The year is 1648 and the English Civil War is at its height, with King Charles currently on the run from the forces of Oliver Cromwell, in hiding in this part of the English countryside where he has been given shelter by the Royalist Beverley family. However, the leader of the Roundheads in the area is Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) who, with his right hand man Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed), has managed to work out where the King is being kept and is heading over to the country house to arrest him. Realising this, the oldest Beverley brother Edward (Jack Hedley) makes plans of his own...
The British studio Hammer, first time around, were not simply cranking out the horror movies, but had branched out into other genres as well during their heyday, and the historical adventure was one of those styles which suited them to a tee. Hence they made quite a number of them, and often they would have a scene or bit of business which relented to their reputation of the bloodthirsty stuff, although not always, and that was the case here with The Scarlet Blade. If it sounds like it should have been one of their Robin Hood influenced films, well, it was and it wasn't.
Certainly the title character - the name Edward adopts for his raids on the Roundheads - acted as an outlaw the storyline was on the side of, but as it played he wasn't really the main character, and disappointingly he didn't show up dressed in a bright red costume. In fact, Oliver Reed wore more scarlet than Hedley did, which may well have been a stylistic choice, for his Captain was by far the most interesting character here, wavering between the two sides as his head was turned by the love for Judd's daughter Claire (June Thorburn), who happened to be siding against her strict father to sympathise with the King (who himself appeared only in one scene, and then wordlessly).
Therefore Sylvester is caught in the middle of the two forces, and as the side he's meant to be fighting for were the winners eventually, you can guess this puts him in a very difficult position. Much of the interest here is not in the plotline, which would supply you with the most rudimentary history lesson and that's about it, but more with the cast. Especially those two headliners, as Jeffries and Reed proved impressive as foes, so much so that they weighted the film in their own favour and any scenes where they were not appearing, either together or apart, did tend to fall rather flat. Hedley, best known to trash fans as the man who tracked The New York Ripper, just didn't match them.
Of the support, Thorburn attracted some attention for this was her second to last film before her untimely death in one of Britain's worst air disasters of the era; she's not much recalled now, partly because her career was cut short, but she did have the quality to make you wonder what else she had been in and if this wasn't her best role she did make something worthy of it. On a lighter note, watch out for Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper as a somewhat hilarious "gypsy", all decked out in swarthy makeup, knife held between the teeth and embarrassing himself with a dodgy accent. Also notable was the sequence where the goodies creep up on the baddies while disguised as trees; perhaps they were hoping for some Macbeth connections as the way this resolved itself was not the most cheery of endings, as if to say to the audience, yeah, we're Hammer, we give you the grim finales and don't you forget it. But instead of rising to a crescendo, it petered out glumly. Music by Gary Hughes.
[Studio Canal's Region 2 DVD has a digitally remastered print, looks good, and an alternative opening as an extra.]