Pirates of the XXth Century

a.k.a. Piraty XX Veka
directed by
 Boris Durov
1979 | Gorky Film Studios | 80′ 

Little does the crew of a Soviet freighter transporting medicine for the Motherland expect the true nature of their cargo – opium. However, what the sailors don’t know, a bunch of evil pirates does. A shipwrecked sailor (Talgat Nigmatulin) the freighter takes on board on the open sea is in truth the pirates’ man on the inside, bound to destroy their radio when the time for attack comes. Soon enough half of the Soviets are dead, their freight is stolen, and their ship is sinking.

The survivors, led by their Captain Iwan Iljitsch (Pyotr Velyaminov) and engineer and part-time hero Sergej Sergejitsch (Nikolai Yeryomenko) manage to escape on a life boat without their enemies realizing it, but without supplies and far-off from help, their situation looks none too pleasant. That is, until they come upon an island. As luck will have it, the crew’s troubles aren’t over yet, though, for it is this very same island the pirates are using as an HQ after having enslaved a village of peaceful pearl-divers. Or rather the female population of it – for the men, the pirates just couldn’t find any use.

Fortunately, the Soviet sailors are nearly to a man – there is of course the obligatory “coward” (aka a person who reacts rather more realistically to the whole plot) and the crew’s two women are only there to get kidnapped and tortured a bit – improbably competent at the manly arts of sneaking, fighting, and being badass while disco funk plays, so they even have a chance to survive the ensuing cat and mouse game against the much better armed and more numerous pirates. In the end, though, all will depend Sergej Sergejitsch’s ability to do the lone hero bit.

 
 
 

Boris Durov’s Pirates Of The XXth Century was the highest grossing movie in the existence of the USSR, which again goes to show that people are the same wherever you go. So if there’s a film full of fun violence, an audience will choose it over anything generally considered more worthy every time, no matter where it comes from or what specifically is considered to be more worthy at a given place and time. I say this and make it sound as if it were a bad thing, but obviously, Pirates and films of its type are my bread and butter when it comes to movies, and I’ll watch and enjoy a film with shoot-outs and explosions over a treatise about some rich people’s marital troubles (or in this case the purity of the working classes) every time.

As an action film – a genre Soviet directors only had limited experience with - Pirates often is a bit awkward, with everyone striking the same poses you’d find in a Hollywood production or something produced in the Philippines, but doing so in a manner that can feel slightly off, as if the actors and the director weren’t totally fluent in the filmic language they were speaking. This does only strengthen the film’s charms for me by providing it with a feeling of playground innocence, not unlike that found in Turkish pop cinema, although Pirates‘ creators show quite a bit more technical proficiency. Like many action films this is a variation of kids playing cowboys and Indians, just with a greater budget for playing make-believe.

Other elements of the film are completely in keeping with the international language of action movies. There’s awkward-yet-awesome white guy martial arts (still better than Chuck Norris because these white guys at least lack the ick factor), the need for people to at least nearly fall off a cliff if a cliff is provided, the naturalness with which everyone who isn’t a woman not only knows how to use an assault rifle but is good at it too – all these pleasant clichés and more are there and always pretty fun to watch.

 
 
 

Pirates also offers some choice noises for our ears too thanks to a wonderfully late 70s disco funk score by Yevgeniy Gevorgyan that is clearly a brother in spirit to what I like to call Toei Funk and assorted genres of film music, with some added moments of random synthie-warbling during the diving sequences (which are pleasantly short and to the point instead of the traditional boring and long-winded).

Pirates is great fun if you don’t have to take your action movies dead seriously, but can enjoy silliness for the sake of silliness like a proper cult movie fan should. No worries, though, while the film is as silly as one could ask for, it never goes the frightening and wrong route of conscious camp that has destroyed many a movie over the years. This film’s silliness is a product of a certain naivety, not of cynicism.

It also should be noted that the film’s script (by Durov and Desyat Negrityat‘s Stanislav Govorukhin) eschews the bane of many a Soviet movie, the propagandist speeches about the superiority of the Soviet people, awesomeness of the working classes, communism, and so on, and so forth that have sucked the joy out of many a film (which I suspect to not have been the favourite parts of movies for their native Soviet movie audiences either). There are of course certain assumptions about the way people and the world work that are slightly different from what one is used to from western films (for one, there’s a larger emphasis on team play than is typical for action movies without the number seven in their title), but these are the result of people coming from a culturally slightly different place, and will only annoy people who can’t cope with others having vaguely different values or ideas than themselves.

