The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)

Christopher Lee plays a villainous Spanish Pirate in Hammer's swashbuckling adventure film. Sony US R1 DVD.

The Film

As well as keeping the mature audiences scared with X-rated horror films, Hammer were always after the wider audiences with U-rated adventure pictures - during the 1960s, summer holidays didn't involve heading overseas, and the summer family audience was big money. In 1962 Hammer captured market this with their pirate films Captain Clegg and Pirates of Blood River, but tights budgets kept the adventures land based. Looking to better themselves, Hammer boosted the budget, and constructed a complete ship for their 1964 summer blockbuster The Devil-Ship Pirates.

1588 and the Spanish Armarda is being beaten in the English channel, in the midst, a tiny Spanish pirate ship fighting for their country is badly damaged and Captain Robeles (Christopher Lee) orders that they withdraw from the battle. Unable to return to Spain, they put to shore on the southern coast of England and manage to convince the residents of a remote village that the Spanish have won the war. The village nobleman Sir Basil Smeeton is more than happy to allow the Spanish into the village, and orders the reluctant townspeople to lodge some of the Spanish sailors in their own houses, but the locals refuse to give up so easily...

Hammer's swashbuckling script has plenty of swords fights and a good mix of characters with different viewpoints to add some internal conflict, as well as the usual external conflict. The deaths of a few major characters are quite unexpected, although the film's U rating mean that a public square hanging is completely off camera and looses all its impact. Sadly the script is not quite clever enough to answer all the questions it raises. We see the Spanish soldiers speaking easily with the villagers, more realistically there should have been very strong language barriers with maybe only Don Manuel able to communicate with the villagers (adding an interesting new element), we see some of the pirates flirting with the English girls - with reference to the punishment doled out on 'collaborators' after the Second World War, it might have been interesting to see how the rest of the village considered these women. As it is, the script is a pretty simple affair with enough action to keep the fans happy and superb climax.

On of the biggest advantages The Devil-Ship Pirates has, is the full-size ship built for its construction. The Diablo cost 17,000 to make and was floated in a flooded gravel pit. However, the shoot was not without incident and an overloading resulted in the entire ship capsizing, fortunately without serious injury, but with expensive loss of cameras and equipment. The use of a full sized ship allows long shots and exteriors (as shown below) that would not be possible with a model, and the budget stretched to good looking sets and costumes. Don Sharp's camera-work is solid as usual, with some interesting camera angles to add some variation to the shoot, although his framing is sometimes poor. The soundtrack is a standard Hammer orchestral affair.

A strong cast is present here. Christopher Lee, returning from a spell in Europe, plays the very villanous Captain Robeles without a spark of compassion but avoids him becoming gratuatously evil. Andrew Keir gets his usual role as a peaceful man forced to defend himself, and fans of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) should find a sense of deja-vu as he again defends Suzan Farmer from Christopher Lee. Barry Warren gives a very strong performace as the troubled Spanish nobelman. Michael Ripper gets a larger role than normal with several lines of dialogue and watch out a number of familiar faces including Philip Latham (Klove from Dracula: Prince of Darkness) as a villager.

This big Hammer adventure was the last of their pirate films, the good cast make the most of a rather average script and are aided by some impressive special effects and a good looking production. Recommended to those looking for an entertaining film, but not if you are expecting anything thought provoking, relatively safe for the whole family to watch.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? Christopher Lee - Hammer Horror mainstay who also appeared in Pirates of Blood River (1962).
Barry Warren - The sinister Carl Ravna from Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
Andrew Keir - Occasional Hammer star with the dramatic lead role in Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Directed by anyone interesting? Don Sharp - Three time Hammer director who also shot the first two Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies.
Any gore? None.
Any sex? None.
Who is it for?
Has a general appeal, certainly for fans of Hammer and Christopher Lee.


The DVD

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 widescreen. Anamorphically enhanced. Colour.
A very strong print with a lot of colour and detail.
Audio English language mono sound - no problems.
French dub track.
Subtitles English and French
Extras This disc includes:
  • Audio commentary with Hammer expert Marcus Hearn, script writer Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye. Lots of interesting details about this film and Hammer in general.
  • Original theatrical trailer.
Other extra features are also included in the boxset.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
AvailabilityOnly available as part of the Icons of Adventure four film boxset.
Other regions? Previously available in the UK from WB - a much less impressive non-anamorphic print with no extras - now unavailable.

Image Comparison - R2 WB disc left, R1 Sony disc right.

Cuts? The film is believed to be fully uncut (cuts were made by the BBFC, these might be lost). Print is English language.

Summary

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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - original review 26th March 2006 - updated to Sony R1 disc 21 June 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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