Highly influential fusion of action and comedy, using the swashbuckling genre as a perfect venue for Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat to wiggle in and out of danger, romance, and all-around silliness.
Roland Kibbee's screenplay doesn't offer anything new in terms of story it's the familiar routine of double-crosses and fractured alliances that propel the film's buoyant acrobatic heroes but there's plenty of brilliantly realized physical and situational comedy that feels incredibly contemporary perhaps because several ideas have been lifted and copied by filmmakers in recent years.
(One glaring example has a peg-legged member of Lancaster 's pirates getting stuck in the wooden meshing of a hatch cover during battle, trying to free himself while taking pokes at his passing attackers. Decades later the gag would turn up in Roman Polanski's own tongue-in-cheek spoof, Pirates (1986), with Walter Matthau repeatedly getting stuck between the floorboards of a raft and a deck hatch, once with his old wooden leg, and later with a custom-fitted one that still caused him considerable grief.)
The film's modern feel is also due to the tactic of heroes placed in sometimes ridiculous circumstances (more comical than death-defying, as in old serials) and having the innate cleverness of characters solve problems at lightning speed. A great example has three men chained to a rowboat, and one getting the wild idea of flipping the boat and using it like a submarine to reach the beach. The trio's dilemma is furthered on land when they still find themselves tethered to the boat, and running away from soldiers while camouflaging themselves among a portage in the streets of the seaside town.
The Crimson Pirate wasn't really an effort by Lancaster to claim the swashbuckler throne held by Tyrone Power; Lancaster would continue to investigate various genres during the fifties and sixties, but he seemed to latch on to the concept of taking genre conventions well-familiar to theatergoers & a burgeoning audience of kids glued to TV screens, and play on their increasingly innate familiarity with clichés, and treating them as knowing participants rather than a dumb, captive audience.
Little in the film is played straight, and part of the fantasy world comes from the pastel colours used for the costumes, sets, and decor; it's a fifties Technicolor wonderland, and everyone's wardrobe including those worn by ersatz grungy, sweaty pirates are steam pressed, and free from any blotches.
A big surprise for film fans is the varied cast, which up front has Lancaster and Cravat playing off their former acrobatic past as Lang and Cravat during their pre-film careers, and performing some amazing stunt work and physical comedy. There's also small roles filled by a number of young actors, including Christopher Lee, six years before he appeared in The Horror of Dracula, and began his long association with Hammer's horror franchises; a young and snotty Dana Wynter, prior to her brief fling as one of Fox' leading British ladies; and Torin Thatcher, better-known for as the villainous Sokurah in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
Warner Bros.' transfer is very clean, and comes from a crisp print with minor moments of soft focus. The colour registration is sharp, and lacks the reddish hazing that affects some of the lesser Technicolor films released by Fox in their own budget-priced DVDs. The sound is straight mono, and shows off William Alwyn's fanciful (if sometimes thematically repetitive) score, including a pirate chorale to complete the mandatory clichés being spoofed.
After Crimson Pirate, director Robert Siodmak would branch away from Hollywood and return to more international productions based in Germany . Roland Kibbee later wrote the underrated western Vera Cruz (1954) and Valdez is Coming (1974) for Lancaster before sliding into more TV writing, including a successful run with Columbo during the seventies.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan