Captain Vallo (Burt Lancaster) swings by rope across the screen, astounding the audience as he breaks the fourth wall. “Gather round lads and lasses! You’ve been shanghaied for the last ride of the Crimson Pirate!” Vallo tells us to believe only what we see, before performing the same stunt in reverse! “No. Only half what you see”, he adds with a wink.
There is a strong element of self-parody about The Crimson Pirate. As though whilst dazzling the audience with madcap stunts and swashbuckling action, Burt Lancaster and director Robert Siodmak were inviting them to revel in the sheer improbability of their increasingly outrageous celluloid tricks. Along with The Flame and the Arrow (1950), this was among several early costume adventures that enabled real-life acrobat Lancaster to pay tribute to screen idol Douglas Fairbanks and paired the star with his former circus partner Nick Cravat, here cast as a mute in lieu of his thick East Coast accent. The film opens as Captain Vallo and his crew, including exuberant mute Ojo (Nick Cravat), capture a merchant ship stocked with guns captained by sneaky aristocrat, Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley). Vallo plans to make his fortune selling arms to local revolutionaries, but Gruda offers to double his money if he can apprehend a revolutionary leader called El Libre. Along with Ojo, Vallo successfully infiltrates the freedom fighters' camp but upon falling for the beautiful, feisty and upstanding Consuela (Eva Bartok) is persuaded to rescue her father, El Libre, instead. This change of heart does not sit well with Vallo’s amoral pirate cohorts who promptly cast him and Ojo adrift at sea, along with eccentric scientist Professor Prudence (James Hayter). However, the professor’s ingenuity enables Vallo to strike back as the film takes a daring leap into steampunk territory with an arsenal of tanks, explosives, machineguns, a remarkable airship and even a submarine figuring into the lively climax that also features our heroes in drag! Wow.
Featuring an early art directing credit for future James Bond production designer Ken Adam, along with British schlock horror director Vernon Sewell on second-unit duties, this sumptuous romp has magnificent sets and costumes but also a subversive wit that belies its vintage. The plot, so often the stumbling block with fast-paced adventure yarns, is actually quite well conceived and offbeat, with supporting characters switching roles from friend to foe whilst the hithero gleefully amoral Vallo grows increasingly humanised through romancing the spirited Consuela. It is a forerunner of a style of tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler often erroneously credited to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). In fact several sources claim this film was the inspiration behind the theme park ride at Disneyland. Which makes it all the more ironic the film started out as a deadly serious screenplay penned by Waldo Salt. Wary of Salt’s alleged Communist sympathies, Warner Brothers were only too happy to let Siodmak alter the tone towards comedy.
Reteaming Lancaster with the director who gave him his first film role in The Killers (1946), this saw the pair shift from ominous shadow and gloom into a riot of exuberant colour. The action set-pieces where Lancaster and Cravat leap about with wild abandon remain astounding, witty and ingenious examples of stunt choreography, as frenetic as sequences one might see in a console game. Siodmak peppers the film with surreal humour and sight gags not far removed from a Warner Brothers cartoon, including Vallo and Ojo’s improbable underwater escape, their frantic attempts to start a fight with some stoic soldiers, and their hilarious climactic attempt to pass themselves off as ladies. Lancaster shows off his gleaming grin and acrobatic prowess but adds a layer of subversive wit unique among vintage action heroes. He is clearly having a blast and invites the viewer to laugh along with him. Meanwhile, Cravat transcends his lack of dialogue and etches out a memorable character, and Eva Bartok is exceptional. She brings glamour and grit to a heroine who is refreshingly far from a simpering damsel. The film also features a notable role for Christopher Lee as the island governor’s far smarter right-hand man.