Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pirate Spin

When you're the crew of a pirate ship, it's not so important that the Spanish Armada didn't actually conquer England when you can just pretend like it did. Hammer's 1964 The Devil-Ship Pirates has Christopher Lee as the captain of the pirates in a film that surpasses the other Hammer pirate film he starred in, The Pirates of Blood River, in just about every way.

Set in 1588, the film begins with the infamous attempt by Spain to invade England. The event became remembered in England as proof of God's preference for the Church of England over the Catholic Spaniards because the attack was foiled when bad weather destroyed a third of the Spanish ships. But The Devil-Ship Pirates doesn't mention this, concerned only with one of the engagements where England actually scored a Naval victory rather than letting the All Mighty do the work. Like many ships in the sea warfare of the sixteenth and seventh century, the one commanded by Robles (Lee) is a pirate ship most of the time and a privateer when it's convenient for one country or another, in this case Spain.

One fascinating thing about this film is how its deviations from history oddly reflect actual history. Robles has an entirely Spanish crew but everyone on the ship inexplicably speaks English with regional accents--Lee didn't even put on a Spanish accent the way he put on a French one for Blood River. Obviously Hammer didn't want a language barrier in its fantasy adventure but they could have much more believably gotten around the problem by making the crew composed of diverse nationalities instead of all Spaniards, which would have inevitably been the case even in a privateer serving a country in time of war. But this would have meant complicating things quite a bit when the typical narrative at the time demanded war was a case of one country against another.

Being a fictional pirate has always been tricky. We have plenty of accounts of what pirates actually did and holding a whole village hostage was certainly in the repertoire. But even a film from to-day can't show the torture, rape, and murder that actually went on. And yet, the movie pirate is supposed to tap into some semblance of unrestrained brutal behaviour. The Devil-Ship Pirates has the pirates capture the town and "blockade the road", meaning stationing two pirates on the road with a log across it, this to prevent word getting into town that the Spanish haven't actually conquered England. Otherwise, the villagers are left at their liberty instead of the real life pirate tactic of barricading the men inside a house or two in increasingly horrid conditions while the women are distributed to the crew. In terms of holding a village, this obviously has the advantage of stopping villagers who might figure out you can walk around the "blockade".

Captain Robles decides to exert his authority through the local lord, Sir Basil (Ernest Clark), who must be one of the most unfortunately dressed gentlemen in history.

He looks like he raided a modern magic shop and a used furniture store.

Next to him is the village Parson (Peter Howell). His name is "Brown". That's right, he's Parson Brown. So if he asks "Are you married?" we'll say, "No, man. But you can do the job when you're in town." IMDB sensibly calls him "Vicar Brown" but the word "Parson" is actually used in the film.

He unquestionably councils capitulation to the Spaniards despite the fact that his black clothes and white collar seem to indicate he's a Puritan. But the differences in religion between the two nations are never brought up, probably because it was still too sensitive a subject in 1964. Though in the fact that church and aristocracy seem readier than anyone to side with Spain there's an odd parallel to actual suspicious about the secret Catholic sympathies of the ruling class later in the 17th century. In a way it's appropriate that the film, according to Wikipedia, reuses sets built for a film set in the 1640s.

Lee is very good as Robles, of course. Stand outs are a scene where he quietly threatens a small child and two sword fights. An entire ship was built for the film. While obviously relatively cheaply made, its basic structure is more accurate to 1588 than I might have expected. It even has a whipstaff instead of a wheel.

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