Hammer Volume 5: Death & Deceit.
BD. Indicator. Region B. 12.
VISA TO CANTON (Michael Carreras, 1961) World BD premiere.
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (John Gilling, 1962) UK BD premiere.
THE SCARLET BLADE (John Gilling, 1963) World BD premiere.
THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR (John Gilling, 1965) World BD premiere.
Although he’s better remembered for his Hammer Horror credits (notably the superior 1966 brace The Reptile and Plague Of The Zombies, less notably for the following year’s lack-lustre The Mummy’s Shroud or 1961’s The Shadow Of The Cat… though the latter is regarded as something of an underrated gem by Hammer aficionados) John Gilling directed a similar amount of Hammer’s swashbuckling adventure yarns (stirring tales of derring-do for boys of all ages), including the lion’s share of this latest limited edition Hammer box from Indicator, which easily maintains the high standards set by its predecessors.
It’s received wisdom, in certain quarters, that Hammer kept the UK film industry afloat during the 1960s with its “lavish productions”, but anything more rigorous than a cursory squint at these films themselves (never mind the cheese-paring anecdotes related in the supplementary materials here) reveals a modus operandi not too far removed from that of Jess Franco himself, with stock footage of crowd and battle scenes cheerfully filched from other pictures.
Notoriously, the sea dogs in Gilling’s The Pirates Of Blood River (and I guess the clue was right there in that title) don’t even have a ship from which to fly their Jolly Roger, unless you count the stock footage galleon floating around under the film’s titles or a conspicuous model thereof, briefly glimpsed later in the picture. Instead, the dubiously accented Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee, fresh off of Bava’s Hercules In The Haunted World but, four years after Dracula, still billed beneath Kerwin Mathews and TV actor Glenn Corbett) leads his posse of pretty and not so pretty boys through waterways populated by ravenous piranhas (for the purposes of the story) and (in real life) raw human sewage! Tall, dark and gruesome, Lee managed to keep his head above the scum line but if you study the relevant sequences diligently, you might be able to work out the precise moment at which Oliver Reed (as LaRoche’s sidekick Brocaire) contracted an eye infection.
By all accounts Gilling was a martinet with little interest in endearing himself to his actors and about as much regard for Health & Safety as the people who put that cladding on Grenfell Tower. In The Scarlet (Crimson, States-side) Blade, we learn, only the threat of a walk out by the crew dissuaded him from staging a hanging stunt in such a way that the actor involved was in very real peril of asphyxiation. It’s interesting to see Michael Ripper (generously basted in Bisto as gypsy Pablo) in that film, “riding a horse” (but quite clearly not) against a blatant back projection, having witnessed another thespian coming an equestrian cropper under Gilling’s direction. Ripper, incidentally, gets much meatier roles in many of these adventure yarns than he could ever have hoped for in Hammer’s more celebrated Gothic Horrors… he’s also great as knife throwing Pirate Mack (get it?) in Blood River.
While he was never going to be voted humanitarian of the year by his collaborators, Gilling was that rarest of commodities in early ’60s British Cinema, a writer / director and one with a real knack for moral ambivalence and character development. In POBR Mathews’ Jonathan Standing finds his good standing in an island community of stuffy Huguenots seriously undermined when his affair with another man’s wife is discovered. She tries to elude her shame by running into a piranha infested river (with predictable results) while he’s sentenced by a jury of elders (chaired by his emotionally torn father) to a spell in a particularly brutish labour camp. Liberated from this hell hole by those pirates, Standing throws his lot in with them, on condition that they treat the rest of the islanders (including a pre-pubescent Dennis Waterman) with clemency. When they laughingly renege on this undertaking, Standing has to reconsider his position all over again…
Hammer never saddled up for any ostensible oaters but Pirates and its companion pieces are clearly crypto-Westerns. The obvious literary model, meanwhile, is the story of Coriolanus, as evoked by Shakespeare via Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s The Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans. Gilling continues to plunder this palimpsest with further not so simple minded thrills and spills in the aforementioned Scarlet Blade, wherein Olly Reed’s Roundhead Capt. Tom Sylvester oscillates between careerism (masquerading as the call of duty and devotion to Lionel Jeffries’ Col. Judd) and lust (masquerading as love) for Judd’s Royalist sympathising daughter Clare (June Thorburn) who secretly supports the fifth column activities of the Zorro-like title character, Edward Beverley, played by Jack Hedley. Maybe if I’d opened my pitch for a Hedley interview with this one rather than the scarlet blades he encountered in lucio fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), I might have got somewhere…
The film is simple-mindedly pro-Cavalier and freighted with anachronisms and inaccuracies but Gilling is clearly less interested in such stuff than he is in individual conscience and its attendant dilemmas. In distinct contrast to Reed’s character’s death in Pirates (“Ooh mama”, indeed!) Sylvester’s character contradictions ultimately explode in one of the the most scenery-chewing death scenes ever committed to celluloid.
