The family entertainment action-adventure films of the 1960s from Britain’s gothic horror specialists.
Hammer Films will forever be known as a studio that specialised in horror movies. Understandably so – it as a series of gothic horror remakes and reinventions that put the former B-movie studio on the international map and reinvented the genre for a new generation, bringing full-blooded colour, gore and heaving bosoms (in increasing quantities of exposure) to a previously monochrome and creatively exhausted world.
But Hammer was always about more than just horror. Even if we throw their epic fantasies like One Million Years BC and She in with the horror films, the company – which at its peak was making several films a year – always had its finger in other pies. Hammer dabbled in thrillers, comedies and dramas movies throughout its horror years, and had a taste for period action movies, often pitched at a juvenile audience. These movies were a Hammer staple in the 1960s – it’s fascinating to see just how much family entertainment was churned out, often with epic ambitions, by a company best known for ‘X’ rated horror. While horror would become increasingly dominant from the mid-Sixties onwards, there was still a variety of titles being made in most years right through to their collapse in the mid-1970s.
These rollicking adventures often featured as much blood and thunder – and probably more violent death – than most of their horror films, but lacked the scares and so were considered wholesome family fare. Couched in history and mythology, they were the stuff of comic books and family entertainment, part of a British tradition and boyhood fantasy – far removed, it seems, from the bloody horrors that Hammer was making its own.
This loose collection of films began with The Sword of Sherwood Forest in 1960. This was Hammer’s second Robin Hood film (the first being the entirely forgettable The Men of Sherwood Forest six years earlier) and was a late entry in the company’s series of TV adaptations of the era, being loosely based on the show that ran from 1955 to 1959 starring Richard Greene – the only cast member who returned for this film (Peter Cushing, now established as Hammer’s top star, was the Sheriff of Nottingham. It’s a fairly throwaway juvenile affair and while Terence Fisher – the man behind the company’s gothic horrors of the period – makes it a reasonably entertaining affair, it’s very much along the lines of the clean-cut, wholesome Robin Hood romps of old. While Hammer’s horror films seemed revolutionary at the time, this seems cosy and traditional. The company would return to the story seven years later in an equally forgettable film, A Challenge For Robin Hood, this time with jobbing actor Barrie Ingham in the lead role; again, this was a lacklustre affair and failed to meet with much success. Hammer’s determination to milk the classic character was not yet done, however – but we’ll come to that shortly.
Hammer’s real leap into the world of Boy’s Own adventure and derring-do came with Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, in 1962. This is a film that strays into traditional Hammer territory, so much so that it is often counted as one of their horror movies, though notably the ever-alert British censor’s thought otherwise, and rather than the ‘X’ usually awarded to Hammer Horror, gave this a family-friendly ‘A’. Based on the character of Dr Syn (who would also be the subject of a Disney film a year later, possibly putting a spoke in the wheel of any possible series ambitions for Hammer), it stars Peter Cushing and plays with ghostly images in the form of the Marsh Phantoms, a spectral force that is – as anyone familiar with British films about smugglers will already know – a cover for the criminal activities of Clegg, who has escaped execution and is living with his men under the guise of Parson Blyss.
The film fudges its ideas of heroes and villains, as Captain Collier – played with the stiffest of upper-lips by Patrick Allen – arrives with his sailors to investigate tales of local smuggling. Collier, as the figure of authority, is ostensibly the film’s hero, but our sympathies are very much with Clegg and his men (including Oliver Reed, another Hammer regular at this point). Smuggling has long been a crime that is hard to make look especially evil, particularly in period pieces – perhaps why it has long been the subject of lightweight comedies like Oh Mr Porter or related to Nazi activity in movies. Hammer’s film allows authority to be eventually asserted, but Clegg nevertheless seems like the film’s real hero.
Captain Clegg was a modest success and paved the way for more Hammer swashbuckling adventures. The most famous of these is a pair of pirate movies – unrelated other than in lead star and general theme, but nevertheless feeling like the start of a series. The Pirates of Blood River was the first and most successful – shot in 1962, it stars Christopher Lee as the swarthy Captain LaRoche, who snatches up prisoner Jonathan Standing (played by top-billed Kerwin Matthews, then a big name in fantasy romps like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jack the Giant Killer) and forces him to help locate some lost treasure in his home village.
We perhaps forget now just how much of a grip pirates had on the imagination of small boys back in the 1960s and 1970s, but at the time, little must have seemed quite as exciting as this. This film proved to be a huge hit, probably because of eager nippers dragging their parents along to enjoy the vigorous and full-blooded pirate romp (the fact that it was double-billed with Mysterious Island probably made things all the more attractive). Lee is on top villainous form and the film manages to be violent and sadistic without ever crossing the line – a lesson Hammer had learned only too well by this point.