So, all in all, Soviet Russia can be proud of having this as its highest-grossing movie.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Pirates of Blood River

dir. John Gilling
1962 / Hammer Film Productions / 87′
written by John Hunter, John Gilling, and Jimmy Sangster
cinematography by Arthur Grant
music by Gary Hughes
starring Kerwin Matthews, Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Marle Landi, Oliver Reed, Michael Ripper, and Peter Arne

At the end of the 17th century, a group of Huguenots fled France and settled on the tropical, piranha-infested Isle of Devon somewhere in the tropics. Now, two generations later, what once was supposed to be a colony giving freedom from persecution has become a tyranny of a handful of older men with impressive facial hair under the leadership of Jason Standing (Andrew Keir, as intense as always, even though the script doesn’t provide him with much to work with here). The bible-wielding elders sentence people to death or life in their own little penal colony for breaking that obscure set of religious laws known as “the ten commandments” (or something of that sort). The less bearded classes aren’t too happy with the political state of affairs, yet they’re still too respectful of their elders and their elders’ leather-vested henchmen to openly rebel.

Standing’s own son Jonathon (Kerwin Mathews, one of the better romantic leads for this sort of film) is especially dissatisfied with life on the island, thinking that his father lets himself be manipulated into a cruelty that is quite against his nature by his colleagues. Quite lacking in holiness, Jonathon’s also in love with a married woman who is mistreated by her husband, and plans on fleeing the place together with her. Alas, before the couple can realize their plans, the elders are catching them in the act of rubbing their cheeks together, provoking the poor woman into running into a river full of piranhas.

Graciously, the elders don’t sentence Jonathon to death for his unbiblical behaviour, but rather to spend some time in the colony’s penal colony, which, as it turns out, is just as much of a death sentence, just a slower one.

 
 
 

Things at the colony are rough, and Jonathon’s background makes him not exactly well-liked by the warden, but eventually, the young man escapes. Only to run right into the arms of the pirate band of Captain LaRoche (Christopher “I’m French, no, really” Lee) which counts among its members some beloved Hammer mainstays like Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper. For a pirate, the Captain seems civilized enough, and claims to be willing to help Jonathon out with peacefully getting rid of the rule of the elders if the younger man only agrees to let the pirates stay in the Huguenot village for rest and recuperation whenever they need it.

In a turn of events that only surprises Jonathon, the pirates are really in it for the raping and the pillaging. LaRoche is convinced that the founders of the colony have hidden away a treasure of gold somewhere (he might even be right), and he’s willing to do absolutely anything to get it. Of course, hoping for gold and actually finding it are two things, especially when some of the Huguenots turn out to be quite competent guerrilla fighter.

John Gilling’s The Pirates of Blood River is the least among Hammer Film’s handful of seafaring averse pirate movies, slightly hampered by a script that sets up conflicts for its first thirty minutes it will then not bother to resolve later on by anything else but hand-waving.

The whole religious oppression angle is very much side-lined – except for two or three wavering dialogue scenes – once the pirates arrive at the colony, and is only ever resolved by the fact that LaRoche kills off the elders one by one, which sure is a solution, but not one that’s thematically satisfying. On the positive side, pirates.

 
 
 

Said pirates are a bit sillier than in the other Hammer pirate movies, too, for some genius (Gilling? Anthony Keys? Jimmy Sangster?) decided it would be a bright idea not just to camp up their appearance, but also to let them all – except for Michael Ripper, whose dialogue instead tests out how often a man can use the pirate-appropriate word “matey” without giggling – speak with painfully fake accents. Reed – in an unfortunately minor role – and Lee – doing his evil glowering shtick with some enthusiasm and thanks to that to very good effect – seem to be trying to outdo each other in the badness of their “French” accents. Though this aspect of the movie clearly has camp value (too bad for me I abhor the concept), it’s standing in stark opposition to the film’s earnest dramatic tone and makes it quite a bit more difficult to take certain scenes seriously.

This isn’t to suggest there’s nothing enjoyable at all about the movie if you’re not into pointing at especially silly pirates; this is, after all a Hammer production made in the early 60s, a time when the high professional standards of the studio and the people working for it made it quite impossible for them to produce a bad movie. Gilling – who directed two of my favourites among the studio’s horror movies with The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies - may have his problems with the film’s pacing in the early scenes, but once the film’s final half hour arrives, he milks a lot of excitement out of the guerrilla warfare between the Huguenots and the pirates trying to get away with their ill gotten gains. At that point, there’s little left of the silliness of the film’s earlier scenes. High camp is replaced by a certain grimness surrounding that makes up for a lot of what came before.

My true disappointment isn’t so much with the film’s problems at the beginning anyway but rather with the idea how fantastic the film could have been if it had been quite as good as those last scenes right from the start. As it stands, the sympathetic viewer needs a bit of patience and the ability to ignore a problematic set-up to enjoy The Pirates of Blood River, but with that patience, the film is still very much worth seeing.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Devil-Ship Pirates

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.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.