Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Invitation to a Keelhauling

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Invitation to a Keelhauling

Pirates of Tortuga (USA, 1961)

Once upon a time, back in the mid-20th century, pirate movies were a genre unto themselves, like Westerns, gangster films, or jungle adventures, familiar fare at Saturday matinees with rollicking stories and reliable action, with cutlass duels and fiery ship battles. Though the genre dwindled and then died by the late ‘60s, it evoked fond memories and was regularly revived thereafter in big-budget epics that were mostly too overblown and bloated for their own good.

Fortunately, the original modest but tight buccaneering adventures the blockbusters attempted to evoke are still available to watch and enjoy. Some of them hold up pretty well even in the 21st century, and you can see why they struck a chord with movie audiences back in cinematic piracy’s heyday.

Raiders of the Seven Seas (USA, 1953)

Raiders of the Seven Seas

Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1953
Director: Sidney Salkow
Source: MGM DVD

Pirate Captain Barbarossa (John Payne), in service to the Sultan of Morocco, gets too frisky in the harem and escapes just ahead of the headsman. He captures a Spanish slave ship by freeing the enslaved convicts and sails it to the Caribbean, where he accepts French letters of marque so he can harry the Spaniards further. (They were mean to him in his backstory.)

Putting the freed slaves into phony breakaway irons, Barbarossa brings them into Tortuga to “sell,” and then frees them again and takes Tortuga away from the Spanish — in the process capturing the haughty Countess Alida (Donna Reed), the port’s acting governor. (No, really.) Barbarossa falls for the countess, which gives her the opportunity to escape to her rotten Spanish fiancé — but she’ll be sorry she did. Crosses and double crosses ensue.

This is pretty entertaining for an indie-produced Hollywood B-picture, a bit sloppy here and there but overall quite solid. Donna Reed takes the acting prize, summoning her inner spitfire to try to measure up to her role model Maureen O’Hara. John Payne is rather stiff, not looking as comfortable here as he did in his Western and detective flicks, except when he goes into disguise as a one-eyed sea dog out to collect a ransom — really, he would have made a decent character actor. Speaking of which, good ol’ Lon Chaney himself appears as a peglegged mate named (what else?) “Pegleg.”

The fencing is decent, the color cinematography is good, the mocking and merciless Spaniards get what’s coming to them, and if the ship models are a trifle cheesy and the cannons the pirates haul ashore to assault Havana with seem to be painted balsa wood, well, we can shrug it off just this once, eh, matey?

Pirates of Tortuga (USA, 1961)

Pirates of Tortuga

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1961
Director: Robert D. Webb
Source: Twentieth Century Fox DVD

Ex-pirate Henry Morgan, though appointed Governor of Jamaica by the British Crown, has returned to piracy and relocated to the island of Tortuga. (The real Morgan totally never did that, but whatever.) In London, the Admiralty calls in privateer captain Bart Paxton (Ken Scott) and charges him with taking Morgan down, though it must be done so as not to violate the new treaty with Spain. But before leaving London, Captain Bart saves spunky street thief Meg (Letícia Román) from being hanged for petty theft, so she stows away aboard his ship.

Ready for action? Not yet, sorry. The movie’s next hour is spent on the adventures of Meg, a petite blonde with a broad, mischievous smile, as she tries to seduce Captain Bart, then his officers, and then the new Governor of Jamaica. It’s supposed to be funny and charming, and Román does her best, but frankly nobody here is sharp enough to make it work.

Then we’re finally into the pirate action as Captain Bart schemes to defeat Morgan, with ship captures and impostures, but that’s not convincing either. The script kind of wants Bart and his lads to be dangerous buccaneers but at the same time to be clean-cut and square-jawed American heroes, and it never makes up its mind. (Oh, another thing: everybody in this film who’s pretending to be English isn’t English at all but instead all too obviously American or Italian.)

