The Pirates Of Blood River

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At a remote Huguenot settlement on an island in the Caribbean, Jonathan Standing (Kerwin Mathews) is railroaded and imprisoned for adultery. Standing manages to escape the penal colony only to be apprehended by a band of pirates. Once a prisoner, Standing makes a deal with the pirate captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee) to hide the pirate booty at the Huguenot colony in exchange for LaRoche’s help overthrowing the corrupt settlement government. However, as pirates do, LaRoche goes back on his word and attempts to steal the secret Huguenot treasure.

Written by the great Jimmy Sangster, The Pirates Of Blood River (1962) is an exceptional non-horror entry in the Hammer cannon. The Pirates Of Blood River is half swashbuckling adventure and half thriller, balancing both sensibilities with the rapid pacing of an assured production team. Michael Carreras oversaw this joint production between Hammer Films and Columbia Pictures with Hammer veteran John Gilling directing.

For Hammer fans Jimmy Sangster needs no introduction. His trademark flare for pulpy minimalism defined what Hammer productions are fairly early on with films such as The Cruse Of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). Sangster brought the Gothic horrors of the nineteenth century into the sensationalist idiom of the fifties exploitation film. Gilling, though not as famous as Sangster, had already enjoyed a twenty year career as a director of horror and adventure pictures before debuting with Hammer on the production The Shadow Of The Cat (1961).

Needless to say, The Pirates Of Blood River is one of the best Hammer Films from the early sixties. Already Gilling has found his strength for staging and photographing large groups of people in act defining set pieces which he utilizes quite well in The Pirates Of Blood River. The pandemonium of the final battle between pirate and Huguenot would find its echo in the attack of a mass of zombies in the masterful post-colonial allegory The Plague Of The Zombies (1966). The wide compositions of “Hammerscope” are superbly utilized in The Pirates Of Blood River to convey the scope of the action and the terrifying grandeur of the pre-fab jungle setting.

But for all of Gilling’s inspired directorial choices the real power of The Pirates Of Blood River comes from Sangster’s script. The tonal shift that comes with the change of genre midway through The Pirates Of Blood River is wholly unique in the Hammer cycle of swashbuckling adventures. It’s a classic case of the hunter becoming the hunted as Christopher Lee and his band of marauders race to escape the island alive with their treasure. That ships hardly figure in this adventure spectacle The Pirates Of Blood River often feels more like a Western than a pirate movie.

On top of all of that, The Pirates Of Blood River also boasts two superb and underrated performances from Hammer bad guys Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed. Lee in particular is fabulously menacing dressed all in black, sporting a French accent and donning an eye patch. LaRoche is a villain of restrained and calculated sadism and Lee plays him with a subtle menace. The Pirates Of Blood River is a Hammer classic that has to be seen.