Matchbox’s pirate action figure range and their iconic glow-in-the-dark ghostly nemesis.
Matchbox Toys in the UK are best known for their vast range of toy cars, detailed reproductions of just about every vehicle – real or cinematic – that you might think of in die-cast miniature. Pretty much everyone has owned a Matchbox car at some point, I would imagine. But the company has ventured into other toy territories from time to time, and the most notable of these was the Fighting Furies action figure series that had a brief but impressive run in the middle of the 1970s.
The Fighting Furies were, on launch in 1974, a pair of 8.5-inch pirate figures – perfectly crafted to fit in with any young boy’s burgeoning Mego collection. The figures launched in the USA initially and then made their way to the UK and European market shortly afterwards, where they would prove to be much more popular.
The two figures were Cap’n Peg-Leg and Cap’n Hook, a pair of amputees (clearly, piracy was a hazardous profession) who – according to the leaflet included in the box – started out as rivals before becoming friends who team up to find hidden treasure. This narrative set-up allowed kids to either have the pair fight each other or – as was more likely – to throw common sense to the wind and have them scrapping any of the Mego figures. It was not unusual for these two pirates to battle (or team up with) anyone from Marvel superheroes and Planet of the Apes characters to Starsky and Hutch and The Fonz.
Unlike their Mego contemporaries, the Fighting Furies came with special functions – namely a spring-action button on their side that would make their right arm jerk unsteadily in a vague approximation of sword-fighting or – rather more difficult to get right in practice – knife throwing. Peg Leg also came with a treasure map hidden inside his wooden leg – a nice touch. Both figures also had a touch of the exotic about them – Peg Leg was a swarthy type that suggested a Meditteranean character, and Hook was a pony-tailed oriental with an impressive chest tattoo. That both these non-caucasian characters were presented as heroic role models might be seen as a progressive move, but in truth, the action figures of the 1970s were about as diverse a bunch as you could expect and none of this seemed especially remarkable at the time – it’s only in retrospect that we have become so hyper-sensitive to representation.
Alongside the two figures, the Fighting Furies range also included a set of six costumes, allowing you to vary things up if you got bored of the rather exotic outfits that each figure came with. These were, by and large, interchangeable, though the Kung Fu Warrior Adventure set seems to have been specifically aimed at Hook. Notably, none of the other costumes took the characters outside their established universe – they were all variations on sailing outfits. And for the more ambitious fan, there were two playsets – vinyl foldout cases that transformed into ships with assorted accessories.
More outfits and accessory sets would be added to the range in 1976, but they were rather overshadowed by the arrival of a third figure, one who would become everyone’s favourite.
The Ghost of Cap’n Kidd added a supernatural element to the Fighting Furies range, and remains, for me at least, one of the greatest action figures of all time. The sheer effort that went into this figure was impressive. Kidd himself was a pale figure, dressed all in white rags, and perhaps didn’t initially look all that exciting compared to his peacocking stablemates – until you switched out the lights and he ‘transformed’ into a luminous, skeletal figure. In the UK, Kidd came packaged in his very own coffin – the box resembling a wooden box and featuring a padded interior (okay, printed on card, but still…). Most kids would, of course, immediately demolish the box in their eagerness to access the figure within, but it was nevertheless a nice touch. The packaging also laid on the spookiness with a trowel, with Kidd swearing to take his unholy vengeance on those who had damned him – no chance of this character joining forces with the other pirates, you might think. There was also the Cap’n Kidd’s Treasure accessory set that looked suspiciously like leftovers from other sets and did not even acknowledge the ghostly nature of the figure.
Oddly, Cap’n Kidd would barely see release in the USA, being a Sears mail-order exclusive – minus his coffin. It was, perhaps, the first sign that the Fighting Furies were running out of steam. Perhaps aware of this, Matchbox attempted a 1976 revamp with a Wild West series – three new figures aimed at the Cowboys and Indians market and perhaps hoping to cash in on the popularity of the Lone Ranger action figure line of the time. This is, of course, a much more ‘problematic’ line by 21st Century standards, and features Black McCoy, Kid Cortez and Crazy Horse. A horse for these figures to ride was planned but abandoned. They did, however, have their own supplementary ‘action packs’, the Cattle Rustler and War Dance accessories that were impressively detailed. But by the time that these hit the shelves, the kids were already moving away from the dubious pleasures of the Western.
The Fighting Furies bit the dust in 1978, the final nail in the coffin being the runaway success of Star Wars toys, which not only made wild west and pirate adventures seem rather old-hat but also reformatted the action figure to a smaller size. It’s odd that Matchbox didn’t try a sci-fi range of Fighting Furies – you’d think that the private characters could’ve been easily adapted to space opera adventures – but perhaps the market was already flooded.
The remaining stocks of The Fighting Furies hung around in discount stores for years afterwards, being sold at bargain prices. Today, of course, they have become rather collectable, especially Cap’n Kidd. Inevitably, I no longer own any of them – my own Peg-Leg met a gory end as part of a blood-soaked creative photoshoot (long lost, sadly) that would have the authorities alerted and my parents investigated these days, and Cap’n Kidd was amongst the assorted toys that I was persuaded to part with once I’d outgrown their pleasures. Thanks, mum and dad.
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