The formula was repeated two years later with the less popular but perhaps more interesting The Devil-Ship Pirates, where Lee returns, this time as the brutal Captain Robeles, leader of a band of pirates who have been pressed into duty as part of the Spanish Armada. When their ship is damaged in battle, they put into waters near a small English village and – realising that the locals have no idea of the outcome of the battle – declare that Spain has won. Taking over the village, they impose a brutal rule on the locals – brutal enough to once again push the film to the edges of what might now be seen as acceptable at PG – but unrest and suspicion spread.
Famous for a disaster that really sank the ship and almost took most of the cast with it (caused, in hilariously British fashion, by the crew all running to one side of the prop ship for a tea break), The Devil-Ship Pirates is otherwise less well known – and was less popular – than its predecessor, but is arguably more interesting. Revelling in cliche, the movie knows exactly what its audience wants – stoic heroes, fiendish villains and plenty of fighting – and teasingly gives it to them. There’s more spectacle here too – the opening sea battle is impressively mounted and crowd-pleasing, and director Don Sharp – who had previously directed Kiss of the Vampire for Hammer – ensures that the film both looks good and keeps moving at a fast pace – even when nothing is actually happening, there is the constant sense of action just around the corner. Lee gives superb performances in both films and is more nuanced than you might expect – his characters are not just cartoon villains and are, particularly in the case of Robeles, simply doing the best for their men in bad situations. It wouldn’t take much plot tweaking to make the English characters in The Devil-Ship Pirates look like the bad guys.
Both films will probably raise eyebrows today with what we might call ‘Mediterraneaning up’, as Lee (who was, at least, half-Italian in real life) and some of his fellow pirates are giving what could be kindly called suntans, but often seem a touch excessive – in Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper’s case in The Devil-Ship Pirates, his complexion grows ever more orange as the film progresses, becoming something of a comical distraction – it looks as though he forgot to take his make-up off at the end of each day and simply had more applied. There is a world of difference between this and actual ‘blacking up’, of course – and only the most deliberately offended would suggest otherwise – and the film was, of course, made in a very different time; getting upset because old films do not reflect modern sensibilities is a ludicrously unbalanced way of thinking.
The Devil-Ship Pirates did not match the box office success of its predecessors, and so perhaps put an end to more pirate romps – but by the time it was released, Hammer was fully committed to the swashbuckler.
“This is the story of a band of freemen who defied a tyrant” states the opening caption of 1963’s The Scarlet Blade, though, in reality, its heroes are battling Cromwell’s soldiers in order to restore the Monarchy – surely no one’s definition of democracy and freedom – during the English Civil War. There’s no room for any ambiguity about who is on the right side here though, as the Roundheads, led by the unlikely figure of Lionel Jeffries, are all opportunist, hypocritical and cowardly, while Jack Hedley’s rebels are as noble as they come.
Hedley is the title character, real name Edward Beverly, who is leading a band of rebels as they attempt to free King Charles I from the Roundhead forces who have captured him. They are aided by Claire Judd (June Thorburn), daughter of Colonel Judd (Jeffries) a former Royalist turncoat, and by Captain Tom Sylvester (Oliver Reed) who briefly switches sides thanks to an infatuation with Claire. But when she declares her love for Beverly (about five minutes after meeting him, a plot point so ludicrous that even Reed’s character remarks on it), he betrays the rebels. Meanwhile, Michael Ripper, in a bigger role than usual, wanders around in similar unfortunate make-up to his role in The Devil-Ship Pirates as the gypsy Pablo.
Unlike many of Hammer’s other tales of derring-do), The Scarlet Blade is pretty dull stuff. Director John Gilling who, like Reed, was a Hammer stalwart at this time brings surprisingly little vitality to the story, given his other work for the company, and while Reed is as impressive as ever, his character is hard to take seriously, flipping between loyalties as he does. Worse still, the love triangle at the centre of the story is astonishingly uninvolving, and you can imagine rows of ten-year-old boys stamping their feet in frustration as this played out at the local cinemas.
Much more entertaining is The Brigand of Kandahar. Set in British India (aka Afghanistan) in 1880, the film tells the story of mixed-race British army officer Robert Case (Ronald Lewis), who is the subject of racism from his fellow officers, and eventually convicted of cowardice after leaving a colleague – who just happens to be the husband of Case’s lover Elsa (Katherine Woodville) – to the mercy of tribal warlord Eli Khan (Oliver Reed). Sentenced to ten years, Case is freed by Khan’s men and taken to his desert hideout, where he agrees to join the rebellion against the British, provided that civilians are allowed to go free and prisoners treated humanely. Khan agrees, and the pair quickly forge a successful fighting team, using Case’s knowledge of British tactics to lead his army to several victories. But Khan’s sister Ratina (Yvonne Romain) has designs on power, and soon Case is caught up in her schemes.
