The Crimson Pirate
Cast & Crew
In the eighteenth century Caribbean, Capt. Vallo, known as the "Crimson Pirate," captures a Spanish galleon bearing the king's emissary, Baron Gruda, along with guns and ammunition intended to suppress a people's rebellion on the islands. Vallo's men are disappointed to find there is no gold in the booty, but Vallo schemes to sell the guns to the rebel leader, El Libre, and instead of killing Gruda, turn El Libre in to him for an additional ransom. The first mate, Mr. Humble Bellows, balks, as these dealings seem too legitimate and therefore undignified for a pirate. Nevertheless, Vallo's crew sails for the Isle of Cobra to find El Libre. Vallo and his mute sidekick Ojo go ashore and find Pablo Murphy, who they suspect is part of the rebellion, and when he is unwilling to trust them, they prove their loyalty by brawling with the king's soldiers. After Pablo helps them escape, they introduce themselves and try to strike a bargain, but the rebels take them prisoner intending to hold them hostage for the guns. Vallo and Ojo are freed with the help of El Libre's daughter Consuelo, but she requires in return that they help her free El Libre, who is imprisoned on the island of San Perro. With Vallo posing as Gruda, they sail to San Perro on the stolen Spanish galleon and request, in the name of the king, that El Libre be transferred to them. The governor, eager to socialize with a new face, invites Vallo to dinner, so Vallo, Consuelo and Ojo go ashore, but after dinner, they are recognized by a dancing girl, whom the pirates had previously caught. Vallo and his cohorts make a hasty exit and escape with El Libre and Elihu Prudence, a scientist imprisoned as a traitor. Vallo finds himself attracted to Consuelo, who is grateful to him, until Bellows discloses Vallo's plan to turn them over to Gruda. Vallo tries to sneak Consuelo, El Libre and Prudence off the ship, but Bellows, who considers such gallantry beneath the dignity of a pirate, stirs up a mutiny. Vallo, Ojo and Prudence are chained in a small boat to die on the sea, but with the help of Prudence's scientific knowledge, manage to get to shore. Meanwhile, Gruda, who has been double-crossing Vallo with Bellows, captures El Libre and Consuelo, and then double-crosses Bellows by ordering the soldiers to overtake the ships and imprison the pirates in a net. On shore, Gruda announces that Vallo is dead and forces Consuelo to marry the governor or see her father killed. For a wedding present, the peasants are ordered to fill a barn with grain. However, Vallo rallies the people for an attack, while Prudence sets to work making nitroglycerin and other inventions that he has read about in theoretical treatises. On the day of the wedding, the governor is told that it is the custom of the people to hold a folk ceremony. Vallo, Ojo and Prudence, dressed as peasant girls, try to walk up to the podium and free Consuelo, but El Libre unexpectedly arrives armed and accidentally blows their cover. Vallo, Ojo and Prudence escape to a barn, where a hot air balloon, designed by Prudence, is hidden and follow Gruda as he escapes to the king's ship with Consuelo. Vallo and Ojo then jump onto the pirate ship and free the pirates. Knowing that the king's men will soon shoot them broadside, the pirates sneak off their own ship and swim toward the king's ship, excepting Bellows, who elects to die like a pirate. After Gruda destroys the pirate ship and his men relax in celebration, the pirates jump aboard and overtake them. Vallo rescues Consuelo from Gruda's clutches, and soon after, Prudence shows up in a submarine that he designed, but it is not needed, as Vallo and his men have already won the battle.
H. J. Hodges
A. E. Rudolph
The Crimson Pirate
But Depp's Jack Sparrow can't hold a yardarm to Lancaster's Captain Vallo. It wasn't just that Lancaster was the hunk di tutti hunks of the 1950s. It was the genial way in which he dispensed his hunkiness. Blond, blue-eyed, muscular, smiling warmly, he immediately marches off in the direction of the film's shrewd decision not to take itself at all seriously. Thus this most winning of pirate movies also lampoons the pirate movie genre when Lancaster, in a brief spoken introduction to the film's labyrinthine 1770s Caribbean intrigue, tells us to believe only what we see, than adds with a wink, to believe only half of what we see. It's a liberating wink. For us, and certainly for him. And British composer William Alwyn launches it with an overture that puts plenty of wind in its sails.
