Pirates of Tortuga (1961) ***

In the absence of A-list swashbuckling talent like Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, 1935), Tyrone Power (The Black Swan, 1942) and Burt Lancaster (The Crimson Pirate, 1952) or spitfires in the mold of Maureen O’Hara (The Black Swan) and Jean Peters (Anne of the Indies, 1951) this sidesteps casting issues and in the kind of reversal that sent Pirates of the Caribbean on its merry way for the most part takes the comedic route of putting pirate moll Mg (Leticia Roman) center stage and twisting the usual blockade narrative so that it’s Privateer of the Century Henry Morgan (Robert Stephens) controlling the high seas.

Charge with stopping the pirate is sea captain Bart (Ken Scott). But most of the running in the first half is made by Meg, a thief turned stowaway, whose efforts to acquire the standing of a lady are initially mocked by the crew until they soften towards her, in part with seduction in mind and in part out of pity. But after landing in Jamaica, and mistaken for a Lady, she steps up to the plate, and manages to catch the romantic eye of the Governor before readjusting her sights and snaring Bart.

Bart and his crew infiltrate the buccaneer kingdom and spy out its flaws before arranging for a full-out attack. Boldly rewriting history, something of a surprise since Morgan the Pirate had appeared a year earlier, this Morgan is a shifty alcoholic. Once the action gets going, including a clever ambush of one pirate ship, it has enough swordfights to keep a regular swashbuckling enthusiast happy. There are some nice touches, Pee Wee (Dave King), the de facto fencing instructor, is lefthanded and wears a black glove whose use is historically accurate. The ships in full sail are impressive, the locations work well and it makes good use of Cinemascope color while Meg remains larcenous throughout rather than the good moll of previous entertainments. Though you might not be so impressed by the bear wrestling.

Ken Scott makes the best of a thin script, ignoring Meg’s wiles, and outwitting Morgan. Apart from Roman, who steals the show, British comedian Dave King (Strange Bedfellows, 1965), in his movie debut, is the pick, a jocular personality with lechery a stock-in-trade. I better point out you can spot John Richardson (One Million Years B.C, 1965) otherwise he is so insignificant a performer you would scarcely know he is there.  Robert Stephens (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) turns Morgan into a scallywag rather than a threatening villain.

Worth noting was just how long it took a graduate of the Twentieth Century Fox talent school to graduate – at the end of a five-year contract Ken Scott (Desire in the Dust, 1960) finally achieved leading man status.   Leticia Roman (The Spy in the Green Hat, 1967) was a bit more savvy and turned down a Fox contract in favor of Hal B. Wallis who cast her instead in G.I. Blues (1960). Technically belonging to the European import category of actress so popular during the decade, she never worked in her homeland before being scouted by Wallis. Though she was born in Italy her father, a costume designer, had moved to the U.S. in the late 1950s.  

Producer Sam Katzman, who had just signed a four-picture deal with Fox, made 239 films in every genre,  including Tim McCoy westerns, the Leo Gorcey Bowery Boys series,  Bela Lugosi as The Ape Man (1943), Jungle Jim (1948), Paul Henreid in Last of the Buccaneers (1950),  Mysterious Island (1951), 3D Fort Ti (1953) and Rock Around the Clock (1956) as well as a slew of 1960s Presley musicals.  

On a miserly budget of just $675,000, the sea scenes were shot in the Fox water tank. Robert D. Webb (The Cape Town Affair, 1967) directed.

A harmless trifle with decent action and Leticia Roman turning upside-down the genre female lead.

No need to fork out on a DVD. You can catch this on YouTube.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) ***

Forget swashbuckling shenanigans in the Captain Blood (1935) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) vein, this has more in keeping with Lord of the Flies (1963) as a bunch of third-rate pirates get more than they bargained for after kidnapping a bunch of English children.

The pirates are clever enough when required, using the ruse of pretending to be a ship in distress to defeat an enemy, capable of torturing a captured captain into revealing concealed treasure, or hiding from pursuit by disguising the masts with palm leaves, but generally short on intelligence. That the kidnapping is unintentional, no sensible pirate wanting the British Navy breathing down its neck, gives an indication of the mentality of Captain Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and his mate Zac (James Coburn). Nor are the children Disney-cute and far from being petrified they see it as a great adventure while the crew are superstitious about having the youngsters aboard.

The kids have great fun running rings round the pirates, stealing Chavez’s hat, climbing the rigging, and ringing the bell, while turning round the ship’s figurehead provokes another bout of superstition. When the kids are eventually imprisoned in a rowboat to prevent upsetting the crew they still manage to do so by playing a game that the crew take too seriously.

An attempt to abandon the children on the island of Tampico fails when the oldest boy John (Martin Amis) dies by accident. The children are unperturbed by his death, the only question raised is who can have his blanket. Much to his surprise Chavez discovers he has a strong paternal side, protective when he discovers that one of his captives is a young woman rather than a child, and going against the wishes of his crew when he tends to a knife wound on Emily (Deborah Baxter).

The children are far more grown-up and matter-of-fact than the childish crew, consumed by superstition, and Chavez, consumed by emotion. Although there is considerable comedy to be had from the children’s endeavors, it’s largely an adult film about children. In general, they don’t react the way they would in a Disney picture, nor in the manner which many adults would expect. The sexual tension of the book is considerably underplayed. But the fact that the adults are brought into harm’s way by sheer folly, and their reactions to life are essentially childish, creates a contrast with the more savage attitudes of the children. Emily essentially exposes Chavez’s guilty conscience.

While there is ambivalence aplenty, the depths the book explored go unexplored here, much to the benefit of the picture. The movie dances a tightrope as the children who would otherwise expect to trust an adult grow to learn how to distrust, a rather sharper lesson in growing up than they might have anticipated from their middle-class innocent lives.

Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, 1955) excels in ensuring the tightrope remains in place while taking advantage of the opportunity for comedy, the realization that this adventure is far from fun only becoming gradually apparent.

Anthony Quinn (Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) reins in his tendency to ham things up, and his development from unbridled pirate to responsible adult is an interesting one. James Coburn (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, 1966) reins in the flashing teeth and reveals a more ruthless side than his captain anticipated. Deborah Baxter (The Wind and the Lion, 1975) is easily the pick of the kids although future novelist Martin Amis with his trademark sneer gives her a run for her money.

Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966) appears as a brothel madam, Nigel Davenport  (Sebastian, 1968) as the father and Gert Frobe (Goldfinger, 1964) as the captured captain. The cast also includes Dennis Price (Tamahine, 1963) and Vivienne Ventura (Battle Beneath the Earth, 1967).

Stanley Mann (Woman of Straw, 1964), Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, 1983) and Denis Cannan (Woman of Straw) wrote the screenplay based on the celebrated Richard Hughes novel.

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