Nether Regions 05.24.11: The Crimson Pirate
Posted by Chad Webb on 05.24.2011
Burt Lancaster leads a stellar cast in this wonderfully zany swashbuckler from 1952. Check out my full review of the film and why it's not on DVD...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
THE CRIMSON PIRATE
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, and Eva Bartok Directed By: Robert Siodmak Written By: Roland Kibbee Running Time: 105 inutes Release Date: September 27, 1952 Missing Since: July 1, 2003 Existing Formats:OOP DVD and VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Mildly Rare
The Crimson Pirate is more entertaining than you might expect. There have been continual rights issues with this film over the years, so it is not as widely recognized as it should be, but Warner Archives is struggling to sort all that out. It is not easy for a film to act as both a parody and homage to a genre. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Scream are famous examples, but decades before Johnny Depp would resurrect the pirate film as the goofy Captain Jack Sparrow and decades after Errol Flynn was cemented as King of the Swashbucklers, Burt Lancaster slapped on bright red pants and a sash and transformed into the titular character, also known as Captain Vallo. The Crimson Pirate is a ridiculous blast from start to finish. Director Robert Siodmak and screenwriter Roland Kibbee balance the thrills and laughs with ease, and the cast is saturated with endless enthusiasm. This is an under appreciated effort that deserves an exceptional DVD treatment.
Cpt. Vallo and Ojo prepare to jump.
Set in the 18th century, the story takes place on the high-seas and on the fictional islands of Cobra and San Pedro. (Islands totally should have names like "Cobra".) What occurs involves frequent double-crossing. It begins with Captain Vallo (Burt Lancaster) and his crew capturing a ship of the King's Navy. It is carrying Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), a special envoy to the King, who has been sent to the island of Cobra to hunt down all the rebels to the King, specifically "El Libre." Vallo wants to sell the weapons they seized from Gruda's ship to El Libre (Frederick Leister). The proposal is then made that not only can Vallo and his men make money that way, but Gruda has agreed to pay them double the gold florins if they help turn El Libre over to the King's Navy. The agreement is made, but all does not go according to plan. Once they arrive at the island, they must pretend to be Baron Gruda and his crew, but to make matters worse, El Libre is not there because has been imprisoned on San Pedro island. Instead, Vallo and his mute sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat) meet Consuelo (Eva Bartok), El Libre's beautiful daughter. Vallo then decides to help rescue El Libre free of charge, and it's about then that "The Crimson Pirate's" crew starts questioning the adventure they are apart of.
Much like Jack Nicholson, Burt Lancaster has been accused of playing himself in many films, as if that's such a terrible thing. For several of his staring vehicles, that argument could be made, but Lancaster simply playing himself is infinitely more engrossing than the best some actors have to offer. To merely glance at Lancaster would tell you that he was a man born to be a movie star. He was charming, built like an athlete, and incredibly passionate on screen. He delivered a multitude of treasured performances, and Captain Vallo is surely one that is overlooked. Lancaster brings more energy and verve to this role than any other I've seen him in. He charges around the ship as a caffeinated buccaneer with an unnatural zest for life, waving his hands and shouting directions to his crew. He is a Captain one would feel safe serving under. Where Lancaster's mastery lies is in the tone transitions. He can be tough and manly one minute, and convincingly romantic the next without skipping a beat. Although I will say, he sports some tights in one scene that are more revealing than they should be. With multiple efforts being pumped out each year at this point, Lancaster would earn his first Oscar nomination the following year, 1953, for the classic From Here to Eternity.
Consuelo talks with Vallo and Pablo Murphy.
The supporting cast is spectacular, with Nick Cravat leading the way as Ojo, the mute protege of Vallo. Cravat was not really a mute, but he often potrayed one to disguise his thick Brooklyn accent. He and Lancaster are a hoot to watch (probably the only time I'll use the word "hoot", but it applies here). They met each other when they were young and became lifelong friends. They even had an acrobatic act in the circus, and would go on to co-star in nine films together. Lancaster also has some memorable moments with Torin Thatcher, who plays Vallo's first mate Humble Bellows. Bellows is the very definition of a pirate in every manner, and is a terrific foil for Vallo. Leslie Bradley doesn't get the chance to be genuinely evil until the final half of the picture as Baron Gruda. He is wickedly selfish and greedy, so he is of course a delightful villain. He even has a movable portrait in his living room that revolves to display a prisoner being flogged. His henchman and right hand is Joseph, depicted by the eternally maniacal Christopher Lee. James Hayter is also quite sufficient as Professor Elihu Prudence, an inventor who helps Vallo and company immensely towards the end. Eva Bartok is probably the only weak link in the chain, if indeed one exists, as El Libre's daughter Consuelo. She is certainly attractive, but her character is not developed enough to persuade us that her love of Lancaster's Vallo is anything more than a typical cinematic romance. Still, she serves to calm Vallo's pirate tendencies, and through her he becomes an all-encompassing sort of hero.
Obviously the fact that The Crimson Pirate has its tongue planted firmly in cheek makes the sporadic cartoonish nature a lot of fun. Lancaster breaks the fourth wall early on with the following speech: "Gather round, lads and lasses, gather round. You've been shanghaied aboard for the last cruise of the Crimson Pirate, a long, long time ago in the far, far Caribbean. Remember, in a pirate ship in pirate waters in a pirate world, ask no questions and believe only what you see. No, believe half of what you see." Director Robert Siodmak understands that exaggerations must be employed, but he also knows that their are dividing lines. The comedy, including both slapstick and witticisms, is used sparingly, so we're intelligently left wanting more. The key to The Crimson Pirate is how effective it is as a conventional pirate adventure. The humor and the action flourish simultaneously. Take one of the best sequences where Vallo and Ojo are escaping the King's troops through a village. It's outrageous, but competently constructed and extremely amusing as its streamlined for the duo's circus techniques. The concluding battle is glorious and absolutely unapologetic as items enter the fray that I promise you would never have predicted. They are best left unspoiled.
The VHS cover.
According to Christopher Lee's autobiography, Siodmak changed the screenplay and provided the comedic touches. It was a sharp decision as The Crimson Pirate surely would have been forgotten by now otherwise. The country and specifics regarding the King remain ambiguous, though one could guess Spain. It has been said that this movie was the inspiration for Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride, which in turn would sprout a little franchise of its own. While the plot might be set on the Caribbean, it was filmed on the island of Oschia in Italy, which is gorgeous. Otto Heller, who had been working as a cinematographer since the silent era, captures some truly stunning visuals. The gaudy costumes didn't hurt. He and Siodmak supply The Crimson Pirate with the utmost color and life throughout all the ship chaos, sword fights, and backstabbing schemes. This is one of those films that is impossible not to smile at and enjoy. It is also one of those rare occasions where citing its cult following is negative. I say that because this should just be adored as an excellent romp and whimsical adventure in general.