Pirates of Blood River is one of two pirate movies that Christopher Lee starred in for Hammer in the early 60s. Sadly it’s not one of Hammer’s finest moments.
It seems to take place in South America somewhere, in a remote colony known as the Isle of Devon founded by Huguenot refugees from religious oppression. Rather ironic since this community is about as religiously oppressive a community as could be imagined. A young man, Jonathon Standing, has been carrying on a clandestine love affair with the wife of one of the elders. The affair is discovered, with fatal consequences for the woman. The young man is the son of the leader of the community so he gets off lightly - he only gets sentenced to fifteen years hard labour in a penal settlement!
He escapes and encounters a group of pirates. The leader of the pirates, Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee), seems like a friendly decent sort of chap. He persuades poor Jonathon (who is good-hearted but rather naïve) that his intentions towards the people of the Isle of Devon are entirely peaceful. Jonathon volunteers to lead the pirates to the township. But those dastardly buccaneers turn out not to be so friendly after all! And Captain LaRoche is convinced that the original settlers of the Isle of Devon a hundred years earlier had brought a fabulous treasure with them from Europe.
There are several problems with this movie. One is the budget. Hammer were generally good at making a low-budget movie look a lot more expensive that it really was but this time it doesn’t work. The lack of a pirate ship in a pirate movie is bad enough but the attempts at spectacular action scenes fall very flat. It’s summed up rather well by the scene where the pirates emerge onto a hilltop overlooking the stockaded township and the leader of the townsfolk exclaims, “There must be at least thirty of them!” Cut to the hill, where there are at most a dozen pirates.
The other problem is the script. It’s full of good ideas that are never developed. At the beginning we see a community divided against itself, with one faction supporting a rigid and puritanical enforcement of biblical law while the other would like to see a relaxation of this oppressive atmosphere. There are real possibilities here for this division to be exploited by the pirates and to provide some real dramatic interest, but nothing is done with it.
The setting of father and son against each other has similar possibilities, and again nothing really happens.
There’s also the fat that the hero’s love interest is devoured by piranhas in the first five minutes of the movie, so there’s no romantic sub-plot to provide a focus for the audience’s sympathies.
A basic problem with all Hammer movies is that they always adhered rigidly to the principle that the bad guys must be destroyed and good must triumph. Since you know how the movie is going to end it’s vital that the plot provides a few distractions and a few twists along the way. The best Hammer movies manage to do this and are able to overcome the limitations of the evil-must-be-vanquished principle. Pirates of Blood River provides plenty of missed opportunities in this respect.
The excellent cast are left with too little to work with. Andrew Keir as Jonathon Standing’s father is somewhat wasted, a great pity because he was always good at playing crazed clergymen. Oliver Reed as one of the pirates gets drunk and gets into a couple of fights but it’s not a role that stretches his abilities very much. Christopher Lee looks very dashing with his eyepatch but LaRoche remains a two-dimensional character.
It’s by no means an awful movie and it’s a harmless enough way to kill an hour and a half but definitely not vintage Hammer.
Pirates of Blood River is part of the Hammer Icons of Adventure DVD set.