A matter of perspective, it turns out, is everything when watching old catalogue titles such as this for the first time. Hammer’s The Pirates of Blood River is, on first viewing, a rather average adventure flick obviously limited by Hammer’s production abilities: part of the charm of Hammer’s films are its stable of familiar faces (here Christopher Lee, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed) in front of the camera, and the familiar (re-used) sets that also return time and time again in various slightly re-tweaked guises. But films can’t always get by on such charms, and sometimes they come short- The Pirates of Blood River doesn’t have any ocean, or even have a coastline, never mind an actual pirate ship (bar what is evidently stock footage used over the main titles). As one might expect from a landlocked production shot entirely at Bray studios and the nearby Black Park Lake (and a sandpit) the film rather feels like a pirate film in name only and maybe Hammer pushing ambitions too far.
And yet perspective helps: after watching the film and feeling rather nonplussed (I swear Christopher Lee looks so totally bored throughout I felt sorry for him) I watched this Indicator disc’s special features and finally some of the magic of the film was finally unlocked for me. The Pirates of Blood River was released in the summer of 1962, in time for the school holidays and edited (originally) to achieve a ‘U’ rating ensuring schoolboys the country over could go watch it. It proved to be an absolute smash hit with its target audience and would lead to further such adventure films from Hammer. The perspective that this is really a children’s adventure film finally allowed me to understand the film: I think I was expecting one thing and got something else (certainly its more Enid Blyton than Robert E Howard) – I suspect I suffered some misdirection from the title and Hammer’s reputation for horror. Some of the cuts to ensure a ‘U’-cert were later restored and this version is evidently much stronger than the version that thrilled children back in 1962, but it obviously remains fairy tame stuff (one of the special features compares the cuts/alternate versions, and its pretty interesting).
So I’m certain that when I get around to re-watching this film I’ll most likely enjoy it much more than I did this first time around. Perspective really is everything, sometimes, in just the same way as expectations are too: so many times I watch a film expecting little and really enjoy it, and sometimes expect too much and am disappointed. This is a very good example of finely curated special features aiding the viewer to appreciate a film, and is a very good advert for such releases. Its sad how special features and elaborate releases like this fifth Hammer box-set from Indicator are becoming so much rarer these days (certainly becoming increasingly reserved for catalogue titles, with even new ‘blockbuster’ titles relegated to EPK extras that do the films little justice). If I’d just stumbled upon this film on a television airing or streaming channel I wouldn’t have gotten much out of it all. Instead it turns out to be a welcome addition to my Blu-ray collection of Hammer films and one I’m sure I’ll enjoy more next time around.