Saturday, April 01, 2017

“You misjudged our men. Don't misjudge our women.”

The Crimson Pirate is a 1952 swashbuckler from director Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster. Siodmak was one of many German directors who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and made a name for himself as an excellent thriller director. Lancaster had come up from a circus acrobat background and only started acting after WWII.

The plot revolves around pirate captain Vallo (Lancaster) a freewheeling corsair with a fondness for red clothing who cleverly captures a ship carrying Baron José Gruda (Leslie Bradley), a highly placed member of the King's court (The king is never named, nor is the kingdom, but most of the named characters imply Spanish descent, even if everybody speaks with English or Transatlantic accents.) Gruda cuts a deal with Vallo. The pirate will be handsomely paid if he can capture rebel leader El Libre.

Naturally, things don't go as planned and Vallo and his First Mate Ojo (Nick Cravat) get caught up in mutiny, chase sequences, a beautiful rebel woman named Consuelo (Eva Bartok) whom Vallo falls in love with, and an eccentric professor, Elihu Prudence (James Hayter). All of that adds up the ADVENTURE. Its also got a young Christopher Lee in a minor role as one of the King's officers.

There's a lot to recommend about this movie. The Mediterranean locations standing in for the Caribbean look great in Technicolor and the action moves at an incredible clip that is sadly missing from most modern action films. There aren't a lot of swordfights in the film and the stunt choreography goes for physical running, jumping, climbing, tumbling and so on. More people get hit with belaying pins (size: S, type: Bludgeoning, 1d3 damage) than swords.* For an example of the kind of gags in this, there's a pirate with a peg leg who gets stuck during a fight, gets one of the King's men to help get it free, clobbers the guy, and in his glee, he immediately gets stuck again. Its an old gag, but damn if it isn't executed well.

It helps that even pushing 40, Lancaster was in phenomenal physical shape and his best friend and fellow circus veteran Nick Cravat had an incredible sense of timing for physical comedy and was equally as fit. Cravat is great in this, and doesn't speak a single line. Apparently his Brooklyn accent was too strong to make sense in a 17th Century Pirate Adventure, so he acts as a kind of Teller for Lancaster's commanding Penn. The two made nine films together.

Looking up the film, the original screenplay was a serious pirate movie by Waldo Salt, who was on the Hollywood blacklist for, well, being an actual member of the American Communist Party. Robert Siodmak (who was the brother of The Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak. Robert was the better director of the two.) apparently turned it into an all-ages comedy adventure. Though there's a bit more going on under the hood. Lancaster, a proud leftist, included anti-authoritarian themes and even the “Crimson Pirate” himself is a kind of nod to the Red Scare of the era.

So technically, yes, it IS liberal message fiction, but it happens to well handled because none of those little nods get in the way of the universal themes of heroism, freedom, honor and love that the movie is filled to the brim with.

Its remarkable how amenable audiences can be to your ideas when you don't ram them down their throats.

The Crimson Pirate is unabashedly light, airy fun. Its a bit sillier than, say, Errol Flynn's pirate masterpieces, and a bit more simplistic, but its a straightforward tale of love and redemption and freedom. What's not to like about that?

Absolutely recommended.

*I always wondered what the hell belaying pins were in my old AD&D Arms & Equipment Guide and why they merited inclusion among legitimate weapons. Now I'm pretty sure it was movies like this. 

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