By Simon Ward (writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His books include The Wit and Wisdom of James Bond, Snowpiercer: The Art and Making of the Film, Aliens: The Set Photography, Okja: The Art and Making of the Film and Making Moon: A British Sci-Fi Cult Classic. He also wrote the introduction to Modesty Blaise: The Grim Joker and has provided text and other materials for numerous Blu-rays)
Director Don Sharp had already been working solidly as a director for almost ten years by the time he came to make The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964). His directorial debut with Hammer, The Kiss of the Vampire, came just a year earlier than The Devil-Ship Pirates in 1963. This would-be Dracula film was at that stage more of an outlier in Sharp’s career – a career that came to be defined by his horror movies. By the time Hammer came calling, Sharp had cut his teeth on some very well-crafted and pacy crime stories, such as The Professionals (1960), as well as the 1961 TV series Ghost Squad. In addition, he had made a handful of adventure movies for the Children’s Film Foundation. It was these that, perhaps surprisingly, may have been more instructive to Sharp’s career than anything else, for while he may be most famous now for his run of 1960s horror movies, they are not as ‘horrific’ as the excitable posters would claim.
Indeed, despite how Fu Manchu is categorised in popular culture, Sharp’s two entries in the five film Harry Alan Towers series (1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu and 1966’s The Bride’s of Fu Manchu) have much more in common with boy’s own ripping yarns than scarlet-splattered Hammer horrors. The Fu Manchu films from Don Sharp revolve around fiendish plots for world domination, car chases through the English countryside, fisticuffs and cunning disguises. They are the filmic equivalent of page-turners or even matinee movies. And it is in this category that The Devil-Ship Pirates neatly falls.
Far less violent than the earlier Hammer pirate adventure, 1962’s The Pirates of Blood River – which includes whipping and the titular river full of hungry piranhas – The Devil-Ship Pirates is an unashamed adventure, far more fitting viewing for Sunday afternoon, where Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) is a Friday night fright. What the film does have in common with Blood River, is being part of a very specific canon of pirate films that do not actually take place at sea. This is a budget-driven necessity rather than a creative approach, but Sharp and legendary Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster do get creative with their film, making the very geography of the setting a key plot point. The fact that this modest, unassuming village is all but cut-off from the rest of England is exactly why the pirates fleeing the failed Spanish Armada attack alight there. This very set-up dictates no expensive naval battle, opting instead for a battle of wills between the cowed but resourceful villagers and the invading pirates, led by Christopher Lee’s wonderfully hirsute Captain Robeles.
As well as the omnipresent Michael Ripper and soon-to-be Quatermass, Andrew Kier (both of whom featured in The Pirates of Blood River), the film ticks other boxes on the periodic chart of 1960s swashbuckling usual suspects. John Cairney is the closest to a hero in the film and only the year before played a key supporting member of the ship’s crew in the defining Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – a film that also featured Don Sharp’s choice for Nayland Smith, Nigel Green.
Christopher Lee enjoys a good sword fight (which calls to mind the similar effort put into the tense blindfolded duel in Blood River) and gets to do far more than as Fu Manchu. He is not impossibly and unfathomably evil, he is simply a brutal, opportunistic pirate during wartime. His role pays more than a passing resemblance to his nefarious Captain LaRoche from Blood River. In that too his character is calculating rather than maniacal and he radiates menace using little more than an inflection or his piercing stare. Devil-Ship was Lee’s eighth time working with Jimmy Sangster and they seem to have hit a rhythm, both comfortable with the dialogue and the nicely calibrated mechanics of the story. Lee and Sangster would however, only have one more collaboration – 1966’s Dracula Prince of Darkness.
The Devil-Ship Pirates came right in the midst of a flurry of Hammer adventure titles, preceded as it was by the aforementioned The Pirates of Blood River, as well as 1963’s Cromwell-era The Scarlet Blade and followed by the ambitious sabre-rattling The Brigand of Kandahar in 1965. But the film it perhaps shares the most DNA with, is the much earlier The Camp on Blood Island (1958). This highly controversial movie has the killer premise of a Japanese POW camp where the imprisoned allies know the war is over but must keep this news from the commandant or else all the prisoners will be executed. The Devil-Ship Pirates seems to almost be the other side of that coin, where it is the villains who know they are ruling under false pretences and it is only a matter of time until a reckoning. Blood Island had its own sequel in 1964 in The Secret of Blood Island, which took the set-up in a very different but less effective direction.
For whatever similarities there may be in the uprightness of the wartime British against these foreign foes (the Spanish in Devil-Ship, the Japanese in Blood Island), the Blood Island films are shockingly violent, with the first film unafraid to kill compassionate characters. Devil-Ship aims for – and achieves – a note of pure escapist fun and has no messages to impart. Hammer themselves seem to have had their sights on blockbuster numbers or at least aiming for a film a wider audience could digest than their more mature, explicit genre offerings, as producer Anthony Nelson Keys agreed that a boat prop at a cost of £17,000 could be built for the movie. The original ambition was to hire out the good ship Diablo to other films, but it was instead sacrificed for the rather spectacular fire at the film’s climax.
With that – and the villains defeated – Sharp knows not to overstay his film’s welcome: as with the Face of Fu Manchu, once you’ve had the big explosion, roll the credits. It is economical and delightful storytelling, like Hammer did so well, and has never looked better than in this Blu-ray release.
Huge thanks to Marcus Hearn and his essential The Hammer Vault for some key pointers.