On DVD: Icons of Adventure

Enemies of the Empire! Sony's two-disc Icons of Adventure DVD set delivers The Stranglers of Bombay, The Terror of the Tongs, The Pirates of Blood River and The Devil-Ship Pirates -- costume thrillers from England's venerable genre studio, Hammer Films (Wikipedia), which has earned its rep with pulpy atmospherics and a colorful emphasis on violence and sadism. Two of the titles here involve Englishmen fighting sinister colonial crime conspiracies, and two are pirate movies. All four are reasonably rare, and their release is greatly appreciated by Hammer fans.

1959's The Stranglers of Bombay is a retelling of the story of the Thuggee Cult in India in the 1820s. Politically, it's one of Hammer's most interesting movies. Guy Rolfe (Mr. Sardonicus) plays Captain Harry Lewis, a British officer held in low esteem because of his concern for the native population.

What Captain Lewis's superiors in the East India Tea Company don't know is that a secret cult of Kali-worshipping stranglers has been looting the country for centuries, murdering perhaps millions of people over that time. Like an evil Mohandas Gandhi, the Thugee High Priest (George Pastell of The Mummy in a stunning performance) incites bloodlust in his followers, training them to massacre rich caravans. To please Kali, one crazed Thug interrupts his own execution, pushing away his jailers and enthusiastically hanging himself.

The Army doesn't suspect that friendly natives Patel Shari (Marne Maitland) and Lt. Silver (Paul Stassino of Thunderball) are high-ranking Thugs who terrorize their followers into blind obedience. No Indian will admit to the cult's existence. Disloyal Thugs have their eyes ripped from their heads, their tongues cut out, and their hands chopped off. Not content to show these miserable victims wallowing like pigs, director Terence Fisher adds the delicious detail of an impossibly bosomy female cultist (Marie Devereux) who enjoys watching them suffer.

Stranglers takes the pro-colonial attitude that the childish natives need the British to protect them from their own savagery. The sinister Patel Shari can barely stomach the awful mutilations he orders, but he's a cool customer when playing the innocent for the Brits. When Lewis complains that a mass grave of Thug victims has been re-designated as a cemetery, Patel replies with the incredibly relevant phrase, "Then it is a cemetery. Whoever rules decides the truth."

All the cruelty leads to the chilling spectacle of a British soldier waking to discover that practically everyone in his caravan is already dead, and that the Thugs are converging on him, silk garrotes at the ready. Lewis is captured and staked out in the hot sun, with the smiling cult girl standing watch, refusing to give him water. Then the High Priest lets loose the cobra...

The combo of sex and sadism outraged British pundits, who demanded and got changes from the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC). The censors cracked down immediately, forcing Hammer to emasculate their planned script for The Brides of Dracula. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom arrived just as the critics were looking for a movie to blame for the "collapse of decency in the film industry." It was pulled from screens almost before it was released.

Another highly recommended treatment of this same theme called The Deceivers was produced by Merchant-Ivory and starred Pierce Brosnan.

1960's The Terror of the Tongs centers on a 1910 Chinese gang called The Dragon Tong and its Hong Kong henchman Chun King (Christopher Lee, with eye makeup that makes his eyelids begin halfway down his nose). Filmed in bright color and directed by Laurence Olivier associate Anthony Bushell, Tongs is a silly, racist tale that would seem to be an allegory for Communist subversion. Based in Mainland China, the evil Tong steals cargoes, extorts money from businesses, and deals in the slave trade.

The Tong also imports opium to Hong Kong, an evil that the film forgets was commenced by the British fifty years before as a means of pacifying the natives. The Tong assassins kill with hatchets while "hopped up" on opium -- a laughable misreading of the effects of opiates. After killing anti-Tong agent Mr. Ming (Burt Kwouk, The Pink Panther's Cato), Chun King's goons inadvertently murder the daughter of sea captain Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone). They then spend the rest of their movie fumbling the relatively simple job of silencing him as well. One Tong agent supposedly wants to kill Sale, but instead blabs every detail about the Tong's activities. The film's strongest scene is when Chun King instructs his brutish torturer (Milton Reid) to stick needles into Sale's chest: "Tell me -- have you ever had your bones scraped?"

Yvonne Monlaur looks darn good as Lee, decked out in China Doll garb, her tight dress slit almost to the waist. Monlaur's French accent is so strong, when she laments that there is no city in the world where she would fit in, we immediately think Paris! Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster says it all when he has Lee tell Captain Sale that Occidentals are foolish to think that Orientals will ever be civilized.

Good actor Charles Lloyd Pack has fun playing make believe as a murderous Tong doctor, and Marne Maitland is back as a ragged dockside beggar who appears to suffer from a skin disease -- his face is crumbling away. The film's art direction is colorful but cheap, with the same multicolored bead screens hanging in several different sets.

