Crimson Pirate, The (1952)
Release Date: September 27th, 1952 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Siodmak Actors: Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok, Torin Thatcher, Margot Grahame, Dana Wynter, Christopher Lee
elieve half of what you see.” That’s the advice from Burt Lancaster as the film opens, foreshadowing tall tales and exaggerated excitement. With plank-walking, the commandeering of ships, triple-crosses, mutiny, audacious escapes, damsels in distress (and dancing girls for good measure), explosive rescues, canon battles, huge fight sequences, and all sorts of pirating, “The Crimson Pirate” is a classic example of swashbuckling fun.
It’s the 18th century, and the gallant Captain Vallo (Burt Lancaster) leads his band of buccaneers with honor and a Robin Hood-like valor. His crew has a neat trick, in which they play dead on their ship and wait for a vessel to pass by to salvage the seemingly derelict craft. Then they ambush them and steal the scavengers’ own loot. Rebellion against the King is now a new political standard for these pirates, and their cagey caper primarily involves gunrunning – allowing for extra pride when it proves disastrous to royalty.
Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), official envoy to his majesty and chief rebel catcher, becomes one of Vallo’s prisoners during a routine heist. The reasoning captain opts to strike a deal to ensnare El Libre, a notorious dissenter, by selling him the guns and then turning him over to Gruda. But when Vallo and his loyal friend Ojo (Nick Cravat) are captured by angry insurgents, they instead decide to walk into a King’s prison and release the legendary revolutionary themselves – for a price. Of course, love gets in the way of Vallo’s sea rover judgment and he decides to do whatever it takes to save El Libre’s beautiful daughter Consuelo (Eva Bartok).
Brightly colored, vivid, enthusiastic, and merry pirates and sailors of England are the stars of “The Crimson Pirate” – unlike the grittier Pirates of the Caribbean (as portrayed by Disney). It proudly displays almost every corsair cliché, while Lancaster and his mute henchman Ojo employ plenty of gymnastics and playful forms of comical daredevilry – the kind of physically demanding getaways Jackie Chan might use. They also constantly outwit the King’s soldiers, using fantasy escapism, similar to children outsmarting adults in a teen comedy. Some of their slapstick antics are as over-the-top as a Looney Tunes cartoon and are bloodless, sword-tucked-under-an-arm violent – made even less severe by the unlikely inclusion of a pirates-in-drag number).
Fortunately, there’s Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher, perhaps most famous for his villainous turns in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jack the Giant Killer”), a merciless, power-hungry first mate who thankfully donates a much-needed ounce of sincerity and rugged, backstabbing, cutthroat qualities to the otherwise waggish pirate image. Alternatively, confidence is Vallo’s biggest weapon against the King, his soldiers, and his seriousness. The hot-air balloon, nitro-glycerin, and submarine seem a tad out of place, but the adventuresome intentions mean well, and along with swaggering, fast-paced music by William Alwyn, “The Crimson Pirate” is a well-regarded 1950s seafaring actioner.
– Mike Massie