16th century England: a pirate ship fighting with the Spanish Armada is damaged and needs to dock for repairs. The devious Captain Robeles convinces the gullible villagers that the English have been defeated and that they must acquiesce to their new leaders …
The clever script by Jimmy Sangster offers a reversal of a similar plot device found in Hammer’s earlier war film, The Camp of Blood Island. Whereas the earlier film dealt with a group of POWs trying to prevent their Japanese captors from discovering that the Allies have won the war in order to prevent being wiped out in retaliation, here the pirates trade on the villagers being cut off from society by telling them that they have won the battle and are therefore now in charge. As usual for Sangster, there isn’t a tremendous amount of depth to the characters, but they serve their function effectively enough as archetypes. Robles is a properly dastardly villain, while village lad Harry fulfills the role of hero with a rebellious streak.
The film benefits from solid production values and expert direction from Don Sharp. Sharp was well known for his ability to stage action scenes and this is certainly evident here. He also makes excellent use of the widescreen frame and the lighting by the gifted Michael Reed helps to sell the illusion of this being a bigger film than it really was. Bernard Robinson’s sets and the art direction by Don Mingaye is up to their normal standards of excellence, too, though Gary Hughes score feels a bit limp and generic.
Like so many Hammer films, the film succeeds in large part due to the quality of its acting. Christopher Lee is every bit as impressive here as he was in The Pirates of Blood River. Robeles is comparatively suave and fiery, befitting both the actor and the character’s Latin disposition. Lee effortlessly dominates the film, throwing away sinister bon mots of dialogue without resorting to melodramatic overstatement. He also gets plenty of opportunities to show off his facility with sword fighting. The supporting cast includes good roles for such reliable character actors as Andrew Keir, Philip Latham, Duncan Lamont and Michael Ripper.
Ripper may not be the most ideal casting for a Spanish pirate imaginable, but he and Lee have great chemistry and he makes for an endearingly impish presence. Keir’s role isn’t nearly as memorable as his character in Blood River, but he brings considerable presence to it, just the same, while Latham proves to be as effective in aympathetic role as he would be in a more sinister context as Lee’s faithful servant, Klove, in Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965).
The hero is played by John Cairney, but he can’t hope to compete with Lee in terms of presence and charisma. More interesting is Barry Warren, fresh off of playing a memorably arch vampire in Sharp’s The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), who brings a dash of sympathy to his role as the Spanish nobleman who crosses swords (literally and figuratively) with the despotic Robeles.
The female side is represented by Suzan Farmer, as the village girl that Robeles sets his lecherous sights on, and a young Natasha Pyne, who is memorable as Harry’s spunky sister, Jane. Farmer, of course, would be reunited with Lee on Dracula Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966), while Pyne would go on to co-star with Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry in the Amicus/AIP hodgepodge Madhouse (1972).
The Devil-Ship Pirates did solid business but Hammer would move away from films of this sort, perhaps because they required a little more production value than their usual stage bound Gothic horrors. Part of the decision may have stemmed from the fact that Hammer constructed a mock up ship for the film which proved to be problematic, to say the least. The money spent is all on screen, however, ensuring that the film holds up as a fun slice of Saturday matinee entertainment.
Written by Troy Howarth
Images and Design: Marcus Brooks