One of the most exuberant and athletic adventure movies, let alone pirate movies, that you will ever see is The Crimson Pirate, with Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok and directed by Robert Siodmak. Rather than sword fight their way through the film, Lancaster and Cravat jump and leap and throw things and use whatever comes to hand to rout the enemy, all the while demonstrating their perfect coordination.
Before Burt Lancaster became an actor, he and his childhood friend, Cravat, formed an acrobatic team and worked in a circus. When Lancaster went to Hollywood, his friend eventually joined him. Cravat would train Lancaster and keep him in shape and the two of them appeared in nine movies together, with two of them allowing them to demonstrate their acrobatic abilities. And they really are fine acrobats. They do back flips, walk in unison, jump in unison, scramble up ropes, turn somersaults, pull each other up, and generally romp through the Spanish Main as Barbary pirates.
Captain Vallo (Lancaster) is not only a fearsome pirate, but also a tricky strategist. The movie opens with the King’s man, Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), who is coming to put down some rebels on the Island of Cobra. But when they encounter a small ship that has apparently been decimated by scurvy and is filled with dead bodies, they tow the ship behind them, only to discover that those dead bodies are really live pirates led by Captain Vallo, who promptly take over the ship. But instead of killing Gruda he comes up with a scheme. He’ll let Gruda go, sell all of Gruda’s guns to the rebels, led by El Libre, and then sell El Libre to the king and Baron Gruda, who promised to throw in something extra, thus making three times the money than if they killed Gruda and sold the guns elsewhere.
The pirates take a little convincing, though. They are old fashioned pirates, led by first mate Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), and they like good old fashioned pillaging and plundering. This scheme of their captain’s smacks too much of legitimate business, even if it does involve selling out the rebels. But Vallo and his constant companion, Ojo (Cravat), go ashore to Cobra to find the rebels and sell them the guns.
After some hilarious and invigorating gymnastics, driving the soldiers mad with their antics, Vallo and Ojo find the rebels, one of whom is Conseulo (Eva Bartok), the daughter of El Libre. It turns out that El Libre has already been captured by the King’s men, so in order to keep his complicated money scheme alive, Vallo takes Conseulo with him to the prison island of San Pero, to rescue her father so they can sell the guns to him so they can sell him right back to the king.
But when Vallo starts to fall in love with Consuelo and has second thoughts about his plan, his crew take matters into their own hands and make a deal with Baron Gruda, selling out their captain, who must now rescue Consuelo and, in the process, assist in the liberation of Cobra.
The Crimson Pirate doesn’t take itself at all seriously – though most good pirate films don’t. I suppose it’s because pirates in history were so awful that if a film were a serious drama it would be too gory and intense for general, family consumption. But The Crimson Pirate especially doesn’t take itself too seriously. Burt Lancaster’s Vallo is not just a pirate captain, he’s also a bit of con artist. He plays it like a used car salesman, always saying “Gather round, lads and lasses” to talk either his crew or the rebels into one of his latest schemes.
The romance is not quite as riveting as other aspects of the film; it is more of a reason for Vallo to grow a conscience. It’s really about his adventures with his faithful Ojo. Because Nick Cravat had a fairly strong Brooklyn accent, in his two historical adventure films with Burt Lancaster (the other was The Flame and the Arrow) he plays a man who does not speak. Instead, he mimes, makes faces and communicates as clearly as if he were speaking. There is one fun scene when he is showing Vallo how his heart has been hooked by Consuelo and gets him to admit that he no longer wants to go through with his original scheme. It is fun to watch the two of them interact; they have the kind of easy rapport and coordination that comes from long familiarity, as if they can anticipate each other’s movements.
In a feature on how The Pirates of the Caribbean was made, the screenwriters of that film said that they wanted to capture the feel of the classic pirates films, like Captain Blood and Treasure Island. Another movie that they mentioned being heavily influenced by was The Crimson Pirate and watching it recently, I can see how. There is the scene in the original Pirates of the Caribbean where Jack and Will walk in the water holding an upside-down rowboat over their heads, which comes straight out of The Crimson Pirate, though it is a more extensive and hilarious scene in the latter film. Vallo, Ojo and Professor Prudence (James Hayter) are cast adrift and chained to a rowboat. The professor gets the idea that, according to Archemides, if they overturn the boat, if the boat is airtight, the air will prevent the water from rushing in. With their heads poking into the air pocket of the overturned boat, they walk ashore. But because they are still chained to the boat, they do quite a bit of running through the streets and ducking around corners, still carrying the boat over their heads. All that can be seen is their feet and I will say that no one pussyfoots better or has more personality with his pussyfooting than Burt Lancaster.
Vallo is always running around saying “Avast” more than anyone else I’ve seen, a line spoofed by Will Turner when he unsuccessfully attempts some pirate talk with his “Aye, avast!.” There is also a scene when Vallo and his crew jump out of their ship and into the water to swim to the enemy ship and take them unawares; a scene with them all in the water that is reminiscent of the skeleton pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean walking across the ocean floor to reach the other ship.
With adventure, swashbuckling, romance, a fight for liberty, explosions, mutinies, hot air balloons, liquid explosives, The Crimson Pirate is one of the great pirate films of all time and certainly one of the most fun.