The Pirates of Blood River (1962)

Christopher Lee and Andrew Keir star in Hammer's swashbuckling adventure from director John Gilling. Sony US R1 boxset DVD.

The Film

As well as their horror sucesses, Hammer had a heritage of adventure films dating back to the late 1940s with their popular Dick Barton trilogy. After the amazingly sucess of their X-rated horror titles they had some sucess with X-rated adventure films Stranglers of Bombay (1959) and Terror of the Tongs (1962) but the big money was still in family entertainment and although their next project began work as another X-rated picture, a few choice cuts saw it released with a U rating.

A small colony of persecuted Huguenots have made a home on a remote island and set up a community there. For a hundred years they have survived but recently have become dominated by religious extremists. When Jonathon Standing (Kerwin Matthews), son of the island's leader Jason (Andrew Keir) is caught in an adultarous affair, he is sentenced to the penal colony for 15 years. After harsh punishment there he escapes but finds himself at the feet of a group of pirates lead by Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee) who have discovered the island and want someone to lead them to the main settlement, where they suspect there might be a treasure trove...

Hammer's experienced horror writer Jimmy Sangster was tasked with coming up with a pirate story that could not feature any ship action due to the film's low budget. Fortunately he handles the task pretty well and provides a story that balances swashbuckling with plot. Despite the shots of a pirate ship under the film's title sequence, the pirates themselves do not arrive for some 20 minutes - letting us instead learn about the islanders and their way of life, making it distinctly clear that this is not an island at peace with itself. Surprisingly for the era, the story contains some very strong statements about the cruel nature of extreme Christianity and seems to be particularly critical of the way that the island leaders cite themselves as God's representitives on earth.

In fact it is almost a pity when the pirates do turn up as the story of the islanders had enough potential to make a feature film (although a rather darker one for sure). The rest of the film is a rather typical story of a village being held hostage by a ruthless crew (and could well have worked as a western) but it certainly never drags and has plenty of action. The climax will not disappoint, with the leads joining in the swashbuckling and it builds to a fitting conclusion - however with some more characterisation the conclusion could have been genuinely emotive, something it doesn't really achieve.

John Gilling had just completed work on his own swashbuckler Fury at Smugglers' Bay (1961) and was an obvious choice to helm this production - he does some good work, particularly in the fight scenes (and avoids having them at night, unlike in his often rather confusing previous work). Despite a rather low budget the
Huguenots' village looks good and the penal colony is very impressive although the exterior shots are clearly filmed in a temperate climate and do not match the tropical beach seen in the model shots of the pirate ship arriving - the script carefully avoids mention of just where this village is. First time Hammer composer Gary Hughes provides a solid if unremarkable soundtrack and was brought back for several more of their adventure pictures.

Star of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) Kerwin Matthews takes the top billing as the heroic lead Jonathon and puts up a good display. His father is played by Andrew Keir, the first of several roles he would play for Hammer during the 1960s. He really suits the puritan outfits and gives probably the best performance in the whole film, particularly in the climax (although he is let down by the lack of characterisation). Hammer's biggest star, Christopher Lee returns from his first foreign excursion to play the pirate leader with a curious French accent - putting up a good performance throughout, he really excels in the sword scenes. Future star Oliver Reed gets a minor role as a lusty pirate with only a few lines of dialogue while Hammer regular Michael Ripper gets one of his biggest parts as the pirate Bos'n. A pre-Bond Desmond Llewelyn gives a brief appearance alongside a 14-year old Dennis Waterman. The female parts are pretty brief but Marie Devereux (The Brides of Dracula (1960)) gives a feisty performance.

The script provides plenty of swashbuckling and director John Gilling gives it his best shot despite the obvious disadvantage of shooting in an English forest for a tropical island. Like their later Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) it is a pity that the script does not explore more deeply some of the themes raised but for family entertainment it is certainly more intellegent than many stories and provides a highly entertaining 90 minutes. Recommended to fans of classic swashbucklers and a good place to start exploring Hammer's non-horror works.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? Christopher Lee - Hammer's biggest star who also starred in their best horror film The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Andrew Keir - Occasional Hammer star who also appeared in Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966)
Oliver Reed - star of Hammer's Curse of the Werewolf (1961) who went on to international fame.
Directed by anyone interesting? John Gilling - writer and director of the low budget British smuggling film Fury at Smuggler's Bay (1961) and Hammer's adventure film The Brigand of Kandahar (1965)
Any gore? Several scenes with blood.
Any sex? None.
Who is it for?
Has a general appeal, certainly for fans of Hammer and Christopher Lee.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 widescreen. Anamorphically enhanced. Colour.
The print looks beautiful with barely a hint of damage and only light grain.
Audio English language mono sound - sounds good throughout.
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. An interesting and continuous discussion about both this film and both men's careers with the studio.
  • Original theatrical trailer.
Other extra features are also included in the boxset.
Availabity Only available as part of the Icons of Adventure four film boxset.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? Not available elsewhere.
Cuts? The film is believed to be fully uncut as per the theatrical print (cuts were made by the BBFC, these might be lost). Print is English language.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 7th June 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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