Remember, in a pirate ship, in pirate waters, in a pirate world, ask no questions. Believe only what you see. No, believe half of what you see.
I can't believe I'm about to say this, but thanks to Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Johnny Depp, pirate films look like they're about to see a resurgence. The surprising popularity of Pirates of the Caribbean will undoubtedly propel Hollywood to dig up anything even remotely close to this theme, so 2005 will certainly be the year of the scurvy lad! But pirate movies have been around for quite a long time, so after my recent viewing of PotC, I was enthused to give this fifty-year-old movie a spin. Burt Lancaster, the titular Crimson Pirate, is one of the great icons whose movies I've never seen. Sadly, From Here to Eternity, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Birdman of Alcatraz are films that have slipped below my radar. Still, with a big star from the 1950s and '60s, I felt I had some preconceived ideas of what kind of performance to expect. I was wrong.
Facts of the Case
In the late 18th century, Captain Vallo (Lancaster) and his crew of nefarious pirates scour the Caribbean searching for ships ripe for the plunder. Their next target is the ship of Baron Jose Gruda, a Special Envoy and "chief rebel catcher" in the King's Navy. Pretending that everyone has died from scurvy, Vallo and his men easily take over Gruda's ship when all the dead men come to life and surprise Gruda's unsuspecting crew. A search of the vessel doesn't find gold or loot but instead a wealth of arms and munitions, which sets a bold new idea into Vallo's head. While pirates just want gold, Vallo realizes that he can sell all the weapons to the local rebels who are fighting against the British. Vallo believes these people, led by El Libre, will easily pay 50,000 gold florins for the huge stash of weapons. Further, Vallo will then double-cross the rebels and sell them to the Baron, who's agreed to Vallo's audacious plan. In all, it'll be a magnificent haul. His men are uneasy about this unusual plan, but he's the captain and they agree. There's no way the men wouldn't be tempted by a total take of 150,000 gold florins!
Going ashore with his trusted right hand man, the mute Ojo, Vallo easily finds one of the top leaders of the resistance, Pablo Murphy. But Pablo is unimpressed with Vallo. Thus, Vallo and Ojo decide to pick a fight with a local garrison of British troops to earn the rebels' trust and respect. It doesn't work in changing Pablo's opinion, but Consuela, El Libre's daughter, sees an opportunity to rescue her father from the clutches of the British invaders. She agrees to buy the munitions from Vallo, and he agrees to rescue El Libre as a free bonus.
As things progress, Vallo's men become less comfortable with the new adventure their captain is taking them on. Pirates are meant to loot and cause mayhem, not get involved with rebellion and women. But Vallo continues to tell his men the payoff will be spectacular. All seems to go well as Vallo is able to rescue El Libre and his assistant, but catastrophe strikes when his first officer, Humble Bellows, instigates a mutiny against Vallo. An unholy alliance between Gruda and Bellows is formed, according to which Vallo, El Libre, and the assistant are turned over to the British in exchange for the reward. But Gruda does not work with pirates, and he captures the pirate boat and strings all the men up.
Using wild new scientific principles, El Libre's assistant comes up with a bold escape plan. Now it is up to Vallo to reclaim his ship and help El Libre free the inhabitants of the island of Cobra from the oppressive rule of the British. Will he succeed? Will he truly help the people or is this just another ploy to get rich?
The Crimson Pirate has everything in it one would expect from a pirate film: lots of scurvy men, a big pirate vessel, cannons, swordfights, a pretty damsel in distress, a man with a wooden leg and a patch over his eye, and more. However, it is far from the dark, serious tale my summary may present. In all actuality, this film is a light-hearted action romp that has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. From the opening line of the film (quoted in "The Charge" above), Lancaster has a twinkle in his eye that clues you in that this movie is going to be fun. And it certainly is that. From the exaggerated chases through the streets as dozens of inept British soldiers chase Vallo and Ojo, to Ojo's charades, to the climactic battle for freedom, it's a gentle and pleasant swashbuckling adventure! Besides, how villainous can a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, clean-shaven, tights-wearing pirate really be?
As this is the first Burt Lancaster movie I've seen, I found myself quite impressed by his acting and derring-do. Though occasionally bordering on campy, The Crimson Pirate does tell a nice tale that requires some decent talent from its cast and crew. Not only having to convey the tough mettle of a grizzled pirate (well, as tough as this film gets), Lancaster also looks to have performed many of the stunts in the film, from jumping out of windows to being hoisted up a mast. There's no CGI (and how wonderful it is to see practical effects), so it was either a really good stunt double or Lancaster himself. I'm more inclined to the latter, and, as such, I'm impressed.
Lastly, The Crimson Pirate is a beautifully staged and photographed film. Set in the Caribbean but filmed in the Mediterranean, the film combines the best of set and stage to achieve the grand feel it needs to succeed.
I am consistently awed by the quality of transfers on movies from so many decades ago. How can a movie from 1952 look so good? It's amazing what technology can do these days, and it's sad to see some studios not utilize it just to save a buck. You would be hard pressed to ascertain that this movie is fifty years old just from the transfer. Aside from a few specks of dirt, the print looked flawless. I didn't see any transfer errors, but I did see vibrant colors, solid blacks, crisp details, and a very realistic print. It's simply an excellent transfer that looks better than many recent discs (of recent movies) I've seen. On the audio side you only get the original mono track. By today's standards, it is weak. The bright side is that the dialogue is easily understood, but that's it. The entire audio presentation is very tinny, with too much emphasis in the upper dynamics, and the score does overpower the dialogue at times. It's hollow, lacking depth, and generally flat. But, it is mono so you can't expect more. For what it is, it does its job well.
This is almost a bare bones disc from our friends at Warner. There are two minimal bonus features, "An Acrobatic Team" and a cast and crew section. The former is a text-based listing of how Lancaster and Nick Cravat (who plays Ojo) began as acrobats and exploited their skills on film. So, to answer my previous supposition, I guess I am right that Lancaster did do most of his owns stunts. Both of these features are pretty useless.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times, the movie is so fluffy that I feared the pirates were going to break out into song and dance. Actually, they do break out into song and it isn't "Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum." As this isn't a satire, the film is too shallow, too flimsy, too whimsical. It's a pirate film that doesn't take itself seriously, and because of that, neither will you.
A delightful film from many moons ago, The Crimson Pirate reflects the innocence of its time—even today's lighthearted pirate fare is dark when compared to this gem from yesteryear. Filled with humor, action, and adventure, this film is certain to please fans of any age: women will swoon for the dashing Captain Vallo, children will delight in the playful antics of the cast, and men will take joy in the energetic and inventive battles, most notably the rousing and excellently staged climax.
And, always remember that today's films aren't as fresh and original as they may seem. Case in point, many of the scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean that I thought were new and inventive were actually in The Crimson Pirate (the upside-down boat, for one). If you enjoy pirate movies, then you will enjoy this one too. It's an old-fashioned and appealing yarn. Still, as enjoyable as it was, I would have to say you might want to rent this one first, for it's a bare bones disc with an excellent video transfer. At the very least you'll get an evening's enjoyment out of it.
Ahoy, mateys! Ye scurvy lads are found not guilty, but I still expect ye to swab the decks, or ye'll be walkin' the plank!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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