I’ve wanted to review this one for a while but after it was taken down off of youtube, finding it turned out to be an issue. Part circus, part slapstick, part swashbuckler – The Crimson Pirate is campy fun but don’t go into it expecting much seriousness or accuracy as the 1952 film makers seemed focused on little more than wowing the Saturday afternoon movie crowd.
Captain Vallo (Burt Lancaster) leads a pirate crew in the late 18th century somewhere in the Caribbean when he and his men capture a vessel carrying Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley) who is headed to an island threatened with revolt from El Libre and his followers. Vallo has no political bent and quickly changes his mind about ransoming Gruda when a plan hits him to sell the guns and ammunition on board the captured ship to El Libre then sell El Libre to Gruda.
But his mind is quickly changed again after he meets and falls for Libre’s daughter Consuelo (Eva Bartok). When his men discover that Vallo is about to let their captives go free – thereby costing the crew a lot of money – they decide to take matters into their own hands. Can Vallo and his faithful mute sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat) save the day and win the girl for Vallo? With the help of a genius professor and his interesting array of inventions they just might pull it off.
The opening sequence shows what you’re getting into with this movie. Lancaster displays his acrobatic talent at the same time as he grins and mugs it up for the audience while breaking the fourth wall. The film is cheeky fun with little thought for historical accuracy or costume continuity. The setting is vaguely colonial Spanish late in the 18th century but it really doesn’t matter where or who these people are so much as it’s important for us to have fun watching. Some characters wear bag wigs and heavy skirted coats while others are in full Regency skin tight pantaloons and cutaway coats. The heroine even gets a strapless, hoop skirted dress. Vallo is definitely a “working man” pirate who shuns frilly/puffy pirate shirts in favor of homespun. But do watch for the final scene with him looking buff and hot wearing some very tight crimson and gray stripped pants. I think the major consideration here was what was going to look good in Technicolor.
Lancaster and Cravat were long time circus acrobatic partners and appeared in 9 films together. Due to his thick Brooklyn accent, Cravat plays a mute in this film and “The Flame and the Arrow.” Together the two are wonderful to watch as they do their own stunts, choreograph their moves perfectly in synch and look like they’re having a blast making the film. Though there is swordplay, most of their fight sequences involve truncheons, fists and other assorted implements as well as lots of soaring through the air, bouncing off awnings and swinging around bars.
Eva Bartok is okay as the love interest though her gumption decreases as the film goes on until by the end she’s reduced to just yelling for help and looking threatened by the villain until Vallo saves her. Bradley is a smarmy, oily villain whose main job is to be greedy but he just doesn’t have a memorable villainy depth to him. Most of the other characters are fairly forgettable though the stereotypical, treacherous first mate and professor stuck in my mind longer than most.
One thing to note is that while the plot makes sense as the movie starts, by the end the film makers are piling on everything they can think of including several apocryphal inventions from the professor during a wild street fighting sequence which leads to an even wilder shipboard free for all. It’s kind of amazing how many of the soldiers get conked over the head or knocked overboard yet there’s still a seemingly endless supply of them for the pirates to fight.