Two rarely seen costume drama adventure films from British production house Hammer Films have just come to DVD in newly remastered editions courtesy of Studio Canal UK, both written and directed by John Gilling during the peak of the company’s family operation at Bray Studios, towards the end of its distribution agreement with Columbia Pictures. The first of these, “The Scarlet Blade”, is a better-than-average swashbuckler set during the final years of the English Civil War, which finds Oliver Reed on particularly fine form in a setting which sees Hammer yet again managing to pull off its usual trick of making a low budget look lavish and attractive to the eye with the aid of its ‘Hammerscope’ 2.35:1 aspect ratio cinematography and Jack Asher’s reliably colourful lighting (the film was one of his final works for Hammer), for which he was duly BAFTA-nominated.
Gilling, much admired for his two ‘Cornish Horrors’, “Plague of the Zombies” and “The Reptile” (shot back to back for Hammer a year later) was by all accounts a prickly, bad tempered character with a reputation for sometimes being difficult to handle, often falling out with producers and crew members alike on-set. After one intemperate dispute after he collaborated on a screenplay for the company in the early ‘50s, James Carreras had allegedly vowed he would never use Gilling ever again. But despite many other such clashes (one of which relates to this very movie), such was his obvious talent that Gilling would go on to direct seven mainly well-regarded features for Hammer productions (finishing on a somewhat indifferent note with 1966’s “The Mummy’s Shroud”) before switching to TV, where he would shoot many episodes on various ITC film series, mainly “The Saint”, “The Champions” and “Department S”, all thanks to his previous association with the producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman.
John Gilling’s first big break came when he was promoted to become personal assistant to Alfred Hitchcock during the making of “The Lady Vanishes” in 1937. After the war he turned to screenwriting for a living and developed relationships with both Hammer films and independent producers Baker and Berman. He wrote and directed the Peter Cushing horror vehicle “The Flesh and the Fiends” for the latter -- an account of the 19th century body snatchers Burke & Hare, which almost brought its producers into litigation with Hammer because the company had itself only just bought the rights to the Dylan Thomas screenplay for “The Doctor and the Devils” and felt Gilling’s treatment was rather similar. Nevertheless, Gilling’s film proved to be an extremely effective retelling of the tale, matching the Karloff and Lugosi-starring Val Lewton feature “The Body Snatcher” for shady noir atmosphere, and featuring another commanding performance from Cushing. The film once again brought Gilling to the attention of Hammer (this time in a more positive way), and he soon-after found himself at the helm of a now rare black & white period thriller starring André Morell, “The Shadow of the Cat”.
Although mainly remembered and revered today for its horror output, Hammer always attempted to keep a finger in as many genre pies as possible, especially during the 1960s when, during this heady period, their adventure and thriller genre pieces often outnumbered the company’s horror productions. Gilling worked with Cushing again soon after “The Flesh and the Fiends” on a film he produced, wrote and directed himself – a period-set, “Jamaica Inn-style” action melodrama about smuggling on the Cornish coast in the 18th century, which somewhat aped the Hammer style and set him in good stead for his next Hammer project, the Jimmy Sangster-scripted “The Pirates of Blood Island”, which went on to become one half of Britain’s top-grossing double bill for 1962, in combination with Ray Harryhausen’s “Mysterious Island”.
Unsurprisingly, given the unexpected financial success of “The Pirates of Blood Island”, the company was eager to repeat the same formula again; Gilling already had a story idea for another historical tale, this time set in the last tumultuous days of the English Civil War during the 17th century, which he agreed to sell to Hammer who then commissioned him to both write the screenplay and direct the feature. Top billed in “The Scarlet Blade” were versatile character actors Lionel Jeffries as the former Royalist-turned Cromwellian autocrat Colonel Judd (Jeffries’ brief career as a director also saw him helm “The Railway Children” and “The Water Babies” ) and a brooding young Oliver Reed, cannily cast as Judd’s ambivalent Roundhead second-in-command, Captain Sylvester.
