a.k.a. The Crimson Blade
directed by John Gilling
1966 / Hammer Film Productions / 78′
written by John Gilling
cinematography by Jack Asher
music by Gary Hughs
starring June Thorburn, Jack Hedley, Oliver Reed, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Ripper, Harold Goldblatt, Duncan Lamont, Suzan Farmer
The English Civil War is in its last throes. The remaining Royalists, the Cavaliers who are pure as angels I’ll have you know, are fighting a guerrilla war trying to enable the former king Charles to escape from the – satanically evil wouldn’t you know – Roundheads.
Despite the Royalists’ best efforts the men of Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) – officially a traitor to the royal cause himself – manage to capture the king. Now it’s only a matter of holding on to the arsehis former royal majesty until he can be transported to the tower, which is supposed to happen in a few weeks time.
Fortunately or un, a group of especially potent Royalist guerrillas (among them an especially scenery-hungry Michael Ripper in embarrassing brownface as “the gypsy Pablo”) led by Edward Beverley (Jack Hedley), calling himself “the Scarlet Blade” is operating in the area. These guerrillas are of course doing everything in their power to decimate the enemy troops in the area, and find a way to rescue the ex-king.
What Judd doesn’t know is that his daughter Claire (June Thorburn) has been helping Royalist refugees for quite some time, even though she isn’t exactly subtle about her loyalties; from there, it’s only a small step to involve herself in the conspiracy meant to save the king. Ironically, Judd’s right hand man, the deeply cynical Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed) sees quite a bit more clearly what Claire is up to, but instead of denouncing her, blackmails himself into the Royalist conspiracy too. For Sylvester has fallen in love with Claire and has decided that the best way into a woman’s heart is threatening her with exposure and then helping her out with the things she’s afraid of being exposed for. He is a smooth ladies man, Sylvester is.
Alas for poor Sylvester, once Claire lays eyes on the prime middle-aged woodenness of Beverley, her heart is forever lost to him. Of course, being played be Oliver Reed in a very sneering mood, Beverley is not the kind of guy who takes these things on the chin, and again the cause of saving one mass-murdering asshole to replace another mass-murdering asshole with him is threatened by the vagaries of love.
The deeper I dive into the pool of non-horror movies Hammer Studios made parallel to their horror output, the more impressed I am by the non-horror movies’ general quality.
John Gilling’s The Scarlet Blade may not be the second coming of the historical adventure movie, seeing as it uses a period not often seen in this sort of film in a bit too shallow a manner, doing a bit more violence to actual history than seems necessary for the kind of film it is. It’s one thing to decide on one side of the English Civil War to be the moustache-twirling bad guys, but it’s quite another one to basically have the angels sing on the soundtrack whenever fucking Charles I., who deserves the word “tyrant” the film uses for Cromwell quite well too, appears on screen.
However, whenever the film decides to explore the more complex loyalties and motivations of its characters, and relegates actual history to the attractive background like most modern swashbucklers do for a reason (we’re a long way from Weyman, for better or worse), it becomes less annoying, and more believably human. In fact, the strained loyalties all of the film’s major characters except for its nominal hero Beverley have give the handful of scenes of actual physical violence much more poignancy than they otherwise would carry, and give the film’s melodramatic scenes quite a bit of power. Beverley, on the other hand, is and stays the sort of boring, wooden romantic lead you’ve come to expect from this sort of film (the times of Errol Flynn alas being over, too), a man whose moral certainty is not based on an ability to work through his doubts and fears, but on a lack of imagination and personality, which makes him pretty difficult to cheer for, even when he puts love before duty.
It doesn’t help our theoretical hero’s case that Jack Hedley’s performance is so neutral it sometimes becomes difficult to remember he’s there, nor that his main rivals for screen time are Lionel Jeffries and Oliver Reed, both doing their best to outdo each other in intensity, nor does it improve matters that the script doesn’t bother to give him much of interest to do.
June Thorburn’s character is quite interesting for an adventure movie of this period (and especially one from Hammer, who weren’t exactly front runners when it comes to active female leads) in that her character is actually allowed to have some agency as well as a backbone. In fact, Claire seems a much more heroic character than Beverley to me, because she actually understands the implications of what she is doing, and decides doing it despite of these implications because she thinks she is doing right. I just wish Thorburn were a little better at projecting the force of personality the script suggests her character to have; while she isn’t as lacking in screen presence as Hedley is, she’s never quite convincing enough, which is a bit of a shame.
Other reviews of The Scarlet Blade on the ‘net tend to come down hard on the action scenes. However, I don’t think that’s particularly fair. It’s true nothing Gilling presents here is truly spectacular, but the film’s emphasis lies more on its character-based melodrama of loyalties, with the action only meant to provide the story with enough spice to keep it moving. That, I think, the action does quite well.