Peter’s Retro Movie Review: The Crimson Pirate (1952)

December 24, 2012


The Crimson Pirate (1952) movie posterby Peter Nielsen

Well, my friends, since we’re in the midst of the Christmas holidays I thought it appropriate to spend this jolly time (hopefully) looking at the classic Burt Lancaster – movie The Crimson Pirate. It’s an old-fashioned and colorful swashbuckling adventure and is one I used to watch with my dad when I was a kid.

I seem to remember that it was shown quite frequently on Danish television in my youth. I’m not sure, but since we didn’t own a VCR and I watched it a couple of times, I guess they must have. For many years it was fairly hard finding a decent print of The Crimson Pirate on DVD, but when one was finally released I, of course, had to add it to my library.

But would it still hold up after all those years of not watching it? I’ll let you know in a minute or two.

The Crimson Pirate (1952)

Gather round, lads and lasses! Gather round!

So, as Captain Vallo himself would say: “Gather round, lads and lasses. Gather round!” It’s time I told you about the gallant Captain and his scurvy crew.

It’s the late 18th century, we’re in the beautiful Caribbean and the pirates have just captured one of the king’s ships which have one of his envoys onboard. Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley) is on his way to the island of Cobra where he’s going to help crush a rebellion led by a man called El Libre.

Captain Vallo sees an opportunity to get his hands on gold without much effort, by selling the weapons onboard the ship to the rebels. Baron Gruda, seeing a way out of the predicament he’s in, offers the pirates a large ransom if they instead bring the leader of the rebels to him. Vallo accepts and reluctantly so does his crew.

They argue that this bargaining is not the pirate-way, but since gold is gold in any way you acquire it, they quickly come around, so Captain Vallo and his trusted companion, Ojo, rows ashore to contact the rebels. Once there, they learn by a man named Pablo Murphy (Noel Purcell) and a woman, Consuelo (Eva Bartok) that El Libre has been captured and thrown in jail.

The Crimson Pirate (1952)

Consuelo and Captain Vallo

This complicates things a bit, since Vallo now has to get El Libre out of jail in order to deliver him to Baron Gruda. And him falling for Consuelo doesn’t make it any easier either. When she later tells him that El Libre is her father…well, let’s just say that it does nothing to improve Vallo’s situation. He starts to have second thoughts about handing him over to the Baron and is actually thinking about giving him the weapons for free and setting him free.

This does not go down terribly well with his crew and they, led by his treacherous first mate Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), revolt against him. What seemed like easy money to begin with has now turned out to be more complicated than he anticipated and, Ojo and he are now caught up in the rebellion against the king.

The Crimson Pirate is filled with spectacular shots of the different ships and beautiful scenery, and the stunts and acrobatics are amazing. Much of that is because of Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat in the roles of Vallo and Ojo.

They grew up as childhood friends in New York and in their early twenties they formed an acrobatic team, calling themselves Lang & Cravat. They performed in circuses and vaudeville houses and when Burt Lancaster broke into films in the late 1940’s, it was only natural for him to want to work with his best friend Nick Cravat.

The Crimson Pirate (1952)

There’s action a’plenty when they fight the king’s men.

They wound up making nine movies together, many of them featuring thrilling action and daring stunts that showed off their athletic abilities and teamwork. This was especially true of their two swashbucklers The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and The Crimson Pirate. They also teamed up in the World War II submarine thriller Run Silent, Run Deep in 1958 as well as in the westerns The Scalphunters, Valdez is coming and Ulzana’s Raid.

In 1974 they were in the mystery-thriller The Midnight Man which Burt Lancaster also co-directed. Their final film together was The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1977. But wait a minute… That’s only eight movies, right? Yup, that’s right! The ninth movie they did together was actually Airport from 1970, but Nick Cravat only has an un-credited role as a passenger in it. He also gained some fame and notoriety as the airplane-wrecking “gremlin” in the classic Twilight Zone TV-episode Nightmare at 20.000 Feet which also starred William Shatner.

The Crimson Pirate (1952)

Ojo and Vallo in a bit of a pickle…

Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat both passed away in 1994, Cravat in January and Lancaster in October!

So… did The Crimson Pirate hold up then? Are you friggin’ kidding me? I love this movie! It’s a boisterous and colorful pirate-yarn with both excitement and humor, and I would have loved to see this on the big screen. It’s very tongue-in-cheek, but it apparently started out to be a very dramatic movie.

The director, Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase, The Killers), thought it needed some humor and changed the original screenplay. At least according to screen legend Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Man with the Golden Gun, To the Devil a Daughter) who also has a small role in this lovely flick.

I’ll end this review with a little musical tidbit. At one point the pirate crew does a wonderful rendition of the shanty “Drunken Sailor” or “What shall we do with the drunken sailor” as they’re toiling away on deck. Cliché? Yes, perhaps… but it made me smile none the less.

And on that note, my friends… there’s only one thing left for me to say now…

Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!


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