Monday, January 10, 2011

Take shore-leave with 'The Devil-Ship Pirates'

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)
Starring: Christopher Lee, John Cairney, Barry Warren, Andrew Keir, and Natasha Pyne
Director: Don Sharp
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After his ship is heavily damaged during a failed invasion of England by the Spain in 1588, privateer captain Robeles (Lee) docks on the British coast and tricks the citizens of an isolated village into thinking England is now under Spanish domination. He races to complete repairs on his ship and plunder the village before the villagers discover the truth and send for outside help, but a Spanish military officer assigned to the ship disturbed by the captain's dishonorable conduct (Warren) and villagers intent on resisting their occupiers, soon find common ground in their desire to see the privateers defeated.

"The Devil-Ship Pirates" is the final of four swashbuckling, pirate-themed movies that Hammer Films produced in the 1960s, and the second one to star Christopher Lee as a brutal pirate captain oppressing peaceful villagers. The best of them is "Captain Cleeg", but this one has much to recommend it for fans of the pirate genre as well.

First of all, it spends more focused on matters of sailing than the other two films, even if much of that business revolves around getting a ship sea-worthy again. Second, it's centered around an utterly despicable villain that's given depth by the script and Lee's performance to make him unpredictable and heighten the suspense of the script, and a pair of unusual heroes for this sort of film--an honor-driven Spanish soldier and a crippled war veteran, played by Barry Warren and John Cairney respectively--which further lends unpredictability to the story as it unfolds. Warren's character must tread a very fine line as he turns against the pirate crew and starts to aid the villagers in rebellion, and the crippled Cairney has to battle fully healthy pirates in some of the film's more suspenseful moments. Finally, the film features great-looking costumes and sets, and is further elevated by one of the better scores of any Hammer Film I've watched.

While it may occasionally lapse into melodrama--it is a pirate movie after all--"The Devil-Ship Pirates" is a fun, fast-moving and suspenseful adventure film that's one of many of the nearly forgotten treasures to be created by Hammer Films during its heydays in the 1950s and 1960s.

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