There’s more of the same in The Brigand Of Kandahar, with half-caste (as he would have been referred to in those days) British officer Case (Ronald Lewis) again falling from grace on account of an illicit affair (his peers disapproval here compounded by considerations of class and the taboo of miscegenation). He takes up arms against the British Empire with the dreaded Eli Khan (Reed getting to wear the boot blacking on his face this time) before the latter’s duplicity and casual cruelty make for second thoughts… further complicated bt the erotic attentions of Yvonne Romain’s “Ratina” (!?) Stay tuned for a “lust in the dust” styled denoument and plenty of other stuff subsequently lampooned in Carry On Up The Khyber (1968).
Gilling went on to direct episodes of such iconic ITC television series as The Saint, The Champions and Department S and… after relocating to Spain (where he died in 1984), Cross Of The Devil, (1975)… a semi-canonical entry in the Blind Dead / Templars cycle.
Michael Carreras’s Visa To Canton (“Passport To China” for the American market) is a significantly less sophisticated proposition than any of the above, in fact you could comfortably dismiss it as a pale Bond knock off… until you check your dates! Ian Fleming’s greatest creation first saw the light of the silver screen in Terence Young’s Dr. No, two years after Richard Basehart’s Don Benton used his Far East travel agency as a front to foil some fiendish Oriental insurgency (Hammer’s track record in this area doesn’t hold up well to PC scrutiny… Anthony Bushell’s Terror Of The Tongs was made back to back with Visa To Canton but Red Communism was clearly supplanting inscrutable supervillains as the “Yellow Peril”), wooing the dangerously glamorous Lisa Gastoni while doing so. It would be overstepping the mark to claim 007 as a Benton clone (Visa To Canton looks like it’s striving to set up a few sequels but presumably those were deemed surplus to requirement after international audiences had bonded with Bond) but the music’s another matter and it’s here that David Huckvale’s diverting bonus discourses on the OSTs to the films in this box proves most telling, pointing out the influence on Monty Norman’s 007 theme from the ostinatos that Edwin Astley (Pete Townshend’s father-in-law, BTW) fashioned for Visa To Canton.
As on Indicator’s previous Hammer sets, this one is stuffed with extras. Horror author Stephen Laws provides well informed but pleasantly fannish introductions to each film, female critics profile their leading actresses (here it’s Josephine Botting on June Thornburn, Melanie Williams on Yvonne Romain and Virginie Sélavy on Lisa Gastoni, while Kat Ellinger handles Marla Landi (great to learn that she became Lady Dashwood after marrying Sir Francis, whose namesake ancestor founded the Hellfire Club!) Audio commentaries come courtesy of Vic Pratt, Kevin Lyons and (for Pirates) screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. You get the expected trailers, image galleries all and the “Collectors Booklet” stuff I never set eyes on.
Strewn among the remaining extras, we find such treats as Stephen Laws interviewing Andrew Keir (who found Quatermass And The Pit director Roy Ward Baker about as likeable as everybody else here found John Gilling) at Manchester’s Festival Of Fantastic Films in 1993; Jonathan Rigby’s extensive personal reminiscences of top Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster; appraisals of Gilling from Kim Newman and Neil Sinyard, the latter likening him to Val Lewton, no less. Yes, We Have No Piranhas is an exhaustive video essay on Pirates of Blood River’s censorship travails, with split screen comparisons detailing every excised piranha bite. We also learn that the BBFC (whose John Trevelyan remembered TPOBR as the only film he ever busted down from an ‘X’ certificate to a ‘U’) insisted on the volume of whip cracks being reduced!
The Gilling stuff has been beautifully remastered and Visa To Canton looks OK. This is another cracking box set limited to 6,000 numbered units, so what are you waiting for? Grab yourself a piece of the action, right now…