Handsomely produced, The Brigand of Kandahar rarely stops for breath, its terse plot moving from incident to incident without pause. The racial politics are interesting – once you get past the fact that the leads are all blacked-up Caucasians, the film is far from the imperialist effort you might expect. Case is a questionable hero (we never really know if he deliberately left his love-rival to the mercies of Khan or not), but you can’t help but sympathise with his switching sides, given the racist treatment he received from the British, who are shown as deeply unpleasant, xenophobic, brutal and potentially murderous (interrogating prisoners at gunpoint). Meanwhile, Khan (a stellar performance from Reed) is cruel, violent but seemingly honourable in his own way.
Let’s not get too caught up in the politics of the film though – for the most part, this is simply an entertaining costume romp. The battle scenes are remarkably impressive, though Hammer and Gilling can’t exactly take the credit, as they were lifted from the 1956 movie Zarak. But, some dodgy blue-screen moments aside, they blend well with the rest of the movie, which is put together with the usual Hammer quality, from the cast to the costumes to the sets.
This loose collection of adventure stories – which continued through more overt fantasy titles like She and the prehistoric romps, and even took in the ‘lost world’ romp The Lost Continent, which also includes pirates amongst its curious attractions, but was bafflingly rated ‘X’ by the BBFC and was thus denied to the very audience that would most appreciate it – ended with The Viking Queen, which loosely retells the Bodica legend in a simplified and action-packed way, even though the lead character here – played by single-named Finnish actress Carita – is called Selina. It’s a tale of ancient Britons against Roman conquerors, as star-crossed lover Selina – the newly-crowned Queen of the British kingdom of Icena – and Roman Centurian Justinian (played with wooden stoicism by Don Murray), as shifty characters on both sides plot against them. When Justinian is sent on a mission to deal with a group of upstart rebels, his resentful second-in-command Octavian (Andrew Kier) takes control and starts to impose his will on the Britons, overthrowing and whipping Selina. Not taking this lying down, Selina then leads a rebellion against the Roman forces, bring the two lovers face to face on opposing sides.
Sharp-eyed readers will note the distinct lack of Vikings in this narrative, and even taken at its loosest meaning, it is hard to argue that the film’s title is a touch misleading. Hammer no doubt wanted to cash in on the popular Viking movies of the 1960s, but why they couldn’t have simply made an actual Viking film is anyone’s guess. Of course, the film plays fast and loose with historical accuracy throughout in ways that would impress modern TV producers – here, the Druids worship Zeus, which would probably raise a few eyebrows.
All that said, The Viking Queen is unexpectedly good fun. It rarely pauses for breath, and the rather insipid leads are more than compensated for with a supporting cast including Kier, Patrick Troughton (who secured the role of Doctor Who midway through the shoot) and Adrienne Corri, who all give suitably full-blooded performances that smartly stop just short of excess. Like many a Hammer ‘family entertainment’ adventure of the time (like the nudity-drenched When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth), the film pushes the boundaries of the ‘A’ certificate – indeed, the unusually graphic whipping of Selina and some human sacrifices by the Druids were cut from the original UK release, though attempted rape, near-topless slave girls, jiggling cleavage and Roman war crimes all slipped through – you might imagine that had such scenes appeared in a Hammer horror film, the movie would’ve been immediately slapped with an ‘X’. Completists will be glad to hear that the DVD edition is uncut.
As Hammer entered the 1970s, their focus was on more adult fare, alongside a series of unexpectedly popular TV sitcom adaptations. Films that were ostensibly part of their fantasy adventure series, like The Creatures The World Forgot or The Vengeance of She, were sexed up and shot with an ‘X’ certificate in mind, and as the company increasingly struggled to find financing and distribution for their horror films, the potential for these other movies to find a wider audience seemed forgotten. In 1969, an interesting but low budget pilot for a new Robin Hood TV series, Wolfshead, was shot with David Warbeck in the title role, but no one was interested and the hour-long show ended up being released as a supporting feature in 1973 – one of the company’s last theatrical gasps. The pilot would later influence the successful Robin of Sherwood series, but it was too little, too late.
Ironically, the action-packed family adventure film came back into fashion in a big way just as Hammer breathed its last – whether the company would’ve been in a position to make films that could cash in on Star Wars, Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark is open to question, but it does feel as though the company lost direction somewhat in its final years and should perhaps have been re-hiring Ray Harryhausen for monster movie romps or making sci-fi swashbucklers (1969’s Moon Zero Two – a fun film in many ways – was probably too reality-struck for its own good and needed less slow-motion moon exploration and more cantina shoot outs). Perhaps the long-planned Vlad the Impaler might have been a return to the glory days of the swashbuckler, though I suspect it would’ve been a more ponderous and adult historical drama – and maybe Vampirella might have been the comic-book romp that was needed to launch Hammer into the 1980s. Hammer’s ambitious plans from the mid-1970s on seemed to all be a bit misguided, and perhaps less expensive, more family-friendly fare might have been their salvation during that difficult time. Who knows?
Hammer’s non-horror/science fiction films have never been given the attention that they deserve – despite recent blu-ray box sets – and the action-adventure movies have tended to be particularly dismissed as juvenile fare. But they are all worth a look, and some are much more interesting than you might have been led to believe.
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