Unlike other A-list stars, Lancaster, one of five children of an East Harlem postal worker, came to film by way of the circus. He was an acrobat, and a good enough one to make it look easy as he smilingly swings, somersaults and tumbles through ship's riggings and the cramped streets of coastal towns. He brought with him his real-life circus partner, pint-sized Nick Cravat, and they operate with the smooth give and take of men who have spent years relying on each others' hands to be there to catch them at the end of their daring mid-air leaps. Cravat's mute sidekick, Ojo, is an homage to Fairbanks's inclusion of a similar character. Naturally, Vallo's and Ojo's earthbound (and deckbound) enemies haven't a chance against them as the film at many points turns into a reprise of their circus act.
Lancaster and his old partner made nine films together, the most popular being The Crimson Pirate and The Flame and the Arrow (1950), which spoofed medieval adventures. He kept Cravat on his payroll for life, as trainer as well as co-star. Given that nothing works better than motion in motion pictures, they supplied it in abundance, dazzling us with their gymnastics while somehow keeping it all mostly comical. Because Cravat's character in both films is mute, the belief persisted that he really was. Actually, Cravat was given no lines because his thick Brooklyn accent wouldn't have accommodated them. He deserves his second billing here. Every time the film threatens to sag, on he barrels to support the agile Lancaster in his determination that from stem to stern, from yardarm to quarterdeck, no pirate film would deliver more bounce to the ounce.
The supporting players are plusses, too, starting when the larcenous Captain Vallo is diverted from his usual looting and pillaging to help liberate the islanders from the royal government bleeding it dry. To clinch the deal, he manfully falls for red-headed Eva Bartok, the would-be liberator's daughter. Torin Thatcher is a standout as the imposing gravel-voiced rebel on board the pirate ship, and while the likes of Dana Wynter and Christopher Lee are relegated to tiny roles, Noel Purcell and Frederick Leicester throw themselves into the roles of freedom fighters. It all spirals into inspired absurdity when the pirates join forces with a plump visionary scientist (James Hayter) who invents modern warfare in a few days, blasting the island free of the royal clutches with the aid of an air ship, a submarine, a tank, a Gatling gun, and dynamite. That so many of the cast and crew, like composer Alwyn, were British, was driven by economics. To release blocked sterling earned in England, studios had to spend 80% on any film made there. Apart from the Mediterranean locations, the rest was shot in English studios, which made it enough of an English film to insure the release of studio money.
The operetta plot plays like airborne escapist fluff -- until you contextualize it in terms of the political minefield Hollywood, like the rest of America, had become. Although Lancaster was what we today would call progressive in his politics, he never was a Communist. Still, he and especially his producing partner, Harold Hecht, were among those targeted by the black-listing, Red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee. Counting on the fact that censors are usually literal-minded and dim-witted, The Crimson Pirate sent a certain message - starting with its provocative title. In case the film's sympathies eluded viewers, Lancaster includes a pirate's line entirely in keeping with the real-life leftist, pro-underclass leanings he made no secret: "All my life I've watched injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency. I don't trust it."
There were other things Lancaster didn't trust. Rightly, he anticipated the worsening Red scare and the crackdown soon to paralyze Hollywood at the hands of HUAC and other Red-baiters. Although the script's first draft was by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, his name was omitted from the screen credits even though Roland Kibbee, who rewrote it and got sole screen credit for changing its course from routine swashbuckler to airborne travesty, was a leftist sympathizer, too. Although the story unfolds in the Caribbean, Lancaster went to the Bay of Naples to film it mostly for financial reasons. Hollywood soon was to discover that filming was cheaper in postwar Europe. Partly, though, it was a way of removing himself from studio scrutiny and pressure. Transportation and even communication were primitive on the island of Ischia, near Capri. Lancaster and Robert Siodmak, the director and studio ambassador, often clashed. Both men were among the many who literally got dunked during the shoot, Lancaster more than once. Seasickness was not unknown on unruly days.
