Even swashbucklers can have their budgetary restrictions, as was the case when crack Hammer Film Productions screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was asked to come up with a scenario for a pirate adventure that would have to forego one of its genre staples, a pirate ship. Thus, moviegoers attending The Pirates of Blood River (1962), from the studio that had jolted the movie industry with bloodcurdling Gothic horror reinventions but wanted to branch out from scare spectacles, had to content themselves with stock footage of a period vessel as a mere backdrop to the opening credits. After that, all the bases were covered with considerable panache. The buccaneer horde menacing the beleaguered populace of a Huguenot settlement was an appropriately scurvy bunch led by the suavely sinister, eye-patched, arm-withered Christopher Lee as the commanding Captain LaRoche, and his despicable crew would include Hammer stalwarts Peter Arne, Michael Ripper and the on-the-rise soon-to-break-out Oliver Reed, who had the prior year bared his lycanthropic side as the stylish title character in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). Adding tension and flavor, the Huguenots were portrayed in a less than sterling light as themselves religiously rigid and intolerant of illicit romance, making the stakes even greater for the tale’s two American-exported heroes played by Kerwin Mathews (recently of the Twilight Time title The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960)) and Glenn Corbett (co-star of TT’s The Crimson Kimono (1959)) and defiant maiden Marla Landi (the conniving Cecile from the Hammer/TT The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)). The banished hero even puts in time under the lash – Captain Blood-style – at a remote penal colony. And blades were wielded with a gritty flourish. Per John M. Miller’s TCM.com essay on the film: “The swordplay on view…may not be up to the standards of such swashbucklers of golden age Hollywood as Captain Blood (1935) or The Sea Hawk (1940), but although they are less polished, the fight scenes are still rough-and-tumble and exciting. Bob Simmons is credited in the film as ‘master of arms’ and he choreographed the fights. Simmons would go on to stage the action sequences in all of the James Bond films starring Sean Connery (and he served as stunt double for Connery as well, and played the ‘silhouette’ Bond in the famous opening gun barrel sequence). Of the many choreographed fights in the film, the standout begins as a challenge from one pirate to another. In the large settlement meeting hall, LaRoche arranges for two of his men to cross swords to finish an argument over a woman – but first they are blindfolded. Mack (Hammer regular Ripper in a meaty role) puts blindfolds on the men and spins them around. The onlookers are in almost as much danger as the participants as Hench (Arne) and Brocaire (the always-watchable Reed) flail and stab with wild abandon.”
Though this particular pirate piece did not have a seafaring component, that didn’t mean that its players didn’t get wet – and perilously so – in the murky waterways in and around Bray Studios in Berkshire and Black Lake Park in Buckinghamshire where the film was shot. Mathews told Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography authors Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio: “I really liked going to Bray each day and doing what I knew how to do best in a very nice place with nice people. The film was physical and rough – it couldn’t have been otherwise. One morning I had to do a scene in a swamp that had turned to quicksand. I had one of the frights of my life!” In his entertaining memoir 1997 memoir Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee recalled: “Pirates was a fearsome film to work on. Tarted up with palms and banana trees to resemble the Caribbean, Black Park near Pinewood looked most appetizing. It was a cruel deception. In the middle of the park was a lake more stagnant and polluted than anything in Poe and through this filth and the hazards of sharp underwater obstacles I, as the pirate captain LaRoche, had to lead my piratical stars and a cohort of piratical stunt men. The ooze and the sludge and the stench were appalling. Poor Oliver Reed’s eyes were so badly affected that he had to be treated in hospital. The lake, without outlets, was in fact condemned. Anyone under six foot was in constant danger of drowning, which meant most of them, and I had a slight advantage there over my shipmates. This was offset by seaboots which filled and made walking right across an immense muscle-racking strain. Where there’s muck there’s brass.” Of course, when the house of Hammer is involved, there will be blood, although not when catering to the family trade, as it did on a wildly popular double bill with Mysterious Island in British movie palaces in the summer of 1962. Miller reports: “The British film industry at the time employed a ratings system similar to the one that was instituted by the American industry in the late 1960s. The British designations included the ratings ‘U’ for Universal (all-ages) material, ‘A’ for adults and accompanied juveniles, and ‘X’ – no children allowed. Since Hammer ultimately intended The Pirates of Blood River for release to a family audience, they submitted the film several times before receiving the ‘U’ rating. In his book What the Censor Saw (Joseph, 1973), John Trevelyan noted that it was one of the only films labeled with all three designations: ‘In the early part of the film a young girl, escaping from a villain, plunged into a river and set out to swim to the other bank. In the X version a shoal of piranha fish rushed through the water and attacked the girl who struggled and was apparently dragged under the water which then became tinged with blood; in the A version the piranha fish rushed through the water but the scene stopped as they reached the girl; in the U version the piranha fish never appeared at all.’ Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray, derived from a recent Sony 4K restoration transfer, is full-on X, and this edition of The Pirates of Blood River, directed (and co-scripted with John Hunter) in Hammerscope and Technicolor by the capable John Gilling and rousingly scored by Gary Hughes, also features a 2008 Audio Commentary with Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and noted Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. It sets sail (after a fashion) October 17. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday October 4.