Monday, 29 August 2016

Against All Flags (1952)

Against All Flags, made by Universal in 1952,  is one of Errol Flynn’s later swashbucklers. And an Errol Flynn pirate movie is always worth a watch.

This one starts with Flynn being flogged. We soon find out that the flogging is voluntary. Lieutenant Brian Hawke (Flynn) has volunteered to infiltrate the notorious nest of pirates in Madagascar. The flogging is necessary to make it seem convincing that Hawke would jump ship to join the pirates.

Hawke manages, albeit with some difficulty, to persuade the pirates that he really is a legitimate cut-throat and deserter. He is given the post of navigator on the ship of Captain Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn). Brasiliano is delighted when they encounter what promises to be a very rich prize. It’s the personal vessel of the emperor of India, the Great Moghul himself. Hawke tries to persuade him that capturing this ship would be a very very bad idea. The Honourable East India Company would devote the whole of its very considerable resources to hunting down anyone who performed such a rash act. They would have to do this to placate the Great Moghul or the whole British position in India would be in peril. In 1700, when this movie is set, India was not part of the British Empire  but was dominated commercially by a private company, the aforementioned Honourable East India Company (generally known as John Company).

In fact capturing this ship would be an even worse idea that even Hawke imagines. Among the ladies of the harem on board is Princess Patma (Alice Kelley), the daughter of the Great Moghul. If any harm were to come to her all hell would break loose. The princess has the habit of threatening to have anyone who annoys her flung into the cobra pit and she’s not kidding. She not only has the power to do this, she’d be quite wiling to do so.

Hawke manages to save the princess’s life but he can’t save her from the slave market to which Captain Brasiliano, more than a little unwisely, intends to consign all the young ladies he has captured. Hawke’s position is made more awkward by the fact that the princess has taken quite a shine to him. This is especially awkward since Hawke needs to ingratiate himself with the fiery red-headed Spitfire Stevens (Maureen O’Hara).

Spitfire is one of the infamous Captains of the Coast - the high council of the Madagascar pirates. She doesn’t actually take to the high seas as a pirate but she owns her own pirate ship and makes a very comfortable living from the proceeds of piracy. Captain Brasiliano has been pursuing her for some time, without much success. He’s naturally inclined to resent Hawke as a formidable romantic rival. Spitfire is most certainly interested in Hawke but she’s quick-tempered and ferociously jealous and is obviously going to cause Hawke some major problems.

Hawke’s task is to find a way to neutralise the formidable defences of this pirate’s nest so that a British man-of-war currently lurking just over the horizon can sail into the harbour and clean out this troublesome lair of cut-throats and desperadoes. Since he also has to find a way to rescue the princess and win the hand of Spitfire he has quite a lot on his plate.

By this time Flynn’s riotous lifestyle was starting to catch up to him. He was 43 but looked ten years older. In fact he looks just a little too old, and a little too tired, for this kind of role. There’s nothing really wrong with his performance but the sparkle and the devil-may-care nonchalance of his earlier swashbucklers like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk is no longer quite there. Fortunately Anthony Quinn and Maureen O’Hara are on hand to take up the slack, which they do with considerable style.

Quinn is deliciously over-the-top as the villainous Captain Roc Brasiliano. In fact the problem is that Quinn is just a bit too good - he totally steals the picture and even though he’s the villain we can’t help wanting him to win.

O’Hara gives a lively and rambunctious performance as the notorious Spitfire Stevens. 

Which brings us to one of the difficulties Hollywood faced when making pirate movies. Pirates are by definition criminals and the Production Code mandated that criminals could not be allowed to succeed or to escape punishment for their crimes. This meant that somehow or other the hero had to be a bold and daring pirate but at the same time be an honest law-abiding citizen. This was no problem with Captain Blood since Rafael Sabatini’s novel dealt with a legitimate hero forced very unwillingly into piracy. This was the kind of device that had to be shoe-horned into every pirate movie. The hero of Against All Flags presents no great difficulties in this respect since he’s more or less an undercover agent posing as a pirate and we know from the start that he’s on the side of law and order. It does however mean that he comes across as being possibly just a bit treacherous - he does win the trust of the pirates and then betray that trust.

It presents more of a difficulty with Spitfire Stevens. She’s the heroine but she’s very much a pirate. We also know that she’s somewhat inclined to violence - she’s killed at least one man in a duel and as one of the Captains of the Coast she has undoubtedly condemned more than a few men to death. Not to mention the fact that she’s a willing participant in slave-dealing. Making her the virtuous heroine was quite a challenge and it doesn’t quite come off. By 1952 the Production Code was starting to loosen up a bit. I suspect that five years earlier Universal would have had some real problems with the Production Code Authority over this character, especially since she doesn’t display much remorse for her piratical career. Actually she doesn’t display any remorse at all.

The necessity for the criminal pirates to be shown as the bad guys also presents a problem when the chief villain, Captain Roc Brasiliano, is a lot more fun than the hero. Of course villains are often more fun than the hero but in this case he’s a fairly sympathetic villain, arguably a more sympathetic character than the hero.

This movie has had several DVD releases, most notably as part of Universal’s four-movie Pirates of the Golden Age boxed set (which also includes the rather entertaining Buccaneer’s Girl).

Against All Flags is not one of the great pirate movies, certainly not in the same league as Captain Blood, but it provides a pleasing and fairly consistently entertaining mix of action and romance. Recommended.

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