The Scarlet Blade dates from 1964, a time when Hammer Films was trying (with mixed success) to establish itself as a producer of adventure movies. This one has an English Civil War setting and it illustrates quite well both the strengths and weaknesses of Hammer’s attempts in this genre.
Hammer’s big problem with adventure films was that they could not possibly afford the spectacular action sequences that the genre requires. They solved this problem (not entirely satisfactorily) in The Brigand from Kandahar by extensive use of footage from other films. Their solution in the case of The Scarlet Blade was rather different.
The problem with an English Civil War movie is that it’s going to require exactly the sorts of large-scale battle scenes that were entirely outside Hammer’s budget. So the movie is set in the aftermath of the Civil War, in 1648. The King has been defeated and is on the run from the victorious Parliamentary forces. This will raise another problem - the movie is told from the Royalist point of view with the Parliamentarians as the bad guys. And the main objective of the Royalist heroes is to free the king. But the Royalists lost (in the short term anyway) and anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the history of these times knows that the King was executed in 1649. So the heroes are on the losing side and we already know that they were doomed to failure as far as their principal objective was concerned.
That means that the setup more or less guarantees a rather dark movie. That’s fine for a gothic horror movie but for an adventure movie it’s a rather bold choice. Yet another difficulty is that such a movie requires a focus of evil - not necessarily as a character in the movie but at least as a behind-the-scenes presence. For a pro-Royalist movie set in this period the obvious choice is Cromwell, but Cromwell did not become Lord-Protector (and virtual dictator) of England until 1653. This movies resolves that difficulty very easily by simply ignoring history. In the movie Cromwell is already Lord-Protector in 1648.
Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) is an officer in Cromwell’s New Model Army. He has been appointed military governor of an area that is still largely Royalist in sympathies and is rife with Royalist guerillas. Even worse, the King himself (or as Judd and his fellow officers prefer to refer to him, The Traitor Charles Stuart) is in hiding in this district. Judd’s mission is to crush Royalist opposition to Cromwell and to capture the King.
What Judd doesn’t know is that one of the leaders of Royalist opposition is his own daughter, Claire (June Thorburn). Judd himself is a turncoat - a Royalist officer who switched allegiance to the Parliamentarian cause, an action for which his daughter despises him. It seems likely that the ambitious Judd was motivated primarily by self-interest but he is now Cromwell’s man and is zealous in his cause.
The leading Royalist trouble-maker in the district is a man known as the Scarlet Blade. Judd suspects, quite correctly, that the Scarlet Blade is a scion of the Beverley family, a family of noted Royalist sympathies now proscribed by the Lord-Protector. Claire’s intention is to join forces with the Scarlet Blade.
Complicating matters for both Colonel Judd and his daughter is Judd’s right-hand man, Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed). Sylvester appears to be a zealous Cromwellian but he is in love with Claire and tells her he would cheerfully change sides for her sake. Which he does, but how far can he be trusted? When the final reckoning comes with the Scarlet Blade, which side will he actually choose? And of course Claire falls in love with the Scarlet Blade, setting up the necessary romantic triangle.
The major weakness of this movie is that the villains are much more interesting than the heroes. Jack Hedley as the Scarlet Blade is adequate but he is completely overshadowed by Oliver Reed. And Reed has the advantage of playing a much more interesting and complex character. Oliver Reed’s performance is one of the best he gave for Hammer - he’s clearly interested in the role and he avoids the cheerful hamminess and scenery-chewing he so often indulged in in Hammer films. It’s a restrained performance and we see flashes of the brilliance and unexpected depths that he would display at the peak of his career in the late 60s and early 70s.
Colonel Judd is also much more interesting than his daughter. June Thorburn’s acting is entirely competent but she’s playing a straightforward heroine while Lionel Jeffries (relishing the opportunity to play a sinister non-comedy role) gets to play a villain tortured by divided loyalties - if he succeeds in his appointed task he will have to destroy his own daughter, and Claire is the one person he cares deeply about (apart from Colonel Judd).
These could be fatal weaknesses but since writer-director John Gilling is trying to make a dark film they become strengths.
Michael Ripper is present of course, but he doesn’t play an innkeeper. He plays a gypsy who is assisting the Royalist guerillas, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity to overact outrageously. He’s entirely unconvincing as a gypsy but he’s a great deal of fun and he provides some much-needed lightness in an otherwise surprisingly grim adventure film.
Since the action and battle scenes are all very small-scale affairs the low budget is not a great problem. The costumes look splendid (Oliver Reed looking very dashing in uniform) and Bernard Robinson’s production design gives us a rather handsome film. With the very competent Jack Asher handling the cinematography the movie is visually fairly impressive.
This is the adventure film as tragedy but given the commercial realities of the day it can’t be unrelentingly grim so we get a nicely mixed ending, a blend of tragedy and at least some hope.
A surprisingly interesting offering from Hammer which I thoroughly enjoyed and which I recommend. And the DVD release from Studio Canal offers a superb anamorphic transfer.