• Swashbuckler Double Feature: The Black Pirates/Tales Of Robin Hood

    Released by: Sprocket Vault
    Released on: 2017
    Directed by: James Tinling/Allen H. Miner
    Cast: Robert Clarke, Mary Hatcher, Paul Cavanaugh, Wade Crosby, Whit Bissell, Ben Welden, Lester Matthews/Anthony Dexter, Martha Roth, Lon Chaney, Jr., Robert Clarke, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Alfonso Bedoya
    Year: 1951/1954
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    The Movies:

    Tales of Robin Hood: In the 12th century, the vile Sir Alan (Keith Richards; no not that Keith Richards) demands that the Earl of Chester (John Vosper) pay heavy taxes or face expulsion from his own property. After Sir Alan departs, the Earl tells his young son, Robin of Locksley (David Stollery), as well as his aide and confidant, Will Scarlet (Whit Bissell), that he plans to fight the Norman conqueror who has conquered the land and imposed the taxes. Immediately thereafter, he is struck in the back by an arrow and dies; Will snatches Robin and the two flee to Sherwood Forest, where the boy becomes a master of the bow and arrow. Sir Alan’s boss, the vile Sir Guy of Clermont (Paul Cavanaugh), takes over Locksley Castle and proceeds to mistreat the nearby villagers. When Sir Fitzwalter (Lester Matthews) refuses to pay taxes as well, he too is executed and his daughter, the beautiful Maid Marian (Mary Hatcher), is claimed as Sir Guy’s property.

    Now an adult, Robin (Robert Clarke) has taken on the moniker of Robin Hood and leads a group known as the Merry Men in accosting Sir Guy’s supporters and redistributing their wealth to the peasants from whom they’ve stolen it through taxation. Upset by Robin Hood’s actions, Sir Guy tasks Sir Alan with capturing and killing Robin Hood. Sir Alan hatches a plot involving an archery contest, believing it will out Robin; in thanks, the murderer of Robin’s father is given Locksley Castle and offered Maid Marian’s hand in marriage.

    While traveling to Nottingham, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck are accosted by bandits, who steal their horses and property, but the two are rescued by Robin Hood. While deigning disinterest in Robin, Marian confesses her true plight. Not long thereafter, Robin and his men disguise themselves and infiltrate Locksley; Robin takes part in the archery contest and confronts Sir Alan, who is killed. But the Merry Men’s troubles are far from over as Sir Guy sets in motion another plan to end Robin’s activities for good.

    Tales of Robin Hood was originally shot for television; hence its short running time (it clocks in at just under an hour). Made on a small budget and shot on pre-existing sets (mostly from RKO’s 1948 melodrama Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman), the film crammed every aspect of the Robin Hood legend into its stunted length, featuring the usual band of heroes and their adversaries (the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Tiny Stowe, included). Unfortunately, the sets aren’t put to the best of use, and James Tinling’s direction fails to wring any frisson or make much spectacle of the proceedings. Even George Robinson, the cinematographer responsible for many Universal horror classics, seems bored by it all.

    Performances range, and while Robert Clarke in the lead doesn’t replicate Errol Flynn’s intensity in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), he certainly isn’t bad. Forced to wear a wig that gives him a mullet, he appears a little underfed for the role (perhaps because there’s so little food to eat in Sherwood Forest). His smile is infectious, however, and he always appears to be having fun in the part, something that should have communicated itself to the other actors.

    In the end, Tales of Robin Hood feels exactly like what it is: a prolonged episode of a television series. Unfortunately for all involved, the series didn’t get picked up, leaving Lippert to give it a brief theatrical run.

    The Black Pirates: In the late 1700s, a group of pirates headed by Dargo (Anthony Dexter) loses their ship in a storm and are stranded along the coast of Central America. Fortunately, Dargo once buried a vast fortune in treasure in the area. Unfortunately, a Catholic mission has been built over the burial spot. It is near that very church that impoverished Castro (Victor Manuel Mendoza) is whipped for daring to love Carlotta (Toni Gerry), the daughter of a wealthy landowner, Pedro Vallejo (Francisco Reiguera). Later that night, after an altercation between Dargo and Castro at a local tavern, Dargo and his men sneak into the church and begin to tear up its floor, hoping to find the treasure. But they are seen, soldiers are summoned, and the pirates flee.

    After committing various atrocities, Dargo and his men trick the soldiers into exiting the village. They then force some of the villagers to dig up the treasure. What they don’t know is that the priest, Father Felipe (Lon Chaney, Jr.), had already found the treasure and used it to help the people of the village. Fearing that the villagers will be killed when the pirates learn the treasure is no more, Castro tries to gather enough men to fight the pirates but is instead captured. Demanding that the treasure be turned over to him, Dargo begins to execute the villagers, leaving it to Castro to find a way to defeat the evil pirate.

    The Black Pirates was shot in cheaper Ansco Color (later known as Ansochrome), which was marketed to compete against Eastmancolor, a single-strip color process introduced in 1950 by Kodak to compete against the more expensive Technicolor. The process is one of the most appealing aspects of The Black Pirates. It can be clearly discerned, even with the distortion caused by the heat and humidity of storage in Central America, that Ansco Color was vivid and sharp; too bad that so much of Pirates suffers from damage, marring what otherwise would have been a lush and pleasing visual presentation.

