Blu-Ray Review – Hammer Volume Five: Death & Deceit

The latest Hammer box set from Indicator should come with a warning: if your favourite Hammer movies are the horror/science fiction ones, this isn’t for you. This serves up a taste of the swashbuckling adventure movies they did. All four fit the mould of films rooted in England’s last gasp as a colonial power, with lots of British actors in brownface. Most were directed by John Gilling, who wasn’t one of the big Hammer directors, unlike Val Guest, Freddie Francis or Terence Fisher. Gilling did some horror movies, most notably The Plague of the Zombies, but he made more adventure stories, the Boy’s Own Adventure-type films. He’s never achieved the cult status of some of the other Hammer hands.

Visa to Canton (Passport to China) is the one with a different director, Michael Carreras. Richard Basehart stars as Don Benton, an ex-pilot who is tapped to do some work for the US secret services. They want him to fly into Communist China to rescue a girl. There’s a whole Cold War sub-plot about how awful China is, with a slightly noirish feel. Easily the weakest film the set, its 70 minutes plod along till it feels like two hours. Basehart was a American actor who appeared in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in the ‘60s, an old- time ‘50s hard-man actor who did a lot of noirs and also made two films with Fellini. This feels like it was make to cash in on the success of James Bond, but it’s not at that level. If you’re really into that kind of thing you’ll probably like it, but I found it a bit of a snore.

In Gilling’s The Pirates of Blood River, Johnathan Standish (Kerwin Mathews) has been banished to a penal colony by his father because he tried to have a relationship with a married woman. He escapes, but he is captured by a band of pirates led by Captain LaRoche, played by Christian Lee. He leads them back to fight his family. It’s full of double-crosses, swashbuckling and all that fun stuff. Oliver Reed appears as one of the pirates, and as always kind of steals the film. The film was made so cheaply that the pirates don’t actually have a pirate ship. There’s a very memorable scene involving piranhas, which filmmaker Joe Dante definitely must have referenced when making his film Piranha.

The Scarlet Blade (a.k.a. The Crimson Blade) mixes swashbuckling with the English Civil War, this time with Oliver Reed in a major role. King Charles is attacked by the Roundhead forces led by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries). Judd’s right-hand man, the one how does all his dirty work, is Captain Tom Sylvester (Reed). There’s some Royalists led by a Robin Hood-type called Edward Beverly, known as “The Scarlett Blade,” and the overall effect is very much a poor man’s Robin Hood movie. Hammer did do a few proper Robin Hood films, of course. There’s action, romance, a little bit of history, and while it’s nothing special, it’s quite fun for 80 minutes.

The Brigand of Kandahar is not very well regarded, but turned out to be my favourite. This has Oliver Reed playing an Indian prince, and is set in what is now modern Afghanistan. It’s definitely the UK enjoying the last bit of its empire on-screen, one of the Northwest Frontier movies set on the borderlands of India with the British Raj playing the main heroic parts. This probably did not translate well overseas! The Brigand of Kandahar is actually the film that ended Hammer’s long association with Colombia Pictures, and marked the end of Reed’s time with the filmmaking company.

The plot is basic old-fashioned story. Ronald Lewis appears as Case, a mixed-race British officer, which is pretty unbelievable as he is a typical white Welsh guy. Case is kicked out of his regiment and ends up leading tribesmen who are rebelling against the British. Case is conflicted about which side he is on, and the film has a pretty surprising (given when it was made) anti-racist message at the end. Lewis and Yvonne Romaine also did a lot of Hammer films as contract actors, and as with Reed, this was their last. Reed does his typical over-the-top performance, but he’s a far more engaging actor than Lewis, which makes it enjoyable. Lewis was also in Taste of Fear and some other good stuff. The Brigand of Kandahar was not the most expensive film on the planet, so stock from an earlier Northwest Frontier movie Zarak was used, and two actors were superimposed on top of it. It’s so cheesy looking that even in the early ‘60s that would have looked bad.

None of these are great movies, but if you’re a Hammer movie freak, especially if you have the other sets, you’ll want this—but if you’re after your first Hammer set, this probably isn’t the one. All of the discsare packed with commentaries, interviews, featurettes and booklets—it’s a very nice set that you might find enjoyable.

Ian Schultz

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