During the 1950s, and culminating with the glorious boondoggle Cleopatra in 1963, Italian film studios and craftspeople enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood that resulted in, among many other things, a whole lot of ornate stuff piling up in prop and costume storage facilities. Italians were masters of ancient world spectacle, and rightly so given their history. Cabiria (1914) was a massive adventure film that outshines its contemporaries and pioneered many techniques that would go on to become permanent parts of cinematic language. It was also thrilling, full of stunts, and featured sets of a staggering scale.
So it’s not as if Hollywood had to come in and teach Italian filmmakers how to do spectacle. They were the oldest hands at it in the picture business. But post-World War II, Italy was reeling. The war left Italy impoverished and many of its cities in ruin. The film industry was in a weird place where, without many of the basics (including film and electricity), there was little hope of making movies — and yet this is the environment that birthed the neo-realists, led out of the gate by Roberto Rossellini, who took to the streets with battered equipment and whatever film stock he could scavenge to shoot his occupation drama Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945). He followed it up with an anthology film, Paisan, that wove in and out of various narratives as the Allies advanced through Italy; and finally Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948) shot in the rubble of Berlin shortly after the end of the war.
Other neo-realists followed, including Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini. They proved that neither war, nor occupation, nor deprivation could stop people from creating art. As rough and tumble as the early films were, lurking in the background was the modern polish of Cinecitta, the film production facility built at the height of Mussolini’s power,. Cinecitta was a potentially world-class resource, if only someone could figure out how to repair it and get it up and running. Through one of those wonderful series of coincidences and seemingly small things all happening to create something bigger, as Italy entered the 1950s, the world’s newly-minted Jet Set were skipping Paris and New York in favor of Rome, where to be seen drinking, carousing, and making the scene along the Via Veneto became the thing to do.
With money, celebrity, and chic allure flowing in, the city began a rapid recovery. With so many Hollywood celebrities making the scene in Rome anyway, the Hollywood machine decided to take advantage of the depressed economy and move a portion of their business to Rome. And when Hollywood came calling on Rome, they came big. Cinecitta was there for them. Widescreen color films were all the rage, and Rome was the perfect location to shoot epics that took full advantage of the format and provided audiences with a level of sexy, colorful opulence they could not get from that upstart television set.
Italian prop makers and costume designers were hired in droves, along with hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of extras, the whole of the country enthusiastic about such work after so many lean, horrifying years. “Hollywood on the Tiber,” as it became known, was hesitant at first to hire Italian film technicians, however. Crafts and tradespeople, sure — but a director of photography or an editor? Better, they thought, to fly an experienced crew over from California. This eventually changed, as studios realized 1) that costs a lot of money, and 2) the Italians were pretty good at this stuff. Even when they were shut out of Hollywood productions, however, Italian filmmakers still benefited. As Hollywood productions set up shot in and around Rome to indulge the appetite for historical epics, the store of costumes and props began to pile up. So then, a director like, oh let’s say Umberto Lenzi, might not be hired to work on a major Hollywood picture, but after that picture was complete he did have access to all the stuff they left behind.
This meant that even a modestly-budgeted Italian production could dress itself up in the clothes of a multi-million dollar movie. As such, Italy enjoyed a boom of costumed adventure films that leveraged sets and outfits that had been constructed at great cost for other, more expensive American movies. While ancient Greek, Roman, and Biblical adventures ( the Italians always seemed to lean more on the adventure and action side of the story than their more dramatic American counterparts) were the bread and butter, they were by no means the only period settings. You could hit up a warehouse and find anything from King Louis XIII finery to Robin Hood tights to suits of armor at your disposal. And, of course, pirate stuff. Lots of pirate stuff. Which is how, in 1961, when Umberto Lenzi directed his first feature film, he was able to make it look expensive without spending that much money.
Like a shadowy, more exploitative version of Federico Fellini, Lenzi dropped out of law school to pursue filmmaking and, in his spare time, worked as a journalist, including a stint with Bianco e Nero, the oldest film magazine in Italy. In 1958, he directed his first film, a Greek production called Mia Italida stin Ellada or Vacanze ad Atene. It was never released, butin 1961 Lenzi directed his second first feature film: the swashbuckling adventure Le avventure di Mary Read (Queen of the Seas). He settled into a groove that found him directing a steady stream of adventure films, from pirates and historical hellraisers to sword and sandal spectacles, enabling Lenzi to hone his skill at crafting exciting action scenes and competently-mounted productions.
Queen of the Seas is a colorful, light-hearted thriller about real-life pirate Mary Read, though as was the way with pretty much all “based on a true story” epics of the time (and still), Queen of the Seas plays fast and loose with the facts. The historical Mary Read was born in 1685 and raised by the widow of a sea captain. Unfortunately, young Mary wasn’t actually the sea captain’s daughter, so her mother tried to keep both the affair tas well as Mary herself a secret. When Mary’s older brother, the actual son of the sea captain, passed away, Mary’s mother hatched a scheme to cover up the death and raise the illegitimate daughter as the now dead legitimate son, thus making sure that the sea captain’s mother would not cut the family off financially.
Amazingly, the ruse worked. Young Mary spent her early years as a boy, eventually finding work on a ship and then, still successfully masquerading as a young man, she joined the military and marched off to war against France. By most accounts she distinguished herself in battle but, eventually, fell in love with a Dutch soldier. Their marriage confused a good many people as Mary came out from behind her male disguise, but it didn’t last. Her husband passed away shortly after their marriage, and Mary resumed her male identity and joined the Dutch army. However, she found little in the way of opportunity once peace broke out and so, perhaps moved by the sea captain’s blood she did not share, she joined a ship bound for the West Indies.