    As for the film itself, it’s lackluster, to say the least. Action is more often offset by talk or, even worse, people walking silently through underbrush. Performances are decent, but there’s one in particular that stands out in relief against the others: Lon Chaney, Jr. Though long associated with classic Universal horror, Chaney Jr. had come to audiences’ attention playing the mentally challenged Lennie in the first screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It was a terrific performance, and Universal, realizing the potential of casting the son of the man of a thousand faces himself in their horror products, quickly signed the actor to a seven-year contract. Unfortunately, when that contract ended, Universal failed to renew it, sensing that the horror boom of the 1940s was over. Chaney Jr. was left to wander the wilderness, and it was during this period that he became attached to play the priest in The Black Pirates. Best known for his histrionic performance as Larry Talbot, aka the Wolf Man, for Universal, it’s rather refreshing to see him cast as the kindly priest of Pirates. Some historians have blasted many Chaney Jr. performances from the ‘50s and ‘60s as being the product of the actor’s well-known battle against alcohol, but there’s no evidence of his problem here. Chaney Jr. gives a subtle, nuanced performance. In fact, he steals his scenes, and though his character isn’t on screen at all times, from the point of his introduction on, his presence is keenly felt—and often sorely missed.


    Tales of Robin Hood and The Black Pirates hit standard DVD courtesy of Sprocket Vault. The two films are placed on a single disc as part of the “Swashbuckler Double Feature” and advertised as “B-movie Rarities.” Tales of Robin Hood is presented in 4:3 non-anamorphic in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and features a good—if not great—transfer. The black-and-white imagery is certainly clear enough, and in some places fairly detailed, a fact best discerned when there’s fake foliage on the screen. In other places, the image is a bit on the soft side, though never problematically so. Black levels tend toward brown, and contrast is low. The original print materials were clearly in good shape; there are occasionally very minor dirt and debris, but this only adds to the filmic experience. Otherwise, there’s no real damage of any kind.

    The Black Pirates is presented in its original theatrical aspect of 1.66:1. Despite the fact that the case says that the films are 4:3, Pirates is actually presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. The film also begins with the following note:

    Producer Robert L. Lippert, Jr. shared in 2009 that The Black Pirates almost wasn’t completed due to adverse filming conditions in El Salvador. The film stock was stored under hot, humid conditions, resulting in irreversible imperfections to the image. We hope you’ll overlook those blemishes and enjoy watching the rarest of all the Lippert Pictures releases. … The English main titles were discarded when the negative was prepared for release in Mexico, but the Spanish ones survived, which appear on this release.

    For the record, the pre-credit Spanish titles are subtitled and explain where the film was shot, claiming that the proceedings are based on an actual incident. The film was shot and is presented in color here, though the damage referred to above results in some obvious issues, particularly during those opening credits, where it’s faded and brownish. Once the Spanish credits end, a much brighter color spectrum kicks in, with some beautiful greens and blues, though these vary throughout the film, and there are times when the fluctuations are severe (for example, the third reel looks pretty bad). Detail is fairly nice for a standard DVD release of a film of this vintage, much more so than for Tales of Robin Hood. In general, the film is a nice showcase for the Central American locations. Note that there are weird lines that run through even the best of the image, which are more obvious in brighter sequences than darker ones (look at the blue sky to see these as streaks that slightly alter the color). Considering the damage done, however, the film looks pretty remarkable and should be given a chance. As with films given hi-def transfers, fades between scenes are softer than the scenes surrounding them. Skin tones are sometimes a bit pale while at other times pinkish and natural. (The rouge on the actresses’ and some of the actors’ cheeks is a little too obvious at times.) There are also moments when reds tend toward orange.

    Both films contain soundtracks that are in English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. This means that the sound is actually mono but comes through two speakers in your sound system rather than one. Given the age of each film and the way each was shot, this shouldn’t be a problem for viewers, particularly purists. There are no serious defects to report, especially given the visual issues with The Black Pirates. Sounds are clear while dialogue is clean and crisp.

    There are three extras. The first is the original trailer for The Black Pirates (1:50), which is colorful but slightly soft. It clearly was crafted from superior materials, as it doesn’t feature any of the damage prevalent in the final film.

    Next up is an interview with Robert L. Lippert, Jr., which was featured in the book Eye on Science Fiction: 20 Interviews with Classic SF and Horror Filmmakers (McFarland Press, 2007) by Tom Weaver. The interview, which is presented in audio format, is a reenactment featuring Richard M. Roberts as Lippert. It comes across as a little artificial (since it is), but the information contained therein is both entertaining and valuable for historians interested in Lippert or Lon Chaney, Jr. It focuses on The Black Pirates and runs 12:46.

    Rounding out the extras is a segment with actor Robert Clarke, which was featured in the book To ‘B’ or Not to ‘B’: A Film Actor’s Odyssey (Midnight Marquee Press, 2009), co-written by Clarke and Tom Weaver. As with the previous interview, this is an audio reenactment featuring Richard M. Roberts as Clarke. It focuses on Tales of Robin Hood specifically and runs 9:50. For anyone interested in the film’s history, Clarke covers it in depth. Unfortunately, the interview ends somewhat abruptly, though it appears complete.

    The Final Word:

    Sprocket’s Swashbuckler Double Feature is worth its inexpensive price tag. It features two of Lippert’s lesser-known films, including the made-for-TV-but-released-theatrically Tales of Robin Hood and the rare The Black Pirates. Of the two, Tales of Robin Hood looks the best, with an adequate level of detail; The Black Pirates is in color but suffers from damage done by heat and humidity around the time of its original production. There are a couple of cool extras, including an original theatrical trailer for Pirates as well as two interview reenactments, one for each film.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.