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Morgan the Pirate
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Morgan the Pirate

Among the many actors who left Hollywood in the late fifties for better opportunities in the burgeoning Italian movie industry, Steve Reeves is one of the pioneers and one of the most successful. Although he had some minor roles in television shows and movies in the U.S. (he appeared in Ed Wood, Jr.'s Jail Bait [1954] and as Jane Powell's boyfriend in Athena [1954]), he reinvented himself in Italy as the muscle-bound hero of numerous sword and scandal epics (referred to as "peplum") starting with 1958's Le Fatiche di Ercole (released as Hercules in the U.S.) Distributed by enterprising showman Joseph E. Levine, who had already made a fortune on the American release version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! [1956], Hercules became an international box office smash and Reeves, the former Mr. Universe of 1950, began a ten-year run as cinema's favorite strong man with other American actors such as Gordon Scott, Gordon Mitchell and Mark Forest following in his footsteps.

While Reeves's physique was clearly his best asset, his acting talent, though extremely limited, was serviceable for the low brow fare he made for the action-adventure market. You certainly won't find any cinematic masterpieces in his filmography but some of his movies still hold an undeniable appeal for their exotic kitsch appeal and colorful art direction and Morgan the Pirate [1961] is one of his most lavish productions. Co-directed by Andre de Toth and Primo Zeglio, the film is based on the exploits of the famous Welsh buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan, who built the largest private war-fleet in history, ravaged the Cuban and American coasts in 1670 and defeated Spanish forces in the Caribbean. One of his most famous achievements was the daring capture of Panama in 1671 and although he was eventually caught and sent to England to be tried on piracy charges, he was instead proclaimed a hero and knighted. He spent his final years as the acting governor of Jamaica.

Morgan the Pirate, produced by Joseph E. Levine, plays fast and loose with the historical facts, introducing dual love interests, Dona Inez (Valerie Lagrange), the aristocratic daughter of Spanish Governor Guzman (Ivo Garrani), and Concepcion (Chelo Alonso), mistress of rival pirate L'Olonnais (Armand Mestral). The movie also presents Morgan and his scruffy, fun-loving companions as devil-may-care action heroes and avoids any suggestion that in reality they were little more than brutal criminals, raping, pillaging and committing heinous acts that would make any infamous pirate proud.

Veteran director Andre de Toth (Pitfall [1948], House of Wax [1953]) had just completed a long stint with Warner Bros. television, working on TV series such as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Bronco, The Westerner and others, and wanted a break when he received an offer to direct Morgan the Pirate. Although he had no illusions about the type of film he would be making or that it would enhance his career, de Toth saw the film as an opportunity to enjoy the good life in Italy and be paid for it...and he was right. He had such a good time, he remained there for a few years, following up Morgan the Pirate with two more costume spectacles, The Mongols [1961] and Gold for the Caesars [1963]. In order to qualify for government subsidies on these three productions, de Toth had to share screen credit with other Italian directors even though he was the actual director but he didn't mind. In fact he viewed this chapter in his life with both amusement and cynicism in his biography Fragments: "With the enormous world-wide success of Hercules with Steve Reeves, a legion of steroid pumped-up American strong men invaded Italy and roamed the jungle led by a new breed, the so called 'fly-by-night' producers who sneaked onto and pirated other productions' sets at night and - if they weren't caught and chased off in a few hours - actually finished their epics. Tatars met the Vikings, chasing girls, and if it was nudey enough, they were successful. Blood covered the incredibility...Rome became the film capitol of the world and Italy the international tax dodgers' heaven, where tax evasion always had been considered an honorable sport."

De Toth doesn't mention Joseph E. Levine by name, but his mention of 'fly-by-night' producers could easily apply to the self-made mogul whose shark-like business dealings and often crude behavior are as legendary as infamous Hollywood despots such as Harry Cohn. Reeves had first hand knowledge of Levine's exploitive nature ever since the first Hercules film. In an interview with Roy Frumkes in The Perfect Vision Magazine, Reeves recalled one memorable confrontation with Levine: "On Morgan, if the picture did over a certain amount at the box office, I would get an extra $50,000. The picture made well over what it was supposed to, and he wouldn't come up with the money. So I sued him, and in the pre-trial his lawyer advised him to pay me, so I got what I was owed from him that way. Then he came to Rome and threw a big party in his suite at the Excelsior Hotel. And he served something like spaghetti and meatballs. Now in show business you have to protect yourself, and what I always did, for prestige, would be to have my name above all other names, 70 percent the size of the film's title. Otherwise they could put it at the bottom under 20 other names, at 10 percent the size of the title. So I did that...Joe Levine wanted his name as big as mine or bigger, and I said, 'No way. You made the contract, I'm the star of this picture.' So he got ticked off and threw his spaghetti up in the air, and it was hanging off the crystal chandelier. If he didn't get everything his way, he got angry."

Largely due to de Toth's direction, Morgan the Pirate is a lively, fast-paced entertainment with moments of tongue-in-cheek humor that is several notches in quality above the usual turgid, Italian-made spectacle. The striking cinematography, filmed in garish Eastmancolor, is by the award-winning Tonino Delli Colli who has lensed such art house classics as Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew [1964], Marco Bellocchio's China Is Near [1967], and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]. And the amusing, Ravel-inspired score by Franco Mannino strikes the perfect mock-epic tone. Among the more memorable set pieces are an exotic voodoo dance performed by Cuban sex bomb Chelo Alonso (a former dancer at the Folies Bergeres in Paris), a battle at sea in which Morgan's men, disguised as women, storm a Spanish galleon in full drag, and the bloody, climactic sacking of Panama with shootings, stabbings and explosions galore.

Hollywood has yet to make the definitive screen biography of Sir Henry Morgan but his legend obviously inspired author Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk) to model his fictional hero Captain Blood after him. Sabatini's 1922 novel became the basis for several film adaptations including a 1924 version starring J. Warren Kerrigan, the 1935 remake with Errol Flynn (and the most famous), Andre Hunebelle's 1960 rendition with Jean Marais, and various spinoffs such as Fortunes of Captain Blood [1950] and The Son of Captain Blood [1962], featuring Sean Flynn, son of Errol, in his father's famous role.

Producer: Joseph E. Levine
Directors: Andre De Toth, Primo Zeglio
Screenplay: Filippo Sanjust, Andre De Toth, Primo Zeglio
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Franco Mannino
Film Editing: Maurizio Lucidi
Cast: Steve Reeves (Henry Morgan), Valerie Lagrange (Dona Inez), Ivo Garrani (Governor Don Jose Guzman), Lydia Alfonsi (Dona Maria), Giulio Bosetti (Sir Thomas Modyford), Angelo Zanolli (David), Giorgio Ardisson (Walter), Dino Malacrida (Duke), Concepcion (Chelo Alonso).
C-95m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Fragments: Portraits From the Inside by Andre de Toth (Faber & Faber)
de Toth on de Toth: Putting the Drama in Front of the Camera - A Conversation with Anthony Slide (Faber and Faber)
"Steve Reeves Interview" by Roy Frumkes from www.drkrm.com/reeves.html
The Hollywood History of the World by George MacDonald Fraser (Fawcett Columbine)
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