That ship was seized by pirates, and Mary became a member of the pirate crew — a transgression for which she was granted a pardon when the pirates were captured, since she claimed she’d not had much of a choice. Pirate life must have appealed to her, though, because when she set sail again as part of a privateer crew attacking the Spanish on behalf of England, she eventually joined that crew in mutiny. Having by now made a buccaneer’s name for herself, she joined the crew of famed pirate “Calico” Jack Rackham and his right-hand woman, Anne Bonny. With no sworn allegiance to any nation, Rackham, Bonny, and Read (who was still thought by all to be a man) raised hell on the high seas, including a movie-worthy romantic triangle involving the three, which eventually resulted in Read revealing herself to Rackham and Bonny as a woman. Bonny understood; she herself had spent much of her life being raised as a boy by her lawyer father.
High times on the high seas came to an end in November 1720 when pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet caught Rackham’s ship. The pirates had been yo-ho-hoing their way through several bottles of rum, leaving the men either too drunk or too cowardly to repel the boarders. They tumbled into the hold to hide (not the best plan, but what do you expect from a bunch of drunks). All that stood against capture were Mary Read and Anne Bonny, and two women, no matter how fierce and sorely disappointed by their male shipmates (Read reportedly fired into the hold out of anger when the men abandoned them), weren’t enough to fight off Barnet’s entire crew. The ship was taken and every pirate was sentenced to hang, a fate Mary and Anne escaped by both claiming to be pregnant. The stay of execution wasn’t long for Mary, though. In April 1721 she died of fever, possibly brought on by complications during childbirth. Anne Bonny, whose last words to her cowardly partner Calico Jack had been “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog,” was never executed. Or at least there is no record of her execution. Or of her being freed, or remaining in prison. What she did between her stay of execution and her reported date of death decades later, in 1782, remains a mystery.
The Mary Read of Umberto Lenzi’s Queen of the Seas bears a passing resemblance to her inspiration. Played with an impish twinkle by Lisa Gastoni, the film’s Mary Reade is a blonde beauty and notorious bandit who is more than willing to disguise herself a man in pursuit of some bit of criminal mischief but does not otherwise live under the guise of manhood. A bit of cross-dressing thievery gets her imprisoned in the Tower of London, where she meets rascally young lord Peter Goodwin (Knoxville, Tennessee native Jerome Courtland). Goodwin discovers Mary’s gender-bending charade, and the two strike up a jailhouse romance that is cut short when it’s discovered that Goodwin is indeed the Lord he claims to be and is promptly released.
Mary engineers an escape of her own, out the window and into the Thames, and is soon reunited with her grandfather/partner in crime (Agostino Salvietti). After discovering that Goodwin is a flirty gadabout lord fancypants, Mary signs up with famed corsair Captain Poof (Walter Barnes). When Poof is killed in a raid, daring Mary Read leads an escape, takes over the ship, renounces her allegiance to England, and begins a new career as a pirate queen resplendently dressed in scarlet.
Gastoni’s Mary Read may not be overly faithful to the real Mary, but she’s still afforded a chance to partake in all sorts of derring-do that, even in 1961, was frequently denied women, even in pirate movies, where they were often relegated to the role of sidekick or haughty lady taken prisoner by a dashing pirate with whom she will eventually fall in love. In contrast, Lisa Gastoni (and her stunt double) gets to engage in fist fights, high dives, sword fights, shootouts, and assorted acts of swinging from the rigging that all pirates are expected to execute. She’s never presented as comical. The men rarely doubt her ability (and if they do, they are taught a swift lesson), and she’s written as smart as she is physically capable. When a ship bound for Florida yields little in the way of riches, Mary and her crew just go to Florida and rob all the Spanish lords and ladies there as punishment for owning such a poorly treasured boat. Jerome Courtland is a likable goofball cad who finds himself thrust into the fight against pirates as a result of his attempt to avoid marriage to a homely royal lady, but this is Lisa Gastoni’s show; silly Lord Goodwin is just a harmless comedic aside for most of the film. Being an adventure movie from the early 1960s, there will be a romantic subplot, but for most of the film it isn’t front and center. Heck, it’s hardly even mentioned at all until the finale, and by then we’ve had so much action and adventure from Mary Read that it’s hard to hold a respite from pirating against her, especially when it comes after a thrilling sword fight and a lot of cannons blowing stuff up.
Taking full advantage of all the pirate paraphernalia, sets, miniatures, and sailing ship stock footage at his disposal, Umberto Lenzi turns in an assured and handsomely mounted mini-epic. Lenzi was a fan of director Raoul Walsh, and it’s obvious the influence Walsh’s own swashbucklers (which included the silent Douglas Fairbanks epic, The Thief of Bagdad, 1952’s Blackbeard the Pirate, and 1953’s Sea Devils) had on Lenzi. Working with cinematographer Augusto Tiezzi, who’d been working as a cameraman since 1935, Lenzi makes the most of everything he has, including some location work at the Tower of London and a lot of convincing scenes of the high seas. Although it doesn’t feature the intricate swordplay and swashbuckling of Errol Flynn or Basil Rathbone, Queen of the Seas is still packed with spirit, fun, and thrills.