|You say Hammer in the entertainment industry and if you don't think of early nineteen-nineties rap star MC Hammer, your mind will doubtless have wandered to Hammer Films, specifically their horror movies which were only slightly less scary in their day than Armie Hammer was half a century later. But if you thought the British studio solely produced horror, then you would be wrong, for they branched out in the direction of comedy (sitcom spin-offs the On the Buses series were three of theirs) and into adventure, usually with a historical setting. It made sense, since most of the chillers were set in centuries past anyway.
Really, Hammer's historicals were released somewhere between the early-to-mid nineteen-sixties, and counted among them a pair of pirate movies, first Pirates of Blood River in 1962 which starred their biggest draw, as far as acting went, Christopher Lee as an eyepatch-sporting buccaneer who lays waste to a remote English encampment, and second, The Devil-Ship Pirates (note the hyphen, it must have been important to somebody). This one, from 1964, also starred Sir Christopher, sans eyepatch this time but with the same cold tea wash of swarthiness on his face and black as his preferred colour for both costume and facial hair (nice wig, too).
It began with some involved (you might say overinvolved) plot establishing. We're in the days of the Spanish Armada terrorising the waterways and oceans of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and if this is to be believed the English fleet, under orders from Queen Elizabeth (the First, cheeky), are the only ones who can stop this dominance and restore order. Before you can say "Jack Robinson" (whoever he was) we are shown the Armada getting blown to smithereens, so where did the piracy slot into all this? From the small ship the Diablo, which has given the English the slip and despite being in need of repair, has managed to dock at the English coast and rest there.
Not that the pirates rest for long, as they have work to do - they need to repair the vessel and set off once again, not to Spain but to the Americas where they will resume their previous occupation nicking stuff from other ships and murdering anyone who gets in their way. Precisely why the Spaniards thought it was a bright idea to hire these ne'erdowells in the first place goes unmentioned, but as the central motivating factor was to get Lee to snarl various gems of dialogue - he did not go "Arrr!" but it was a close-run thing – and strut around intermittently showing off his swordfighting technique, in which he was highly skilled, then you could forgive this plenty.
There was one big plot idea that succeeded surprisingly well as far as suspense went, and that was the nearby villagers have not heard yet that their side won and the English will soon be returning home triumphant. The pirates, therefore, merely have to tell these locals that the Spanish won to get them to do their bidding, on pain of death, a neat narrative twist that screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (a Hammer regular) made the most of as there is one girl the pirates have kidnapped to prevent her blabbing the truth, and also because Lee plans on amassing a harem of nubile hostages for his and his crew's nefarious entertainment - oh, and to act as living bargaining chips, too.
Hammer visited this adventure genre a number of times, both to re-use sets and costumes from other productions for economy drives, and to add a variety to their output and increase their audience, as while the horrors were X certificate and therefore not allowed to admit minors, these historical yarns could play to families and even all-kids matinees, fuelling a generation's playtime games. If they were not imaging themselves as Robin Hood (as in Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960) or A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967)) then they could act out The Scarlet Blade (1963) and its English Civil War conflicts, or The Brigand of Kandahar (1965) where they could envisage defending the British Empire against the Indian uprisings.
Meanwhile, their older brothers would thrill to The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) which shocked the censors in its depiction of the Thugee cult, or Terror of the Tongs (1961), a similarly gruesome variation set in China. All good fun, and probably somewhat racist too (you had to accept that in many of these Empire-centric adventures), and usually guaranteed to feature comely actresses in cleavage-baring costumes, nasty bits of business whenever anyone had to die, and Michael Ripper getting a few lines into the bargain. Here, he was practically a co-star, as there was quite the ensemble to be seen here, with the likes of Andrew Keir, John Cairney (with one working arm) and Suzan Farmer as villagers and Ripper, Duncan Lamont and Barry Warren as pirates, though Warren was actually a goodie, in case Hammer wanted to sell this to the Spanish market. All in all, that sense of familiarity went a long way to making The Devil-Ship Pirates fine comfort viewing for classic Britflick fans.
[Network release this on Blu-ray as part of The British Film with these special features:
The Unlevel-Ship Pirates: A brand-new featurette on the making of this classic Hammer swashbuckler
Brand-new interviews with actors Annette Whiteley and Michael Newport
Extensive image gallery
Limited edition booklet written by Neil Sinyard
Subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Click here to buy from the Network website.]