Seven Seas to Calais (1962) ***

In between hi-hat Hollywood endeavors The Time Machine (1960) and The Birds (1963) Rod Taylor made a couple of pit stops in Italy. Here, he tries his hand at a swashbuckler and does a pretty good job of it, depicting famed English naval hero Sir Francis Drake, in a story that covers about a dozen years from him circumnavigating the globe to masterminding the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Not content with glorifying tales of his derring-do as he robs the Spanish of their gold, the producers also mine a rich seam of political intrigue as the Spanish King Philip II seeks to nullify the English threat first by a treaty and then by conspiracy before embarking on full-blown invasion. Queen Elizabeth (Irene Worth) proves a political maestro, telling the Spanish what they want to believe and condemning Drake’s activities in public while in fact privately financing his expedition and relying on his booty to fund her navy.  

After putting down a potential mutiny, most of Drake’s time is spent plundering Spanish galleons or gold mines. When not pillaging, Drake takes time out from his adventures to discover potato and tobacco and for a romantic dalliance with what appear to be Native Americans (judging from the feathers they wear) including a young woman called Potato (Rossella D’Aquino). It is left to his number two Malcolm Marsh (Keith Michell) to carry the main subplot which has French beauty Arabella (Edy Vessel) in his absence taking up with Babington (Terence Hill), a traitor with an eye to freeing the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots (Esmeralda Ruspoli).

There are more than enough swordfights for purists and Drake employs a certain amount of cunning and bravado in his various piratical enterprises. Clever filming makes the ships look realistic enough, though in long shot they do resemble toys. In making it look as though Drake has returned from his voyage in the nick of time to save Elizabeth from the Spanish aggressors, the producers neatly kaleidoscope the actual time frame. Elizabeth takes no prisoners and there are spicy exchanges between the queen and the pirate.

Rod Taylor presents a more muscular and athletic screen persona than in any of his previous pictures and his presence exudes authority but he also has that lightness of tone that would become a trademark. However, American stage actress Irene Worth just about plays him off the screen, her regal bearing hiding an agile mind.  Keith Michell (The Hellfire Club, 1961) makes a strong impression as does future spaghetti western star Terence Hill, (They Call Me Trinity, 1970) credited here as Mario Girotti. Edy Vessel (The Thief of Baghdad, 1961) only made two more films, although one was Fellini’s (1963). This was the second film outing after Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for Esmeralda Ruspoli

Strangely enough, given the part Drake played in English history, he has been dealt a poor hand in the movies. A British television series Sir Francis Drake (1961-1962) starring Terence Morgan was unlikely to have instigated this picture so it is odd to rely on Italy for the only picture, regardless of its veracity.

In the portfolio of veteran director Rudolph Mate (When Worlds Collide, 1951), this immediately followed on from The 300 Spartans (1962) but lacks that film’s rigor and vigor. The script was dreamt up by Filippo Sanjust (also Morgan the Pirate).

CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor pictures reviewed in the Blog are The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).

Selling Films Joe Levine Style

After the monumental success of Hercules, exhibitor-turned-distributor Joseph E. Levine pretty much thought he could sell pictures to theater owners on the basis of his name alone. Which explains the absence of any mention of star Steve Reeves (of Hercules fame, ironically enough) from the first seven pages of the Pressbook for Thief of Baghdad (1961).

The Pressbook itself was guaranteed to garner attention from its unusual shape and size. Most Pressbooks are standard A4 – roughly 8 inches wide and 12 inches high – but this easily exceeded the norm. The front page was 22 inches wide by 17 inches with a flap that extended the height to 29 inches. Turn the next page and it became bigger again – 33 inches wide by 22 inches high – and remained that size for another ten pages.

What the first seven pages sold was the Levine name and how he was going to promote the picture to moviegoers. He promised national television and radio advertising saturation. In addition, he supplied free of charge two trailers for television and four for radio which theater owners could use for supplementary local use.

Twenty thousand toy stores were lined up to sell merchandising – “an elaborate array of novelty items, hobby kits, puzzles and games.” Window displays were a key tool in marketing films to local moviegoers.

In addition, Dell had published two tie-ins – a full-color comic book for children and a novelization paperback for adults. In those days books such as these were sold on news stands and revolving racks in drug stores and five-and-dime outlets as well as bookshops. For only $25 (including delivery cost) movie theaters could buy a “double-flasher” eight-foot-high standee to promote the movie in advance.

Unusually, at a time when movies came with up to seven or eight different taglines intended to appeal to different types of audiences (the exhibitor would know which one held the most appeal), Thief of Baghdad limited itself to only four. The main tagline was: “The fantastic deeds…the incredible daring of the thief who defied an empire.”

There were two main alternatives:  either “Opening wide a new world of screen wonders” or “the amazing becomes the incredible the fantastic becomes the real.” All three taglines were quantified with the addition of a number of “screen thrills” such as flying horses, faceless fighters, man-devouring trees, a one-faced army, the giant killer of the sea and a “harem of mystery.”  Finally, there was the option of “he was a score of lovers…a hundred fighters…a thousand thieves…a man in a million.”  

Costuming ushers in “typical Baghdad wear” and calling upon local muscle men to don similar garb was suggested as another marketing ploy.  

Otherwise – which seemed the least of Levine’s concerns – there was actually quite a lot to write home about. It was filmed in Tunisia in the Mosque of the Barber – featuring 600 columns transported from Carthage – and the Mosque of the Sabre in the oasis city of Kairwan. The filmmakers had to devise their own ancient marketplaces since the ones in existence were too modernized. Local extras were used to add further authenticity. An ancient reservoir dating back to 700AD was drained and transformed into a prison.

The special effects by Thomas Howard included a winged horse and a forest of man-eating trees. To create the effect of a brigade of horsemen all in the image of the titular thief, Edwards achieved the illusion by having the men wear masks of Reeves’ face.  

Italian female lead Georgia Moll made her Hollywood debut in The Quiet American (1958) while model Edy Vessel, who refused to give out her vital statistics for publicity purposes, was cast as a seductive temptress.

Reeves, famed for sticking to a particular diet, brought with him 24 jars of honey and 40 pounds of nuts and made yoghurt from camel’s milk.  

This was the sixth version of the film, the first starring Douglas Fairbanks in 1924 followed sixteen years later by the British-made Alexander Korda iteration. Further versions from a variety of sources appeared in 1949, 1952 and 1960.