in BLACKBEARD. This movie isn't as colorful and doesn't have as much "fun" action going on, but it has a stronger plot and a sense of real danger, with more actual death and dismemberment going on. Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in a 1950 version of TREASURE ISLAND, is the title character, scourge of the shipping lanes, and much sought after by the former pirate Sir Henry Morgan (Thatcher) who has renounced pirating and vowed to capture Newton for the King. Meanwhile, Keith Andes is a doctor who believes that Thatcher hasn't really left his wicked ways behind and is out to get evidence against him. Andes winds up a prisoner of Newton's (and a useful one since he's a doctor), along with the lovely Linda Darnell, adopted daughter of Thatcher, who may have some hidden treasure with her. Indeed, she does, and Newton tries to spirit it away so as not to have to split it with his men. After some fierce fighting, Newton pulls off a deception by killing a look-alike to make it seem as if he's dead (with his head hanging in the public square), but he doesn't get the last laugh after all, with a grimly comic finale, particularly dark for a 50's film. Andes makes for a fairly dashing good guy (though not as studly as Lancaster), but Newton is always front and center and doesn't let a single scene get stolen from him. His performance is wildly over the top, and it seems as if he single-handedly created the "Arrrrrrggh..." stereotype which has been milked so often since--he starts practically every line of dialogue with that sound, and though it's fun in the beginning, it gets a bit tiring. Irene Ryan (later Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies) gets some mild laughs as Darnell's companion, and William Bendix is OK as Newton's sidekick. I believe I've had me fill of pirate movies for a while. [TCM]

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