You know that camouflage trick where someone disguises themselves as a bush in order to stealthily move across a landscape unseen? The one where the person disguised as the bush will stop instantly the moment a dim-witted guard looks in their direction, the guard not remotely suspicious to see the bush 20 feet closer than it was the last time they looked?
Well, I’ve only ever seen that technique used in comedies and Roadrunner cartoons. So, to see it employed in Hammer’s historical romp, The Scarlet Blade, was a pleasant surprise, my delight heightened by the fact that the bush was being used to ambush an ambush. Marvellous. Unfortunately, this moment of ludicrous audacity is immediately followed by a lacklustre battle that enables the hero of the film to achieve his goals with the minimum of fuss before moving on to his next dreary love scene.
This is a sequence of events that sums up the highly variable appeal of this offering from Director John Gilling. The Scarlet Blade is a film that can just as easily have you chortling at the somewhat dated charm of it all, as have you looking at your watch and wondering how much longer there is to go.
Made in 1964 at a time when Hammer was becoming increasingly synonymous with horror films, the action is set against the backdrop of the English Revolution, at a time just after Oliver Cromwell has removed Charles I from the throne and Royalists are attempting to sneak the deposed monarch out of the country to safety.
Hot on their heels are Cromwell’s Roundheads, impressively represented here by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) and Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed). Unfortunately, for Judd, his daughter, Claire (June Thorburn), is in league with the Royalists and using her inside knowledge to scupper her father’s plans every chance she gets. What’s more, she has attracted the attentions of Captain Sylvester who, determined to win her heart, agrees to supply intelligence to the Royalists, led by the dashing Edward Beverley, also known as The Scarlet Blade (Jack Hedley). Soon, Colonel Judd is apoplectic with rage as his plans are foiled, raging “These are not haphazard raids. They’re skilfully designed and executed. But by whom?” A couple of haphazard raids later, Judd works out that the Blade is behind it all, and determines to sniff out the rat in his own camp.
When The Scarlet Blade is worth watching it’s invariably because either Jeffries or Reed are on screen, Reed in particular, demonstrating just how charismatic a screen presence he could be. His portrayal of the arrogant, bullying Sylvester is gradually invested with some subtle shades of ambiguity, leading you to wonder if he might be on the side of the good guys after all.
Initially, though, the sight of him strutting nonchalantly around some impertinent upstart before fetching him a smack in the kisser with his glove is exactly the sort of villainous posturing you want to see from him, and he doesn’t disappoint. He and Jeffries invest their characters with sufficient depth to suggest that these are real people. Their actions and responses to situations are believable because they are able to transcend the restrictions of roles that could easily have ended up as bad guy stereotypes.
Hedley and Thorburn, on the other hand, perform their roles in the highly stylised manner of romantic leads from 30 years earlier, turning in performances that are rather dry and have you yearning for Ollie and Lionel to get back on screen. Hedley was certainly no Errol Flynn, and the two-dimensional role of the Scarlet Blade required an actor of greater charisma than he if audiences were to give a royal stuff about him and his cause (it would have been interesting to see what Reed himself would have done with the part). And, now that I think about it, for someone who calls himself the Scarlet Blade, Edward Beverly doesn’t actually engage in that much swordplay.
Another of the film’s problems is that this clearly intends to be taken as a swashbuckling adventure, filled with characters swinging from light fittings and fencing with baddies while engaging in lots of witty put downs. But it’s not. It’s a lot more sobre than that (and frequently duller). And, as it features good guys who are a lot less interesting than the supposed villains, only the most devoted monarchists will be on the side of the Royalists.
In addition, this is a film that just doesn’t have that Hammer sheen. Although the best Hammer productions were able to do a great deal with very little in terms of budget, the climactic battle that takes place between opposing armies of, perhaps, 30 men each, looks more like a historical re-enactment than the real thing.
However, the script does confound expectations, and there are several occasions when things pick up just when you’re attention might be flagging. Events take a surprising turn in the final act, when revelations lead to unexpected betrayals as loyalties to both family and cause are tested to breaking point. Then there’s the rather downbeat ending, which is far more dramatically satisfying than the one you might be expecting and which goes some way to making up for the deficiencies on show elsewhere.
But, it’s not quite enough. The Scarlet Blade really isn’t a bad film. It’s just not great. It has its moments when you can see how much better it might have been, be they moments that deliver unexpected drama and or some big laughs (however unintentional they may have been). Also, had the script developed the character of The Blade to the point where he was as fully rounded as the um…Roundheads, then it might have come up with a hero who was worthy of butting heads with Oliver Reed. Sadly, unlike older Hollywood classics that it sought to emulate, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Crimson Pirate, The Scarlet Blade doesn’t possess sufficient spectacle, wit or pure unadulterated star power to enable a modern day audience to see past how badly the film has dated.
Overall, then, as with this month’s other Hammer release The Brigand of Kandahar, this isn’t one that’s going to convert the uninitiated to the idea that Hammer could hit the heights it achieved with horror and science fiction in other genres.
But still… it does have that bush.
There’s nothing much to speak of for extras, other than a couple of minutes silent footage of an alternate opening scene.