Friday, July 14, 2017

Set Sail with The Crimson Pirate!

When audiences saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean film in 2003, they were entertained by the film’s colorful mix of action and off-kilter humor. But director Gore Verbinski, star Johnny Depp and company weren’t the first filmmakers to poke fun at the genre while still providing action, thrills and excitement along the way. That template was set a half century earlier with 1952’s The Crimson Pirate. Burt Lancaster stars as the title character, who breaks the fourth wall right at the film’s start and urges viewers to “Believe only what you see. No, believe half of what you see!” What follows is a rollicking tale filled with high seas escapades, narrow escapes, swordfights, damsels in distress and vile villains. The Crimson Pirate, like Lancaster’s medieval adventure film, 1950’s The Flame & The Arrow, lovingly spoofs its genre while remaining firmly rooted in its cinematic traditions.

Burt Lancaster & Torin Thatcher in The Crimson Pirate
The setting is the 18th century: Lancaster’s Captain Vallo is happily living the pirate life with his loyal crew when he becomes embroiled in a revolution on a Caribbean island, led by a mysterious figure named El Libre. Vallo initially seeks to make a profit from the conflict, promising the King’s representative, Baron Gruda, that he’ll deliver the elusive freedom fighter to him in exchange for a large reward. But the pirate falls for El Libre’s daughter, the fiery Consuelo, and has a change of heart. Vallo decides to release her and her father. His first mate, the devious Humble Bellows, turns the crew against Vallo and sets the pirate adrift. Bellows believes he can still make a deal with Gruda, and lead the crew in Vallo’s place. Little does he know that Gruda plans to capture both El Libre and the pirates, thus eliminating all his enemies in one fell swoop. Can Vallo escape, stop Gruda, save the girl, and regain control of his ship?

Lancaster plays his role with gusto, running, jumping and leaping across the screen in the film’s dynamic action sequences. His main ally is Vallo’s loyal right hand man Ojo, played by the wonderful Nick Cravat, Lancaster’s former partner from his circus days. Their easygoing chemistry makes them seem like a pirate version of Butch & Sundance, getting into and out of scrapes and tight spots with a mixture of wit, brains and athleticism. The rest of the cast is also ideal for their roles: the lovely Eva Bartok is both good as the fiery Consuelo; Torin Thatcher (best known to genre fans as the evil wizard in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad) is appropriately slimy as the double-crossing Bellows, and Leslie Bradley is perfectly evil as the sly but overconfident Baron Gruda. There’s also an inventor named Professor Prudence, played by James Hayter, who’d give James Bond’s Q a run for his money. He contributes several gadgets to the film’s final battle. And keep an eye out for Christopher Lee in a supporting role as one of Gruda’s men.

Robert Siodmak, who had worked with Lancaster on the classic noirs The Killers and Criss Cross, directed the film. The tone is obviously much lighter here, and the film’s breezy escapism is enriched by the bright hues of Technicolor. The movie was shot in the Bay of Naples, which stood in for the Caribbean, and the lush cinematography is by Otto Heller. The sharp screenplay is by Roland Kibbee, who rewrote an initial draft from the then blacklisted scribe Waldo Salt. The rousing score by William Alwyn is firmly entrenched in the tradition of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s stirring music for previous pirate adventures, such as Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. It’s also exciting to see to see the wonderfully choreographed stunts and action sequences in the pre-CGI days when you know you’re watching real people accomplishing these incredible feats of derring-do.

The movie is a true showcase for Burt Lancaster. He’s at the peak of his youthful charisma here, and his unstoppable energy helps keep the movie on course. At this point in his career, he alternated fairly regularly between lighter films and more dramatic fare. While he would star in several more adventure sagas (including His Majesty O’Keefe and Vera Cruz) before settling into a pattern of doing heavyweight projects like Sweet Smell of Success, he’s rarely been more exuberant on screen than he is here. The Crimson Pirate strikes just the right balance between straight adventure and parody, and is an exhilarating, enjoyable saga that will delight adventure fans of all ages. The film is currently out of print on DVD, though used copies can be found online. The movie is available for online viewing on various sites, including Amazon. Here’s a link to the film’s appropriately bombastic trailer:

This article is part of the Swash-a-thon (The Swashbuckler Movie Blogathon), hosted by Movies Silently. Thanks to Fritzi at that site for hosting, and for allowing me to take part in all the swashbuckling fun! You can view the entries at:


  1. You sure know how to pick a swashbuckler. The Crimson Pirate is the template of its form. A most entertaining film.

    Lancaster's career of switching between heavy dramas and adventure films with almost unbelievable feats of athleticism is one to admire.

  2. Thank you so much for joining in with this fun film! It wouldn't be a swashbuckling event without The Crimson Pirate.

  3. Being a Burt Lancaster fan, I'm a bit ashamed to say I've never seen this terrific film. It sounds like tons o' fun, judging by your well-written essay. I'm looking forward to it!

  4. I never knew Burt took a turn as a pirate. Gotta look for it.

  5. I love this movie. Burt Lancaster had one of the biggest personalities ever seen. I wonder if someone has written about his work with Nick Cravat. Thanks for the interesting review.