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 Challenge for Robin Hood (1967) ***

British studio Hammer made a second valiant attempt at reviving the moribund swashbuckler – six years on from Sword of Sherwood Forest. More in the way of an origin story, this explains how a nobleman turned into an outlaw and how the merry band was formed. For in this tale Robin Hood (Barrie Ingham) is a Norman nobleman framed for murder, Will Scarlet (Douglas Mitchell) and Little John (Leon Greene) are castle servants (also Normans) while Maid Marian (Gay Hamilton) is in disguise. Some liberties are taken with the traditional version – there is no fight with Little John, instead, as noted above, they are already acquainted.

There are a couple of excellent set pieces and although the swordfights are not in the athletic league of Errol Flynn they are more inventive than the previous Hammer outing and there is enough derring-do to keep the plot ticking along. Robin’s cousin Roger de Courtenay (Peter Blythe) is the prime villain this time round, the sheriff (John Arnatt), although involved up to the hilt at the end, content to offer acerbic comment from the sidelines.  

When Robin and Friar Tuck escape the castle by jumping into the moat, Will Scarlet is caught and later used as bait. Meanwhile Robin’s archery prowess and leadership skills have impressed the Saxon outlaws hiding in the forest and he takes over as their head. The picture follows the swashbuckler template with clever ruses, jousting, Robin disguised as a masked monk, torture, and a pie fight.

Being plucked from obscurity and turned into a star was a standard Hollywood publicity story from the 1930s and 1940s, but the notion survived well into the 1960s – and “A Challenge for Robin Hood” was proof for one lady. Liverpool-born Sheila Forrest had won the “Girl in a Million” competition organized by the ABC cinema chain as a promotional gimmick for “One Million Years B.C.” Fifteen regional finalists had been judged at Elstree film studios by a panel including Martine Beswick, a supporting actress in “One Million Years B.C.,” West Ham footballer and World Cup winner Geoff Hurst, and “ABC Film Review” editor Peter Haigh. As well as the £1,000 first prize, Sheila won a role in a forthcoming Hammer film, which turned out to be the Robin Hood picture, known at that time as “Legend of Robin Hood,” and she appeared in a photoshoot for “ABC Film Review” (August 1967, p12) dressed as a lady-in-waiting and pictured with star Barrie Ingham (mispelt as Barry Langham in the fan magazine) and James Hayter. Unfortunately, the role was not large enough to receive a credit and as far as I am aware that was her only film..

Director C. M. Pennington-Richards had some swashbuckling form having helmed several episodes of The Buccaneers and Ivanhoe television series but his big screen experience was limited to routine films like Ladies Who Do (1963) with Peggy Mount. This was a departure for scriptwriter Peter Bryan, more used to churning out horror films like The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966), and he has invested the picture with more wittier lines and humorous situations than you might expect. It’s certainly Saturday afternoon matinee material and unless compared to the likes of The Pirates of the Caribbean or the classic Errol Flynn adventure it stands up very well on its own.

 Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1961) ***

The last swashbuckler to cut a genuine dash was The Crimson Pirate (1952) with an athletic Burt Lancaster romancing Virginia Mayo in a big-budget Hollywood spectacular. The chance of Hollywood ponying up for further offerings of this caliber was remote once television began to cut the swashbuckler genre down to small-screen size. Britain’s ITV network churned out series based on Sir Lancelot, William Tell and The Count of Monte Cristo and 30-minute episodes (143 in all) of The Adventures of Robin Hood. So when Hammer decided to rework the series as a movie, their first port-of-call was series star Richard Greene.

And to encourage television viewers to follow the adventures of their hero on the big screen, Hammer sensibly dumped the small screen’s black-and-white photography in favour of widescreen color and then lit up the canvas at the outset with aerial tracking shots of the glorious bucolic greenery of the English countryside (actually Ireland). Further temptation for staid television viewers came in the form of Maid Marian (Sarah Branch) bathing naked in a lake. Robin Hood is soon hooked.  

Sarah Branch was given the cover girl treatment in British fan magazine “Picture Show and TV Mirror” but this preceded “Sword of Sherwood Forest” and instead was for “Sands of the Desert” (1960), a Charlie Drake comedy in which she plays a travel agent kidnapped by a sheik. Branch only made four pictures, with Maid Marian her final film role.

Two main plots run side-by-side. The first is obvious. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) is quietly defrauding people through legal means. The second takes a while to come to fruition. Robin Hood is hired by for his archery skills by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco) – he shoots a pumpkin through a spinning wheel, a moving bell and a bullseye through a slit – before it becomes apparent he is being recruited as an assassin. Oliver Reed and Derren Nesbitt put in uncredited appearances and the usual suspects are played by Niall MacGinnis (as Friar Tuck) and Nigel Green (as Little John).

There is sufficient swordfighting to satisfy. Director Terence Fisher, more at home with the Hammer horror portfolio, demonstrates a facility with action. Richard Greene makes a breezy hero and the picture is ideal matinee entertainment.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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