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Pirates of Tripoli

Pirates of Tripoli(1955)

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teaser Pirates of Tripoli (1955)

"From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli..." So goes the Marine Hymn, a song we've all heard, even sung perhaps, since childhood, but whose references we may not quite understand. The "shores of Tripoli" line actually refers to the First Barbary War, specifically the 1805 Battle of Derne, in which a detachment of U.S. Marines and soldiers, leading a number of Muslim mercenaries, fought the first decisive battle against Tripoli to counter the scourge of piracy against merchant ships in the Mediterranean perpetrated by that North African state and others.

Those facts have little or no bearing on this 1955 Columbia release, which turns the historical existence of the titular pirates into a fanciful swashbuckler that bears more resemblance to some Arabian Nights fantasy. In fact, the pirates here are the heroes, notably in the form of Paul Henreid, who as pirate captain helps the beauteous Princess Karjan of Misurata (played by Spanish-British actress Patricia Medina, future wife of actor Joseph Cotten) regain her throne from usurper Malek, Bey of Tunis. It all happens apparently long before the war between Tripoli and the United States (in fact, before the United States, period), although that doesn't stop the filmmakers from including such anachronisms as a guillotine and a dagger-firing pistol that operates on compressed air.

Paul Henreid had seen better days in his acting career, at his high point in the 1940s romancing the likes of Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942, creating the immortal gesture of lighting two cigarettes at once) and Deception (1946), playing the object of the rivalry between the Bronte sisters in Devotion (1946), and making the world safe for democracy in Casablanca (1942). As he hit his 40s, he began taking on the kind of roles usually associated with swashbucklers like Errol Flynn or Stewart Granger, playing his first pirate, the famous Jean Lafitte, in Last of the Buccaneers (1950). Prior to Pirates of Tripoli, he had his first taste of Arabian Nights-style adventure with Thief of Damascus (1952) and Siren of Bagdad (1953), his first pairing with Medina, once again playing a deposed princess with an axe to grind.

Patricia Medina had the kind of dark beauty that, typical of Hollywood at that time, frequently got her typecast as exotics in bodice-ripping romantic adventures, among them Fortunes of Captain Blood (1950) and its sequel Captain Pirate (1952), as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and His Lamp (1952), and a female take on the Dumas story in Lady in the Iron Mask (1952).

Producer Sam Katzman had a penchant for these kinds of stories, as well as the cheapie jungle adventures that earned him the nickname "Jungle Sam." He produced at least nine pictures with either the word pirates in the title or pirate characters involved in the story, and he was also responsible for several Arabian Nights type stories, including some of the aforementioned Patricia Medina movies and a musical spoof of the genre for Elvis Presley, Harum Scarum (1965). In the 1950s, Katzman also turned his attention to sci-fi movies and the occasional teen music film, the most notable being Rock Around the Clock (1956).

The cheapness of the production is evident in the way it cannibalized other movies for a sizable portion of its elements. The score was cobbled together by Columbia music director Mischa Bakaleinikoff from stock music written by nine other composers. Much of the action footage was borrowed from earlier Katzman swashbucklers, primarily the pirate flick The Golden Hawk (1952), which may explain the wide variety of costumes sported by the warring factions.

The cinematography is by one of Katzman's favorite technicians, Henry Freulich, who worked on nearly three dozen of the producer's pictures.

After this movie, Henreid went on to more notable projects, including a successful directing career, mostly on television but also in feature films, among them the thriller Dead Ringer (1964), starring his former leading lady Bette Davis.

Director: Felix E. Feist
Producer: Sam Katzman
Screenplay: Allen March
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Editing: Edwin H. Bryant
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Cast: Paul Henried (Edri Al-Gadrian), Patricia Medina (Princess Karjan), Paul Newlan (Hammid Khassan), John Miljan (Malek), Mark Hanna (Ben Ali), Lilian Bond (Sono).

By Rob Nixon

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