The fascinating period setting and the intriguing tale of betrayal, fanaticism and divided loyalties which Gilling places as the centrepiece of the screenplay’s concerns, results in this apparently uncomplicated Robin Hood-style action caper coming to seem a great deal more intriguing and suggestive than it at first appears. There’s a constant tension sought here, between the need to conform to the swashbuckling norms of the genre (in which the underdog people’s hero always wins out against tyrannical villains) and the complications of historical reality. Although the film seems on the surface to reduce the struggles of the period to a simplistic ‘Royalists good, Parliamentarians bad’ equation, there are instances in which it appears on the verge of suggesting a darker aspect to the character of its rather bland ‘freedom fighter’ hero, the titular ‘Scarlet Blade’ (played by Jack Hedley, later a star of BBC drama “Colditz” and top of the cast list in Lucio Fulci’s reviled 1982 giallo “The New York Ripper”).
The Blade, or rather Edward Beverley, a Royalist veteran, mistakenly believed to have died at Preston during one of the final skirmishes of the war in which the remaining dregs of the Royalist cause were routed by Cromwell’s New Model Army while on their way to support a last-ditch Scottish invasion force coming from the north, is written by Gilling and played by Hedley in the style of a typical daring, handsome outlaw hero, holding out in the forests against a tyrannical force of Nazi-like oppressors now in control of the country, as Royalist support melts away or is destroyed. Yet there’s one sequence near the end of the film that eerily foreshadows Michael Reeves’ much more cynical take on the same conflict. Here, Beverley the so-called hero, attacks a Roundhead solder with an axe, just as Ian Ogilvy’s sympathetic Roundhead cavalry man would be driven to the same act of desperation at the climax of Reeves’ “The Witchfinder General” four years later. Coming at the climax of a traditional lengthy fight scene, one can’t help thinking that the vehemence with which Beverley is then shown repeatedly striking the fallen aggressor with his axe blade, over and over again, might be intended to at least suggest the same ideas Reeves was trying to put across, even if Gilling’s efforts are constrained within the much more traditional setting of the matinee action adventure genre.
The film opens with a simple caption which makes the situation seem straightforward enough: it identifies the year as being 1648, and continues: ‘this is the story of a band of men who defied a tyrant.’ In the year identified here, the outcome of the English Civil Wars had near enough already been decided in favour of Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. All of the Royalists’ field armies had already been destroyed by 1645, and the remaining years saw a number of Royalist strongholds besieged by the New Model Army of Cromwell, Fairfax and Rainsborough, until the fall of the King’s base of operations, the town of Oxford, effectively ended all organised opposition. Charles Stuart found himself (literally) sold to Parliament after negotiations with his Scottish Presbyterian hosts broke down, and he was kept a prisoner at Hampton Court Palace. And though he later staged an escape, he ended up trapped at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight until brought back to face execution by the newly victorious Cromwellian regime. In fact, most of Cromwell’s opposition at this point came from competing factions within the Parliamentarians’ own ranks, with Cromwell eventually outmanoeuvring his opponents within the command structure of the army and in parliament (some of whom, such as the Levellers, wanted to establish a universal suffrage), seeing off Fairfax and the murdered Rainsborough and presiding over the formation of a ‘Rump’ Parliament that was purged of all moderate or religious opposition – making England effectively a military-run state.
Perhaps it is this last, clearly totalitarian act which spurs Gilling to cast the always unseen Oliver Cromwell as the dictator-villain of the film, and anyone opposing him as heroes who stand for freedom and liberty. The reality was not quite so simple of course, since religion was also central to the conflict, and Charles’ willingness to engage with Catholic foreigners in his efforts to drum up support for his continued kingship alienated many who had previously been sympathetic to him; but the screenplay ignores such issues and initially plays fast and loose with historical fact by depicting Charles Stuart as being still at large and on the run on the English mainland as late as 1648, hunted by Colonel Judd’s ‘Ironside’ militia. Gilling is perhaps deliberately conflating his life with the adventures of his son Charles, Prince of Wales, who went on to lead an uprising against the Cromwellian regime, but was defeated at Worcester in 1651. His subsequent adventures as he fled across the country, evading capture until eventually finding sanctuary overseas in Catholic France, later becoming the stuff of romantic legend.