Because of tightened censorship, the movie dials back the sadism and gore. Captain Sale solves problems with his fists, taking care not to dislodge the heavy makeup on the Anglo actors. Christopher Lee is appropriately grave but does little but sit and mumble vague threats in a monotone. Anyone trying to make a point about racist attitudes in film is given a wealth of offensive examples -- the picture presents its demeaning stereotypes proudly.

Pirates of Blood River shows Hammer trying to extend its range beyond the horror market, with Robin Hood movies, Viking movies and even some pirate pictures made on threadbare budgets. This 1962 release is noted for being a pirate movie without a pirate ship! Christopher Lee gets some good screen time as a cultured French pirate clad completely in black, including his eye patch. Hammer contract player Oliver Reed gets some attention as one of the pirate crew, as does the always-dependable Michael Ripper. Marie Devereux returns as a Huguenot maid who comes to a bad end early on, leaving the field of romance open for pout-chinned Marla Landi (The Hound of the Baskervilles). Landi wears a provocative dress hardly appropriate for a religious sect described as "French Calvinists."

The Columbia connection provides Americans Glenn Corbett and Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) as handsome but unexciting leads. All the action takes place in familiar Hammer locales like the gravel pit, where one shot uses a miniature village set to good effect. The Huguenots have fled persecution in France but we're left to deduce for ourselves that the setting must be somewhere in South America: French Guiana?

Young Jonathon Standing (Kerwin Mathews) is sent to a penal colony for his adulterous affair with the young wife of a Huguenot alderman. His own father (Andrew Keir) sets the harsh sentence. Picked up by the pirate Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee), Jonathon makes a bad bargain and delivers his community into LaRoche's hands. The pirates are convinced that the settlers are sitting on a secret treasure, which Johnathon's best friend Henry (Glenn Corbett) knows to exist -- Jonathan's father has been keeping the secret to himself.

Director John Gilling's pirates talk tough but Blood River boils down to a series of tame action scenes. When piranhas eat a couple of people some Mack the Knife-style "scarlet billows" are fairly effective (but, we are told, were censored in England). Meanwhile, we're wondering where persecuted Protestants would get so much gold, and how just six men could carry such a weight. Except for the interesting cast (including a brief glimpse of Desmond Llewelyn, James Bond's "Q") the film has some pretty forest settings and little else.

Jimmy Sangster fumbled the script for Blood River but atones with The Devil-Ship Pirates, a much more successful venture blessed with crisp direction by Don Sharp. This picture has only Christopher Lee as a starring name but his Spanish pirate character is both interesting and forceful. The studio also built a full-sized ship replica to tell the tale of privateer Captain Robeles (Lee), who puts his damaged craft Diablo ashore in England after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. To repair the ship and get on his way, he convinces a small town that Spain has won the battle, and that England is being occupied. Local nobleman Ernest Clark is quick to collaborate but the local blacksmith (Andrew Kier) and his son Harry (John Cairney of A Night to Remember) organize resistance. They find an ally in Don Manuel Rodriguez de Sevilla (Barry Warren, of The Kiss of the Vampire), a loyal Spaniard discontented with Robeles' piracy.

John Cairney's young hero is interesting because he has a lame arm from a previous fight with Spaniards. Local beauties Suzan Farmer (Dracula, Prince of Darkness) and Natasha Pyne are capable actresses outside the busty Hammer mold. The Spanish pirates all seem to have cockney accents, but the dependable Michael Ripper compensates with a spirited performance. Even though it doesn't strive for horrific effects, The Devil-Ship Pirates is a better-than-average adventure movie.

Sony's presentation of the two-disc Icons of Adventure DVD set follows up on their entertaining Sam Katzman set from last year. All of the films have excellent enhanced transfers. Stranglers is in moody B&W and the other three are in bright color. The aspect ratios are correct and original trailers are included. The rare American trailer for Stranglers ends with a startling credit for a scary-sounding process called "Strangloscope!"

On the commentary tracks author Marcus Hearn interviews writers Jimmy Sangster, David Zelag Goodman, art director Don Mingaye and editor Chris Barnes. Goodman seems content to offer weak reactions to the film he's watching, and soon drifts far off topic. The others discuss general Hammer history and other studio films besides the ones they worked on. The commentaries will be essential listening for Hammer fans already fascinated by these relative rarities.

The pirate movies are accompanied by the first double-length chapter of the thoroughly goofy Sam Katzman 1953 serial The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd. Stock shots tie together a meandering plot that consists almost exclusively of flashbacks. Merry Mutineers is a grotesque Scrappy cartoon (don't forget the "S" on the front of his name) about toy boats crewed by celebrity caricatures. They're mostly from MGM movies -- Wallace Beery, Charles Laughton -- and the short hasn't a single laugh. Over on the other disc is Hot Paprika, an Andy Clyde two-reeler about a bank clerk who goes to a South American banana republic because he thinks he has a terminal illness. The comedy is uneven but too weird to be dull. The "bonus trailers" turn out to be promos for colorized Harryhausen discs and Sony's Western Collection.

Glenn Erickson

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