Hammer lovers have never had it so good. The last few years have seen a surge of Hammer films released on DVD on both sides of the Atlantic, including such sought-after favourites as Cash on Demand, The Gorgon and Vampire Circus. Fans may complain when there are few extras in the form of documentaries and audio-commentaries, but these are expensive to produce for what is really a niche market – and frankly, we’re spoilt with often-excellent prints, presented uncut and in their original ratios.
While there are still some gaps – the Poesque Shadow of the Cat (1961) is top of my wishlist – there’s an ever-growing catalogue of high-quality Hammer films available. And while the studio is justly most famous for its Gothic horrors, many of the DVDs (and now Blu-rays) being released are those that fall outside the horror genre, including pirate adventures, psychological thrillers and war films. In the UK, StudioCanal has now added to the list two period adventure films from Hammer.
The Scarlet Blade (aka The Crimson Blade, 1963) is an elegantly told tale of treachery and romance during the English Civil War of the seventeenth century. John Gilling, whose masterpieces, arguably, were the back-to-back Hammer horrors The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile (both 1965), directs every aspect of the story, including the action, with a deft hand. Of particular note is the handsome lighting of Jack Asher, on his first Hammer film since The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960). His distinctly lush pastel shades lend the film a lot of class, reminiscent of his lighting for such films as Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. In 1960, he had more or less been replaced permanently by Arthur Grant as regular director of photography at Hammer, and he would return to the company only once more after Scarlet Blade, for The Secret of Blood Island in 1964. Asher’s role in the film’s look can’t be underestimated, for it helps distinguish it from The Devil-Ship Pirates, made later on the same sets with (the very talented) Michael Reed as DP.
Lionel Jeffries, an ever-reliable character actor, excels as the chief villain, a tyrannical Cromwellian colonel determined to ferret out the title character, a Royalist (Jack Hedley) involved in a plot to rescue King Charles I. Oliver Reed, a Roundhead who betrays his principles for the woman he loves, said his denoument in Scarlet Blade was his favourite death scene in any of his films. Ironically, he also said that the next film being released by StudioCanal this month, The Brigand of Kandahar (1965), was the worst film he ever made.
The film is set during the nineteenth-century, in British India, where a half-caste soldier (Ronald Lewis), despised by his superiors (Duncan Lamont et al) and sentenced to prison for cowardice, escapes to join the enemy, led by Oliver Reed. It, too, is written and directed by John Gilling, but sadly, he shows none of the skill he demonstrated with Scarlet Blade. The “action” is laborious, with punches flying everywhere and none of them landing convincingly. A thin and incoherent story suffers not only from a lack of directorial flair, but from the absence of a single sympathetic character. We care little for the main character, who is as much an unscrupulous rat as a victim of prejudice. Yvonne Romain (The Curse of the Werewolf, Captain Clegg) is brought in for romance and sex appeal, but her character’s role in the plot is arbitrary.
Rather than Jack Asher, we get Reg Wyer behind the camera, and it’s not his finest hour. The flat photography is only made worse by the poor sets. Virtually everything is filmed indoors, including the exteriors. That is, except for establishing shots and battle scenes, which are shamelessly lifted from the 1956 Victor Mature vehicle Zarak. The cheap-looking result is an intermingling of grainy long shots of armies clearly too large for Hammer’s meagre budget, with medium and close-up shots of badly lit studio interiors, complete with rocks that wobble around suspiciously like fibreglass when knocked. I found myself wondering how much better this would have been had it been filmed on the backlot at Bray (it was shot at Elstree, as most Hammer productions were in 1964-65) and with a better DP. It might have had a smidgen of the class of Scarlet Blade.
Nevertheless, completists will want to purchase Brigand of Kandahar to round out their Hammer collection. There is at least a bit of enjoyment to be had identifying the many Hammer faces in the background, including Eddie Powell (Christopher Lee’s regular stunt double), John Maxim (She, Dracula Prince of Darkness) and Caron Gardner (The Evil of Frankenstein).
The Scarlet Blade and The Brigand of Kandahar will be released on region 2 DVD on January 16, 2012. The Scarlet Blade includes the US title sequence (displaying the US title The Crimson Blade as well as slightly different production credits) as an extra/bonus feature. Both films are presented in their original cinematic ratio (2:35:1), and the transfer quality is excellent.