You know what we haven't had in a while? A review that references Police Academy. Luckily, Judge Kerry Birmingham fills that hole by somehow connecting it to this collection of early '60s pirate movies.
Hammer Wasn't Just Horror.
England's Hammer Films is revered among horror-film cognoscenti for its series of gothic-tinged horror movies that, thanks to modest budgets and a stable of English stage veterans, were equal parts melodramatic dread and old-fashioned, scenery-chewing cheesiness. Hammer is most famous for these films, but the enterprising production studio didn't limit its B-movie forays to just horror, as this collection demonstrates. Collecting four swashbuckling films from the late 50s and early 60s, Icons of Adventure features diabolical pirates (most of them played by Christopher Lee), heathen murder cults, and mysterious Asian street gangs—all in a day's work for the studio that pioneered lurid gothic horror and a classier kind of schlock.
Facts of the Case
In 1961's The Pirates of Blood River, a man (Kerwin Matthews) exiled from his strict community is forced to return to his isolated village when he is seemingly rescued by a band of pirates led by the cruel Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee, The Lord of the Rings), who is convinced that the village elders are hiding a great treasure.
1963's The Devil-Ship Pirates stars Lee again, this time as pirate captain Robeles, a privateer who, following the rout of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588, abandons the losing fleet, and sets ashore in a remote part of England. Finding an isolated village, Robeles convinces the hapless villagers that England has lost and that his crew are there as an occupying force for the Spanish.
In The Stranglers of Bombay, from 1959, Guy Rolfe stars as Captain Harry Lewis, an officer of the British East India Company who is drawn into a vast conspiracy when he investigates a series of disappearances along trade routes that link back to a mysterious cult of Indian death-worshippers who strangle their sacrifices in the name of Kali. When the secret society attempts to silence Lewis by harming those close to him, Lewis vows to uncover the ancient conspiracy and put a stop to their grisly cult.
Christopher Lee (again) appears as the leader of a Chinese street gang in 1961's The Terror of the Tongs, in which Captain Sale (Geoffrey Toone) becomes witness to a brutal gang retaliation when his ship arrives in Hong Kong's harbor. A personal loss draws Sale into the secretive conflict of this foreign world, and he determines to infiltrate the covert gang and find the ones responsible for his tragedy.
"Icons of Adventure" is something of a misleading title, implying you're about to see timeless characters engaging in thrilling heroics. None of the characters in these four films are particularly iconic, and the action is confined to some sword fighting and an occasional flourish of gore (the devouring of a corseted maiden by piranhas is a plot point in The Pirates of Blood River). It's a minor harangue, though: Hammer films were predicated upon promising thrills, chills, and spectacle but delivering run-of-the-mill experiences so entertaining that you didn't care if they lived up to their hyperbolic trailers. When Vincent Price or Peter Cushing are gasping in exquisite horror, what difference does it make?
While not as famous as Hammer's horror films, their adventure movies aren't any different. In a lot of ways the four movies included here are interchangeable: the Europeans, whether as noble occupiers of foreign lands (such as India and China in The Stranglers of Bombay and The Terror of the Tongs, respectively) or besieged at home (as in both Pirates movies), persevere in the face of oppression and certain death. There's a strict formula at work here—much of it likely a product of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who wrote three of the four movies—and it entails sinister foreign threats to English gentility (even the French Huguenot settlers of Blood River are of distinctly English stock, played without accents or affect) and the triumph of benevolent English society over primitive savagery. All four films could have easily been retitled Foreigners Are Going to Rape and Kill Your Women. The pirates, murderers, and gang members presented here are not tipsy, whimsical Keith Richards surrogates or layered character studies: these are genuine threats to the English way of life, and in the context of these stories it takes a hero—a crippled soldier in Devil-Ship, a shamed prisoner in Blood River, and truth-seeking obsessives in Stranglers and Tongs—to fight back against the savage tide. Shorn of imperialist overtones that seem pretty obvious in retrospect, the formula can still be reduced to good guys defeating bad guys, and there's nothing more at the heart of the adventure movie than that notion. Some on-screen text gives a little background information (teach your kids about the English Empire!) and then off you go to exotic locales where unknown evil lurks to thwart all good men.
