dir. Don Sharp
1964 / Hammer Film / 86′
written by Jimmy Sangster
cinematography by Michael Reed
music by Gary Hughes
starring Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, John Cairney, Barry Warren, Suzan Farmer, Duncan Lamont, Natasha Pyne, Michael Ripper
The Devil-Ship Pirates is available as part of the Icons of Adventure DVD Collection.
It’s 1588, and the Spanish Armada has just taken its deadly thrashing. The Diablo, the small ship of Spanish privateer Captain Robeles (Christopher Lee) has taken flight as soon as the tides of battle turned against the Spanish. With his ship in a bad state, Robeles decides to pilot it into the English marshes in the hopes of finding a place to make repairs in peace before he and his crew can take up pirating again.
Their luck leads the pirates into the vicinity of a small English town whose younger male population has nearly completely gone to war, leaving the place in the hands of women a cowardly country squire (Ernest Clark), some middle aged and elderly men of the lower classes, and Harry (John Cairney), a young man who lost the use of his left arm in Spanish captivity, and who romances Angela (Suzan Farmer), the daughter of the squire, quite against the man’s wishes. Harry’s father Tom (Andrew Keir) is something of a spokesman of the villages working classes. (There are, of course, also the women of the village, but the film isn’t progressive enough to do much with them).
Robeles hopes to win the help of the village in the repair of his ship – and later get an opportunity to loot it – by applying a trick that plays on the place’s relative remoteness. He’ll march his men into town and pretend that Spain won over the British fleet and is now occupying the British Isles.
The squire and the local vicar only seem all too glad to oblige the new master in town, but the working classes – especially Harry and his father – are burning to make contact with any British resistance against their supposed occupiers. Ah, class war.
While Robeles has to use all his cunning and cruelty to play his ruse and keep the villagers under control, he is also threatened by philosophical differences with his first officer. That young man, Don Manuel Rodriguez de Savilla (Barry Warren), is a true Spanish patriot, and disagrees quite resolutely with Robeles plans for returning to the pirate business. Perhaps he will even disagree with them enough to partner with a bunch of English villagers?
While everybody (of taste) loves Hammer Film’s horror output, people – me too often included – tend to ignore most of what the studio put out in other genres. In some cases, like the studio’s small yet insipid comedy output, that’s pure self-defence, but in other cases, like its land-locked pirate movies, ignoring these films means missing out on some very fine genre filmmaking.
Case in point is The Devil-Ship Pirates, as directed by the generally dependable Don Sharp (who must have had a very good year in 1964, creatively, for it’s also the year that saw him direct the very fine little horror movie Witchcraft). It’s a film as clearly done on a budget as anything Hammer did at the time, but it’s also a film that knows how to use what it has (one ship, some fine looking sets and a highly dependable cast) in often inventive, always professional ways, and very entertaining ways.
Sharp’s direction isn’t as endowed with an eye for the pretty as it was in Witchcraft, but it provides the film with a sense of pace and tension that works well with the film’s script. Sharp also manages to handle the film’s more melodramatic parts in a rather off-handed way that provides them with a stronger feeling of veracity than you’d usually expect from scenes like them. There may be nothing flashy about Sharp, but he sure does all the right things to tell a clever story in an appropriately clever way.
Clever is a good way to describe Jimmy Sangster’s script for the film. The pirates’ plan does at once provide for a simple yet exciting set-up and keeps the film’s action constrained to a comparatively small number of locations without letting the production feel impoverished in any way; and once that plan is set up, it’s only a question of letting the various characters act appropriately, put in a few opportunities for mild swashbuckling (an English countryman is no Errol Flynn), and just let the plot roll out in a logical yet entertaining manner.
Of course, Sangster also finds time to add in some of Hammer’s usual political interests: the upper classes (especially the middle-aged men of the upper classes; there’s often still hope for the younger men and women in the production house’s films, at least if they’re willing to fall for lower class guys and girls) are not to be trusted, the working middle class is awesome, priests mean well but often don’t really know what they’re doing. It could be quite annoying, if it were not a) obviously true and b) made more complicated by characters who are allowed to transcend their class characteristics to act like actual human beings, or at least the adventure movie version of such.
On the acting side, The Devil-Ship Pirates provides ample opportunity to watch various Hammer stalwarts do their usual thoroughly convincing stuff. Standouts are Andrew Keir – who brings surprising intensity to a rather small roll, and Michael Ripper who portrays a pirate as if his usual innkeeper character had gone nasty with a relish that can’t help but delight.
Even the film’s romantic leads in form of John Cairney and Barry Warren are perfectly okay. That may be caused by the script providing them opportunities to play somewhat more complex characters than usual for romantic leads, but I’m surely not going to complain about added complexity in my adventure movies.
For once, I’m also not going to complain about my least favourite iconic horror actor, Christopher Lee. Sure, he plays more than half of his scenes on auto-pilot, doing his usual menacing shtick with little obvious interest in his role, but he has two really great moments. The first one – in his first violent confrontation with Don Manuel – is one of these (getting rarer the longer the actor’s career went) moments when the actor stops letting his Christopher Lee-ness stand in for acting and really puts some energy into projecting the smouldering menace he always was able to bring into its roles, but often seemed too disinterested to actually bring to use, turning his villain suddenly into someone not just bad in a perfunctory way as afforded by the script, but Evil in a much more total sense. Staying with the capital E Evil, his second great scene here sees Lee delighting in doing the most evil thing imaginable in a movie villain: outwitting a little boy.
Clearly, The Devil-Ship Pirates has everything you could ask of an adventure movie.