Gilling choses to simplify such matters by making this a tale all about the personal and the political coming into open conflict, emphasising an observation commonly made about this period in British history -- that the bloody conflicts of these years often divided families straight down the middle, presenting difficult choices for all those involved on both sides as to where their ultimate loyalties lay. Betrayal and treachery are immediately placed centre stage in the storyline: Edward’s father, a prominent Royalist Commander of good standing, has been helping Charles I (Robert Rietty) evade capture for some time, offering him sanctuary at the Royalist garrison town run from Beverley Manor. However, with its defeat at Preston, the Royalist cause now seems reduced to the disruptive activities of a band of guerrilla fighters, living rough in the forests and attempting to avoid capture by the Roundheads in an area of the country presided over by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) and his louche, cunning second-in-command, the wily Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed). Having been warned that Judd and his men are on their way to occupy Beverley’s now-defeated royalist garrison, the King’s sympathisers arrange for him to be spirited away to France, but are betrayed to Colonel Judd and his men at the last minute. The King is eventually captured and hurried off to Hampton Court to await his fate, and Colonel Beverley and the other Royalists are hanged for abetting his attempted escape.
It transpires that Judd himself was once a Royalist, but ‘turned his coat’ once it became apparent that the Royalist cause was lost and he was presented with the possibility of a generous stipend and the prestigious-sounding role of ‘Officer in Charge of the District, Chief Intendant of the Forest and Magistrate’ to be awarded to him by Cromwell personally. Despite this, he claims to view the treachery of the peasant who betrayes Colonel Beverley and his men with contempt, and has the man imprisoned. There are many who view Judd’s sudden conversion from Royalist to fervent Cromwellian with equal disdain, though, even his right hand man, Captain Sylvester, cynically remarks to a lower-ranking officer that ‘the Colonel always fights with the hand that serves him best!’
Yet Judd continues to maintain that he is indeed ideologically committed to the ‘new order’. It’s an issue that the film remains ambivalent on to the end, as it does on a number of other issues surrounding the motivations of the characters. The difficulty for Judd is that his beloved daughter Claire (June Thorburn) has remained an open Royalist sympathiser throughout this period and is still secretly helping Royalist fugitives escape to France, providing them with food and aide whenever she can. Sylvester has discovered this for himself, and uses the knowledge as leverage to try and inveigle himself into her affections, offering to help her in her secret rebellious activities just so long as she will agree to let him attend on her. Fearing blackmail, Claire is at first dubious of the rough and cunning soldier’s intentions, yet Sylvester insists he doesn’t want anything in return, just the chance to be allowed her confidence.
It is a subtle move on the part of the self-serving Sylvester, revealing him as someone whose loyalties are perhaps even more fluid than his Colonel’s. Nevertheless, Sylvester appears to stay true to his word, and after Claire discovers that one of Judd’s entourage at Beverley Manor (which Judd has now made his own command headquarters) has access to a secret escape route that leads from the Manor to a meeting place used by a rebel Royalist faction headed by Edward Beverley, aka The Scarlet Blade – a feared bandit who has been responsible for a number of attacks on Roundhead units, leading to the deaths of many of them – she takes the risk of confiding in Sylvester, who comes up with a fiendish plot that helps him gain the trust of both Beverley’s Royalist outlaws and Colonel Judd -- who places him in charge of the investigation into the identity of the person leaking information to Beverley’s forces, when that person has in fact been him all along.
The arrangement unravels, predictably enough, after Clare’s secret meetings with the Scarlet Blade lead to her falling in love with his alter ego, Edward Beverley. If love on opposite sides of the hostile political spectrum doesn’t present enough difficulties in itself, Sylvester’s discovery of the affair precipitates his taking his revenge by using his knowledge of the Royalist rebels’ activities to start playing both sides for his own advantage. Oliver Reed is presented here with a far meatier role in Captain Sylvester than Jack Hedley, the nominal hero of film. In many ways his character is that of someone whose nature is much closer to Vincent Price’s portrayal of Mathew Hopkins in “Witchfinder General”, being someone who remains always emotionally outside the cut & thrust of events, always attempting to manipulate them for his own ultimate advantage – in this case, the goal being to obtain the good favour of Claire Judd, his boss’s daughter. When that plan not only comes to naught but results in her falling for Beverley instead, he embarks on a destructive path of jealously motivated nihilism which results by the end in his having gone from being someone who despises treachery to one who has betrayed just about everybody close to him, including Clare.
