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I watched this because it is a Hammer film with Christopher Lee in it. Well, I mean and Michael Ripper and Oliver Reed and Marie Devereux (too briefly!) and Andrew Keir and Desmond Llewellyn and a bunch of other favourites - but mainly because of Christopher Lee. It isn't a horror film, though, but rather one of Hammer's swash-buckling adventures, as the title suggests. And for all the pirateyness, it involves the minimum possible amount of screen-time set on board ship, because obviously Hammer couldn't have dreamt of affording that. Rather, they bought in some stock footage for the beginning, built an interior cabin set, commissioned a matte painting of a sea-scape for the end, and set the rest on an island which is very obviously Black Park with a few half-dead palm fronds stuck around the place.

This means that the plot feels more like a Wild West adventure set on the Pitcairn Islands than anything else - although in fact both the islanders and the pirates who come to attack them are French. The islanders consist of a Huguenot colony who have been living in isolation for several generations now, and a fundamental tension has developed amongst them between the strict and traditionally-minded elders of the community and the younger generation who want something different and less oppressive. The analogy here for the real-world contemporary tensions between the pre- and post-war generations is obvious, and there's some interesting stuff about how both sides have their own competing interpretations of what the colony's original founder (old Symeon) stood for. But ultimately this aspect of the story rather peters out, eclipsed by the attack of the pirate gang (led by the lovely Mr. Lee) who come to raid the settlement and abscond with the treasure which they are (rightly) convinced it must be hoarding.

The sexual politics are very typical of Hammer during this period, in that they are playing around with the flouting of traditional values, but ultimately don't quite want to condone their overthrow. Early on, we are invited to sympathise with a young woman (Marie Devereux's character), who is afraid of her brutal husband (one of the traditionally-minded village elders), and has fallen in love instead with one of the young idealists. But ultimately these two cannot be allowed to have a sustained relationship or happy ending, because that would be to condone adultery. Instead, she isn't quite killed directly for her sins, but in trying to escape a crowd of villagers bent on punishment, she runs into a river where she is devoured by piranhas (hence the 'Blood River' of the title). Effectively, then, she is punished by God - or whatever divine agency you might want to imagine.

Christopher Lee is of course absolutely great as the pirate captain, who obviously has enough education and breeding by comparison with his men to convince the same young idealist that he will help him to overthrow the village elders and create a better community, but is in fact utterly ruthless and ready to sacrifice anyone at all in pursuit of the treasure he desires. In other words, it is the perfect Christopher Lee role. He gets a good death scene towards the end, which involves him being pinned to a tree with a sword (though it was obviously cut in the version I saw on Talking Pictures), which along with the piranhas and some sadistic punishments dished out to the young idealist after he has been sent to a prison camp by the village elders would have delivered the sorts of thrills Hammer audiences came to see. It's a pity, though, that Lee was obviously asked to play the captain as having one shrivelled hand. Nothing ever comes of that plot-wise, and indeed I don't think it was ever mentioned in the script, but obviously it's another one for the Evil Cripple file. Similarly, there are a couple of black pirates in his gang, presumably to help convey the exoticism of the settings, but they never get to speak.

The dullest parts of this film for me were the fight sequences, which I am Just Not That Into - especially an extended blindfolded fight sequence between two of the pirates, which just seemed to go on forever to little effect, and was ultimately only over which of them was going to be allowed to rape one of the village women anyway. In fact, this never happened as a rescue party arrived in time, but it gave an already very boring fight an unpleasantly icky edge. It also seemed to me that a lot of the strategies employed by the pirates were downright stupid, such as attacking the village en masse from the front, rather than sending a small party round the side while the villagers were all busy holding off the main attack; or stopping to sleep in the forest after they have seized the treasure and thus allowing the villagers to catch up with them, rather than just ploughing the hell on through the night to reach their ship and escape. But whether this was 'meant' to appear stupid, as a way of characterising the pirates as a not particularly effective force, or was simply the result of insufficiently careful script-writing, I'm not sure.

Anyway, worth watching overall as part of my general long-term exploration of both Hammer's oeuvre and Christopher Lee's, but I would be surprised if I found myself rushing back to watch it again.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 20th, 2018 06:53 am (UTC)
What was Desmond Llewellyn doing? I rarely see him in anything else.

Talking Pictures is such a treasure trove.
Aug. 20th, 2018 08:47 am (UTC)
It isn't a big role at all, I'm afraid - he's only on screen for a few minutes, and if he has any lines they're so mundane I can't remember them now. He plays a farmer living on the island, who is one of the first people attacked and killed by the pirates.
Aug. 20th, 2018 06:09 pm (UTC)
I can just imagine his poor bewildered face as it happens.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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