setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

Robert Newton is most directly responsible for the modern conception of the pirate--the voice, accent, the lopsided swagger. He played the title character in 1952's Blackbeard the Pirate, a good film but not half as good as Treasure Island two years earlier, the film that established Newton so firmly in the public mind as the figure of the pirate archetype. Newton plays an unambiguous villain in Blackbeard while half the fun in Treasure Island is studying him, trying to guess his motives. Though it's nowhere near as good as Treasure Island, Blackbeard is by no means a bad film, in fact it features some extraordinarily beautiful colour compositions and some of the best pirate battles of the 1950s.

Released the same year as the cheerful, brightly coloured The Crimson Pirate, the contrast in visual style in Blackbeard the Pirate could hardly be more severe for another colour pirate film. Instead of blinding blue skies and red and blue sheets, Blackbeard the Pirate goes for a gorgeous chiaroscuro, darkly shaded indigo clouds and charcoal edged hulls.

Directed by veteran noir and adventure film director Raoul Walsh, whose career goes back to the beginning of Hollywood, it's easy to see there's a sure hand at work in the action scenes where scores of seamen swing from one ship to another and the swordplay is convincing and fast. Although he's good with a sword, the film's biggest problem is its protagonist, a dull, nondescript hero, Ben, played by William Bendix.

He lacks the sparkle of Errol Flynn or Jean Peters and the weirdness of Robert Newton. It's surprising that Newton's success as a pirate character didn't inspire filmmakers and studios to cast more creatively for the other pirate roles in the film but, aside from the fascinatingly weathered face of Skelton Knaggs as Newton's treacherous mate Gilly, most of the crew come off as modern American thugs.

The plot involves a rivalry between Blackbeard (Newton) and Henry Morgan, played by English actor Torin Thatcher who actually makes an effort at a Welsh accent. In reality, Blackbeard and Henry Morgan never sailed the seas at the same time, Morgan died when Edward Teach, Blackbeard, was still a child. Aside from this obvious departure from history, the film actually has a few details of historical perspective. Ben is trying to prove that Morgan still operates as a pirate despite the fact that, at the time the film takes place, Morgan is Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, as the real Henry Morgan eventually became. Blackbeard accuses Ben himself of being a pirate because he'd been on a ship that attacked a Spanish ship after peace had been declared but Ben defensively asserts he and his captain had been acquitted because news of the peace had not reached them at sea, which are actually very plausible circumstances.

The crew depicted in the film are also about as racially and culturally diverse as actual pirate crews, though black and Asian crewmembers aren't given more than a few lines.

Linda Darnell as Edwina Mansfield easily outshines William Bendix as her love interest not just because she always has plenty of décolletage on display. Their chemistry is curiously sexless, partly due to the fact that Bendix is a drip, partly due to Darnell playing her character in the virtuous damsel mould. The lack of sexual chemistry between the two oddly makes a bit repeated twice in the film even funnier in its understated humour--twice Ben is about to help her escape the ship but notes she'll never be able to swim in her cumbersome clothes, twice she says with unselfconscious pragmatism she can just take them off, and twice, of course, 1950s audiences were prevented from seeing anything.

And Newton is great, of course. His look in the film seems partly inspired by etchings of Edward Teach that show his beard always tied with fuses for his pistols (though this isn't explained in the film) and partly by early 20th century illustrator Howard Pyle.

setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

If there's another film that better showcases Peter Cushing than 1962's Captain Clegg I've yet to see it. He's surrounded by a good cast with Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed, Michael Ripper, and Jack MacGowran, but in addition to the acting talent on display this movie has one of the most satisfying scripts of any Hammer film. Creating a real sense of a world with complex characters who have layers of motivations, Cushing's character in particular shows the perfect confluence of elements that make this a wonderfully engaging mystery.

The film weaves together threads of different genres including mystery, western, and pirate film to make something really fine. Most of my favourite pirate stories, like Treasure Island, have an element of mystery to them. I love the film version with Robert Newton who gets a lot of mileage by seeming perfectly honest and open with Jim even as he's certainly absolutely duplicitous. Cushing's character takes this kind of mystery to another level.

Introduced as the fussy, gentle hearted parson in a small town in the late 18th century, we soon learn he's involved in smuggling liquor, not unlike the smugglers in Fury at Smugglers' Bay. But is that his only secret?

Cushing's character is the sort that holds the viewer's attention because there are so many questions about him, his motives and identity, and Cushing runs with the opportunity in ways many actors wouldn't have the talent for. His routine as the parson has all the assurance of an actor whose played that role many times before, and then you catch a devilish smile on his face and sense there's so much more underneath.

The film has a pretty commonplace romantic subplot about young lovers, played by Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain. Romain plays a barmaid named Imogene with whom Reed's character, Harry, son of the magistrate, is in love. Of course, Reed's delivery adds a lot of dimension to his fairly average lines about his love and devotion to her. He adds depths with his restrained and relaxed energy that nonetheless burns through his eyes. Romain is decent enough, her breasts maybe drawing more attention than her performance. I'm certainly not complaining. They are really a presence in this film--the other actors keep accidentally bumping them, including Reed with a wide gesticulation in one scene.

Patrick Allen plays a captain in the Royal Navy, former arch enemy of Captain Clegg, and now intent on busting the smugglers with a passion that well outstrips the magistrate's interest in the matter. His character, along with Cushing's, helps add to the sense of moral complication to the film, much greater and more satisfying than most Hammer films. Even Reed's relatively simple lovestruck young squire character is more complicated than average when the extent of his participation with the smugglers is in question. This complication is best manifested, though, in the subtly expressed adversarial relationship between Cushing's and Allen's characters.

And on top of all this, the film opens with mysterious skeletal riders and a living scarecrow that terrorise the marsh. All of these elements might seem like too much in other films but this one ties them altogether beautifully, with Cushing as an intriguing centre of gravity.

Twitter Sonnet #987

The hair that seeps between the split'll drain.
A captured chemical equips the breeze.
A flound'ring corpse amends the shape of sane.
In sockets shaved in rinds she always sees.
In pale constructions carved to swim they go.
The folded birds observe as stars descend.
The egret signs adorn the spreading crow.
A ceiling saw what shaking coins upend.
A chomping C engraves the tomb all night.
Forever canvas blanks opine to eat.
Engagements corked remain in bottle sight.
Along the circuit band she sparked a beat.
The rain of muppet worms enriched the air.
On particles they danced like Fred Astaire.


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