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Friday Film Review: The Crimson Pirate

The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Romance
Grade: B-

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.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. E.D. Walker
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 06:44:29

    I love this movie. (For Burt Lancaster’s pants if nothing else.) A great addition to the pirate film oeuvre.

    And oh wow. I didn’t realize how precious my DVD of this was. They put it out when the first Pirates movie came out, I think. My mom bought a copy at the grocery store as a lark because she thought we’d all like it. Glad I’ve held onto it now.

  2. Jayne
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 06:53:50

    @E.D. Walker: I think I recently saw a region 1 DVD on ebay for over $70. Auctions come up every now and then and they always seem to sell for about $25-30. So…good move on your mother’s part!

  3. Lil
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 07:49:14

    This and The Flame and the Arrow were my absolutely favorite movies when I was a kid (and part of the Saturday matinee crowd). Just plain fun.

  4. DS
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 09:24:44

    I never liked the 50’s pirate movies as well as I liked the earlier ones. But it may be because I watched most of them on Saturday afternoons on our black and white television which didn’t scale gray well so everything when the original is in color tends to be murky.

    As for Hollywood historical costuming– I have never been able to watch the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, it’s just too painful. Luckily in pirate movies I just pretend all of the clothes have been stolen– from the hold of a ship carrying theatrical company across the Caribbean.

  5. Jayne
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 09:48:53

    @Lil: The Flame and the Arrow is another good, fun one. And how many Hollywood movies are set in medieval northern Italy? Not too damn many.

  6. Jayne
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 09:52:07

    @DS: Oh, yeah. This movie needs color. Has! to have it. Burt’s tight, fine, skin hugging pants just aren’t the same without it.

    And I like your explanation for the mismatched clothing as well as totally agreeing with not watching that P&P.

  7. Linda Hilton
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 10:10:17

    I just watched “The Flame and the Arrow” in pieces on youtube a couple weeks ago and loved it all over again, especially the closing credits sequence. Absolutely adored it. If I can find TCM on the cable and figure out how to fire up the old VCR (don’t have a DVR), I may have to capture “The Crimson Pirate” for posterity.

  8. Caro
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 10:48:49

    This is one of my mother’s favorite films. She saw it when it was released in the theatres and loved it so much she went back the next week to see it again. (The grand old picture palace where she saw it is now long gone, alas.)

    When it ran on the Late Show one Friday night when I was maybe in junior high, she insisted I stay up with her to watch it. We laughed our way through it and rewatching it always brings back those memories. It ain’t art, but it’s a heckuva a good time — and remember, only believe half of what you see.

  9. dri
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 11:10:35

    Ohhhh my god I loved this movie soooo much as a teenager … always had a very soft spot for Burt Lancaster ever since as a result.

    Jayne, have you seen The Rainmaker?! Him and Kate Hepburn? *bounces*

    Oh dear, I wonder how much I’d like The Crimson Pirate now as an (occasionally) adult. I hope I still love it … if I can lay my hands on it. Those pants, those pants, I must see them again. :p

  10. Jayne
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 18:06:23

    @Linda Hilton: I need to watch TF&TA again and see if I still like it as much as I did years ago.

  11. Jayne
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 18:10:16

    @Caro: What lovely memories of watching it with your mother!

  12. Jayne
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 18:17:43

    @dri: I wasn’t sure how much I’d still like it but it’s held up fairly well for me. As Caro says, “it ain’t art” but it’s a rousing good time. And you’ve got to watch it for The Pants.

    I do like Burt and Kate in “The Rainmaker.” The feminist in me is happy at the end that she’s more confident and that her family thinks more of her but I kind of wished for a more romantic ending.

  13. Linda Hilton
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 18:58:37

    @Jayne: I tried to find it on youtube today and it seems to have disappeared except for a couple of short segments. But it was every bit as good as when I first saw it probably 50 years ago.

  14. Laine
    Oct 01, 2011 @ 00:56:22

    This movie is the only thing I’ve ever bought on ebay – just because my husband loves it so much. It’s silly and over the top …. but a lot of fun too.

  15. Jayne
    Oct 01, 2011 @ 07:57:13

    @Linda Hilton: That’s what happened to The Crimson Pirate. It was there in eleven segments one day and gone the next.

  16. Darlene Marshall
    Oct 01, 2011 @ 19:17:20

    Every time I think of this movie the first image that pops into my head is Burt Lancaster smiling that 1,000 kilowatt smile. He just looked like he was having so much fun!

    Thanks for reminding me of how enjoyable a good pirate romp on film can be. Bring on the popcorn!

  17. Jayne
    Oct 02, 2011 @ 18:17:23

    @Darlene Marshall: Yes, yes! That smile of his would light up the whole east coast it’s so blinding.

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