A lot of that foreign menace is provided by Christopher Lee, beloved of genre film fans everywhere for his long and prolific film career. Lee comes from an English stage tradition of bringing gravity to every role regardless of how silly, and Lee knocks it out of the park as two different pirate captains—one Spanish, one French—in two different movies, with little but an eyepatch or a fake beard and his credible accents to sell their over-the-top wickedness. In a lot of ways, Lee is the presence on which Blood River and Devil-Ship rests; he brings such palpable menace to the screen and genuinely good acting that it overshadows the fact that not much is actually happening on screen. Lee is absent from (and missed) in Stranglers, though his presence as the enigmatic Chinese tong leader in Tongs is embarrassing in that retrospective Al Jolson-in-blackface sort of way, with Lee, at 6'4," probably the tallest Asian gang leader in old Hong Kong. We should probably be grateful Lee uses his own British bass rather than affecting a "Chinese" accent, though even here he plays what's essentially an extended cameo with a heaviness more appropriate for King Lear (Lee would later play the similar Fu Manchu in a separate series of films). Lee is definitely the dominant presence in these films, though Hammer traditionally had overqualified actors in major roles (indeed, virtually all of the heroes here are ably played by square-jawed, convincingly mannered leading men, both English and American). The maidens-almost always porcelain-pretty damsels in flattering, deeply uncomfortable-looking corsets-fulfill the eye candy quotas.
Put these actors in period attire, stand them in front of a standing set (it's easy to spot recurring locations from film to film), give them a serviceable script, include a team of capable filmmakers and suddenly you've got a perfectly palatable B-movie: a bit low-rent, a bit camp, but a more or less rousing adventure perfect for a Saturday afternoon of low cinematic standards. The only real stinker of the lot is Tongs, feeling way too long even at 79 minutes, and not only because of its dated racial caricatures (India fares only slightly better in Stranglers). For a group of movies produced on the fly and with few expectations, that's a fairly big accomplishment. Films of these type are virtually unheard of today (not without a nine-figure budget and CGI assistance, at any rate), and while these films are tame and comparatively a bit dull, they still pack a great deal of charm and enthusiastic derring-do. In other words, they do exactly what they set out to do.
The video transfers appear untouched, meaning however clean the prints used were there are still noticeable picture defects and distortion (especially on The Devil-Ship Pirates), and the remastered sound is relatively clean. Columbia supplies a surprising number of extras gleaned from the vault in an effort to recreate the matinee theatre-going experience, even if the material isn't quite era-specific. There's the two-reel comedic short "Hot Paprika," starring Andy Clyde as a milquetoast clerk who mistakenly believes that he's dying, and the 1936 animated short "The Merry Mutineers," about two little boys whose toy ships are crewed by caricatures of celebrities of the day (it's the Marx Brothers vs. Jimmy Durante blowout you've been waiting for!). The first chapter of the typically hokey serial "The Adventures of Captain Kidd" is included here, though if they wanted the true experience Columbia should have included one chapter for each movie in the collection. All four films have feature-length commentaries, most of which are roundtable discussions helmed by Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn, who herds a series of aging Englishmen-writers, directors, ad production designers-into providing a series of surprisingly nuts-and-bolts commentaries that belie the seemingly slapdash nature of these productions. The usual bunch of original theatrical trailers rounds out the extras.
These films are far from perfect and aren't even the best representatives of their outcast genre, but the tenacity of the filmmakers and the good-natured swashbuckling of these movies trumps any sort of cynical dissection. Some might squirm at the long gaps between swordfights and occasional man-vs.-cobra conflict (it happens in Stranglers!), but adventure fans and retro film enthusiasts should find something to enjoy, whether it's girls in danger, guys in puffy shirts dueling, or villagers foiling the bad guys with forest booby traps, Ewok-style (that one's in Blood River).
Not guilty. Furthermore, Christopher Lee is excused of all cinematic crimes past, present, and future, including but not limited to Police Academy: Mission to Moscow. Hammer Films is forgiven for its portrayal of England's imperialism since we continue to cast English actors as villains in everything, so it all evens out.
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