Alas, Robert Stephens’ sadly epicene portrayal of Henry Morgan just makes things worse — it’s impossible to take him seriously. Hasn’t he seen the guy on the rum bottles? Moreover, Captain Bart’s scheme to capture Tortuga from Morgan is easily the Worst Plan Ever, so it’s no surprise when it goes wrong and he ends up in irons. The only thing less believable is the way Meg turns up and saves him with nothing but a smile. Shoals ahead, mates — steer clear!

The Adventurer of Tortuga (Italy, 1965)

The Adventurer of Tortuga (or Cold Steel for Tortuga)

Rating: ***
Origin: Italy, 1965
Director: Luigi Capuano
Source: 4001 DVD

Piracy, Italian style! Rakish Captain Pedro Valverde (Rik Battaglia) and his crew are buccaneers in the Caribbean in the late 18th century, past the peak of the great age of piracy. (Their costumes all say it’s a hundred years earlier than that, but never mind, they’re good costumes.) The crew is trying to raise enough gold to take Tortuga back from the Spanish, and Valverde’s dubious method of money-making is to pose as a Spanish grandee smitten by a nobleman’s daughter, propose marriage, and then escape with the dowry before the nuptials are concluded.

This is supposed to be roguishly amusing, but sorry, nope. The scheme goes badly wrong when Valverde’s latest target, Soledad Quintero (Ingeborg Schöner), also happens to be the intended romantic prey of a rival, Governor Montélimar (Guy Madison). The wicked governor is after the young lady’s hidden treasure — because the half-Native American Soledad is a princess of the fabled tribe of Darien.

This is a light comedy swashbuckler that aspires to the tone and quality of a Disney live-action adventure, and it comes close to the mark. The pirates are all good-hearted rogues, certainly better than that ruthless scoundrel of a governor, and though there’s lots of fighting, it’s all family-friendly and bloodless. One of the pirates uses a bolas, another a bullwhip, which becomes sort of a theme, as the governor promises that one day the whip will be in his hand.

Battaglia as Valverde is handsome, charming, and active, but my favorite sea dog here is his dour and stone-faced quartermaster, Pen (Giulio Battiferri), who lurks grimly in the back of every mêlée, cracking the heads of Spaniards who get too close without ever changing his expression. A total hero.

This film’s story was “suggested” by one of the lesser-known tales of Emilio Salgari, an Italian author who wrote as many as 200 adventure novels from the 1890s through the 1920s; as beloved on the European continent as Rafael Sabatini or the earlier Alexandre Dumas, Salgari wrote mostly about pirates, or about colonial adventurers who might as well have been called that. The screenplay was written by the director, Luigi Capuano, who’d made several other Salgari films based on the author’s Sandokan series.

Taken on its own mild terms, the film is a success: the story checks all the piracy boxes, the acting is adequate, the costumes and sets are better than average, the buccaneers have a catchy song, and the final showdown between Valverde and the governor is, I think, the only double-bullwhip duel in the entire Cinema of Swords. Crackin’!

The compiled Cinema of Swords is coming your way June 15th from Applause Books. Keep a weather eye out for it!

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

For the Horde!
The Princess Bride Redeems the 80s
Samurai Stocking Stuffers
Moonraker! (No, Not That One)
Cinema of Swords Book Announcement!
Fury of the Norsemen
Samurai With a Twist
The Barbarian Boom, Part 7
Avenging Women
Mondo Mifune
Near Misses in the Near East
Zatoichi at Large

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the sixth volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the seventh, Devil’s Dance, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s a Narrative Design Expert for Larian Studios, writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Many years ago – back in the 70s – I watched a film about Rimsky-Korsakov. No idea what it was called but Hollywood had the idea that Rimsky’s naval service and a love affair became the inspiration for his Scheherazade. The film was godawful and extremely boring. It was alleviated by a fight between Rimsky and some villain or other with big bull whips.

John E. Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords??? Pirates? Who doesn’t like pirates?

I don’t think I’ve seen any of these movies, but the one with Donna Reed looks decent. Waiting for the book to hit the shelves. Here’s hoping it is the success you deserve.

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