Reed has never been better than he is here, presenting an ambivalent and menacing presence even when you think he’s on the side of the angels. Hedley meanwhile, is stuck in the role of an underwritten and uninspiring hero figure, seemingly cast in the part because he fits the good-looking romantic lead persona that the role would seem to demand in order to deemphasise the fact that, in many ways, Edward Beverley is not necessarily that sympathetic a character. His Royalist cause now defeated and the King captured, he’s presented as though he’s a Robin Hood-like outlaw, but his only real motive in the end is killing as many Roundheads as possible, which although understandable given what happened to his father, is hardly an intrinsically laudable aim -- and not even Gilling can rewrite history and have Charles Stuart escape his execution and return to the throne, so the Scarlet Blade’s ultimate cause is doomed from the beginning.
Indeed, the writer-director even includes a scene in which Edward’s brother, Phillip (Clifford Elkin), and all of the remaining Royalists are killed attempting a hopeless mission to rescue the king on his way to the gallows. Given all that, it’s interesting that the film’s muted ending has Beverley and Clare opt out of society altogether, joining Michael Ripper’s unconvincingly blacked-up gypsy confidante, the swarthy-skinned Pablo and his forest-dwelling non-conformist drop-outs who reject loyalty to the cause of either side, and will only fight the Roundheads in order to avoid being conscripted. While the morally dissolute Sylvester attempts to cope with the upheavals instigated by the vagaries of history by retreating into an emotional no man’s land, loyal to nothing but his own mercurial adventuring temperament, the politically committed (in the latter case near-fanatical) Clare and Edward must actually withdraw into a very real state of isolation – estranged and divorced from the regime that now rules the land, while no longer actively fighting against it. Their salvation is to withdraw from battle and find escape in their love for each other, subsisting in near destitution on the outskirts of society with their gypsy friends, and allowed to do so only by Clare’s father who gains some sort of redemption for himself by discreetly saying nothing while continuing ostensibly to be a central prop in the Cromwellian administration.
It’s an unusual and strikingly downbeat way for such a ‘rip-roaring’ adventure to end, and, now newly remastered for its first DVD release, the film stands out as a rather pleasing addition to the films of the great Hammer heyday of the 1960s, which showcases Arthur Grant’s superb photography and Bernard Robertson’s distinctive set design, along with key support provided by recognisable Hammer regulars such as Suzan Farmer (as Edward’s sister, Constance) and the ubiquitous Michael Ripper. Gilling is able to stage a few, admittedly small-scale, Civil War skirmishes between Royalists and Roundheads, but that’s still far more than Michael Reeves was able to muster for “Witchfinder General”. There are a number of rousing action set-pieces and fight scenes, one of which resulted in another spectacular argument on set between Gilling and his first assistant director, Douglas Hermes, over a stunt Gilling wanted to mount that Hermes insisted was too dangerous. Hermes walked off set and didn’t return, having to be replaced by Hugh Harlow, who apparently found Gilling equally disagreeable to work with.
Nevertheless the results are fine indeed. The film looks magnificent, a particularly agreeable example of the Hammer ‘60s aesthetic in its prime, and the performances of Reed and Jeffries stand out in a story which has more depth than its clichéd format at first appears to allow. This new DVD from Studio Canal UK features a strong transfer, occasionally showing signs of age but generally holding up well against the best of the Hammer films from this period. The mono audio is clear and comes with subtitles for the hard of hearing. The only extra is an alternative opening sequence intended for US audiences, with slightly different on-screen credits. It appears here without sound.
Hammer fans will undoubtedly enjoy this fresh offering from the studio’s golden period; it possibly stands as one of the strongest entries in the company’s run of ‘swashbuckling’ adventure movies. Recommended.
Read More From Black Gloves in his blog Nothing But The Night!