Lancaster tested Siodmak by demanding retakes. When filming was over and Siodmak was preparing to leave, Lancaster told him he wanted to reshoot a few scenes. Actually, Lancaster had already rechoreographed major action scenes, and then directed them himself, including the final 18-minute sea battle. Not that any hint of disharmony was to be seen in the finished product. Right after The Crimson Pirate, Lancaster turned to more dramatic roles, earning newer, deeper respect as an actor in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), Trapeze (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), his Oscar®-winning Elmer Gantry (1960), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Leopard (1963) right through to Atlantic City (1980).
As the 19th century Italian Prince di Lampedusa in The Leopard, Lancaster needs no muscles, nor even The Grin. He lets us know he's royalty by the silken assurance with which he glides into a formal dress ball and simply occupies his space. Astonishingly, there's a moment that presages this in the silliness of The Crimson Pirate. Posing as an aristocrat, his pirate enters a governor's ball with a grace and a confidence that stops just this side of insolence. It's not just a matter of him passing himself off as royalty. In his tight-fitting velvet suit with gilded trim, he's the only one in the room who seems regal. Panther-like in his springiness, rippling grace and cushioned movement, he always came up smiling, and the smile was blinding. Although he was to gain stature in his later, more feelingful roles, and finally no longer was referred to as a mere gymnast, it takes nothing away from his early éclat. In The Crimson Pirate, joining his old life of the circus to his new one as a film star, he was a lithe, dazzling Sun King - at high noon.
Producer: Harold Hecht, Burt Lancaster (both uncredited)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Roland Kibbee
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Art Direction: Paul Sheriff
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Jack Harris
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Capt. Vallo, The Crimson Pirate), Nick Cravat (Ojo), Eva Bartok (Consuelo), Torin Thatcher (Humble Bellows), James Hayter (Prof. Elihu Prudence), Leslie Bradley (Baron José Gruda), Margot Grahame (Bianca), Noel Purcell (Pablo Murphy), Frederick Leister (Sebastian), Eliot Makeham (Governor).
by Jay Carr
Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, Knopf, 2000
The Crimson Pirate
Why did you bolt your cabin door last night?- Vallo
If you knew it was bolted you must have tried it. If you tried it, you know why it was bolted.- Consuelo
Remember, in a pirate ship, in pirate waters, in a pirate world, ask no questions. Believe only what you see. No, believe half of what you see.- Vallo
You've sold me Humble Bellows--and to a king's flunky!- Vallo
Aye. 'Tis my modest opinion that no man can fly pirate colors who's not willing to sell his friend, his sweetheart, or his mother.- Humble Bellows
Ojo (Nick Cravat) is mute because Cravat had a thick East Coast accent.
Burt Lancaster appears as "Capt. Vallo" before the credits, and tells the audience to "gather round, you've been shanghaied for the last cruise of the Crimson Pirate." After the credits, a title card reads: "A ship of the King's Navy-armed with thirty guns-on a mission in the Caribbean late in the Eighteenth Century." At the end of the film as Vallo and "Consuelo" kiss, Nick Cravat as "Ojo" mimes that the two get married.
Although her appearance in the film has not been confirmed, November 1951 Hollywood Reporter and September 1951 Daily Variety news items add Margaret Rowland to the cast. In the New York Times review, the name of actor Frederick Leister, who played "El Libre," is spelled "Leicester." Norma Productions, named for Lancaster's wife, was organized by Hecht and Lancaster. Burt Lancaster and Cravat were boyhood friends who became an acrobatic team in circuses and vaudeville, before going into films. The Crimson Pirate marked the second cinematic teaming of Cravat and Lancaster.
According to an October 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was shot in London and on location in Italy. According to Warner Bros. production notes, two ships were built for the film at Villefranche, France, and as many as 800 extras were used in the rebellion scenes. A September 1951 Daily Variety news item reported that the bit players staged a sit-down strike over the quality of food available on the remote island of Ischia, where they were shooting, and when no changes were made, many left the island. The Crimson Pirate marked Eva Bartok's American film debut. Although, in modern interviews, Lancaster often lamented the fact that the film got poor reviews, in fact, most reviews were positive.
Released in United States Fall September 27, 1952
Released in United States March 1979
Burt Lancaster reputedly directed the final fight scenes aboard the ship, for which he received no credit, while director Robert Siodmak was working with another unit.
Released in United States March 1979 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Bring the Kids) March 14-30, 1979.)
Released in United States Fall September 27, 1952