The Crimson Pirate: The Swashathon (Swashbuckler Blogathon)
This is my entry in the Swashathon, hosted by Fritzi Kramer (Movies Silently). Enjoy!
In The Rocketeer, Timothy Dalton plays Neville Sinclair, a 1940’s action/adventure movie star modeled on Errol Flynn (though it takes as gospel the false accusation Flynn was a Nazi spy, but that’s another story). When we first meet him, he’s playing a character in a period adventure movie, engaging in a sword duel with the villain of the story. He swings over to a table after unmasking himself, and as he’s about to drink from a goblet of wine that’s there, the leading lady character of the movie gushes, “O, my sweet prince, that I might drink from your lips as deeply!” (the first take we see her doing, she gives a wooden line reading; the second is better) Sinclair’s character, smiling, finishes his drink, inclines his head towards her, and then goes back to fighting. This scene captures, in a nutshell, what’s so appealing to those of us who are fans of swashbuckling films; not just the action scenes (which can be exhilarating when done right), but also the sense of joy that they’re done with, and the humor that they’re done with. And few films have done this as well as the 1952 film The Crimson Pirate, directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster.
Lancaster plays the title character, also known as Captain Vallo, a pirate who, along with the rest of his crew, is merely out to get whatever they can in terms of money and adventure. At the beginning, he and his men capture a British ship headed to the Caribbean by pretending to be a ship that’s been laid waste to by scurvy. When Vallo finds out one of the passengers is Baron Jose Gruda (Leslie Bradley),a British official sent to stop a rebellion being led in the Caribbean, led by an unknown figure nicknamed “El Libre”, he decides to forego the usual pirate method of looting and pillaging. Instead, he’ll steal the arms the ship has, sell them to El Libre, and then sell El Libre out for double the money back to Gruda. However, things don’t quite work out the way Vallo planned; he ends up falling in love with Consuelo (Eva Bartok), the daughter of El Libre, getting double-crossed by his own crew (who are not happy that he seems to have turned idealistic), and then having to rescue them when they in turn are double-crossed by Gruda, as well as rescue Consuelo.
This was the third and final time Lancaster and Siodmak teamed up. Their previous films, The Killers (1946), based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and Criss Cross (1949), from a novel by Don Tracy, were both film noirs. However, this was less of a stretch for them than you might think. Lancaster, of course, was originally an acrobat, and had already done films showing off his athletic skills, such as Rope and Sand (1949), Vengeance Valley, Jim Thorpe: All American (both 1951), and The Flame and the Arrow (1950), the film Pirate most resembled. And while Siodmak had mostly done thriller/noir films in American – aside from the two films with Lancaster, he also did three films with Ella Raines (Phantom Lady, The Suspect (both 1944), and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)*), and the HItchcockian The Spiral Staircase (1946) – but he had also done films like Son of Dracula (1943) and the campy Cobra Woman (1944), which were considerably lighter in tone. Also, while original writer Waldo Salt had written a more serious screenplay about tyranny before being blacklisted, Siodmak and new writer Roland Kibbee (who had written Ten Tall Men, starring Lancaster, and who would go on to write three other films starring Lancaster – including The Midnight Man (1974), which he and Lancaster co-directed) changed it into a comedy, though there are traces of political commentary (when Consuelo at one point pleads for Vallo to fight with them because it’s “decent”, Vallo replies, “All my life I’ve watched injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency. I don’t trust it”). Certainly, getting there was no picnic; Lancaster and Siodmak had a falling out during the making of the film (which went way over budget), and Siodmak would complain later about how much of a bully Lancaster was during the production (whether it was because of this or other reasons, Siodmak never worked in Hollywood again)~. Yet none of that tension showed up on screen, and like all of the best entertainments, it works because it appears effortless.
A great deal of credit for why The Crimson Pirate works so well goes to the technicians working with Siodmak. Cinematographer Otto Heller was well into his third decade of a long, if not particularly distinguished, career up till then (his most well-known credit up to that point was the British crime drama They Made Me a Fugitive; later, he went on to shoot such great films as The Ladykillers, Peeping Tom, and The Ipcress File), and he gives the film a vibrant and colorful look. The fight scenes are also staged well, and he and editor Jack Harris (who worked as an editor for David Lean on Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist, and also edited The Ladykillers) keep the action coherent, even when such anachronistic weapons as nitroglycerin are used (courtesy of Professor Prudence (James Hayter), who ends up helping Vallo). Also, there’s the boisterous score by William Alwyn (who worked with Carol Reed on Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, and went on to do the score for A Night to Remember and Shake Hands with the Devil), which manages to go for grandeur yet stay light at the same time. Finally, Kibbee deserves credit as well for helping keep a light touch as well, and delivering a knowing wink at the genre conventions – when Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), one of the pirates, leads a mutiny against Vallo, he explains it’s practically a pirate’s duty to double-cross anyone.
Still, the lion’s share of the credit should go to Lancaster, who also co-produced with his partner Harold Hecht (though Hecht had produced three previous films of Lancaster’s, this was the first time Lancaster officially served as producer; they went on to produce 15 more films together through their production company). Lancaster has had the reputation of being one of the few actors who did his own stunts (he started out as a circus performer), and while this has been disputed (on The Flame and the Arrow, Don Turner, one of the stuntman, pointed out he had doubled for Lancaster in the fight scenes), there’s no doubt Lancaster brings immense physicality to the role. Whether swinging from one end of his ship to another, eluding a squadron of soldiers that are chasing him and his first mate Ojo (Nick Cravat – more on him in a moment), or fighting them on board his ship, Lancaster is entirely convincing in the role, even if he looks too clean-cut to be a pirate (one of my former co-workers groused about his impeccably white teeth – which he shows off at various times – but to me, it’s all part of the film). And Lancaster’s magnetism and sheer joy in performing never curdle into smugness. He also is able to handle Vallo’s change of heart as well, without it making it seem like it comes out of left field (he also pulls off a scene in drag – when he, Ojo and the professor disguise themselves as flower girls to rescue Consuelo – despite how big he is).
Cravat, Lancaster’s former circus partner who had become Lancaster’s trainer in real life, is also a hoot. As in The Flame and the Arrow, the first time Cravat and Lancaster had appeared together, Cravat plays a mute character, the better to hide his thick Brooklyn accent. In this movie, Cravat is almost as good as Harpo Marx at playing a comic mute (which is saying something) – especially when he demonstrates “paying through the nose” to a group of amused ladies of the court – and is equally adept as Lancaster at the action scenes. The rest of the cast, while not memorable, is serviceable, with Bradley, Hayter, and Thatcher being the standouts (this film also provides early roles for Christopher Lee, as a British military attache, and Dana Wynter, as a woman Gruda is with when Vallo first takes over his ship), and at the very least, they all seem in on the fun as well. There are also some sigh gags thrown in, as when Valley, Ojo, and the professor carry a boat from the water onto ground, and we can only see their feet as they try to get away (the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie pays homage to this scene), and it’s an example of the type of gag that makes this movie seem effortless and come off as actually entertaining, making it one of the reasons why The Crimson Pirate stands as a superior example of a swashbuckler movie.
*-Raines also appeared in Siodmak’s Time Out of Mind (1947), but this was not a thriller/noir.
~-According to Lancaster biographer Kate Buford, Lancaster was going through marriage troubles at the time, and was also under investigation by the HUAC for his liberal political views, though whether this had to do with his on-set behavior remains unclear.