Tuesday, March 06, 2018


Like a number of under-utilized and under-appreciated American stars of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Ricardo Montalban found starring roles in European films (and also in Mexico) at a time when he was working primarily in television and in secondary film roles. He would become a household name here in North America later in life through his Chrysler commercials, his FANTASY ISLAND tv show, and his appearance in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, but he was one of those actors who was always great in anything, and he could carry a film with his charisma even when the project itself was not great. Check out the 1950 police procedural MYSTERY STREET the next time it plays on TCM, where Montalban plays a small town police officer working with a Harvard professor (Bruce Bennett/Herman Brix) to use contemporary science to determine the identity of a skeleton found on the beach. The content is a little dry, you’d think, but with Montalban and Bennett taking charge, it becomes riveting and you care about the characters and their daily work.

The Italian producers of GORDON, THE BLACK PIRATE certainly understood Montalban’s star quality, athletic appeal, and basic charm—in the first scene, we see him bare-chested and in the midst of a swordfight, which he handles quite well (most of it done without a double), and throughout the film, whether sweaty and fighting, or dressed elegantly to impress the colonial officials on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, Montalban dominates and you can’t take your eyes off him. While his character is a pirate, technically, he is the hero here as he is fighting the slave trade (he had been taken into slavery earlier in his life), stopping slave vessels and eventually going to San Salvador, posing as a Cuban landowner who needs cheap labor, to find the person who is the hidden head of the slave trade….and that oily slimeball is played by none other than VINCENT PRICE!

Thankfully, both Montalban and Price dub their own voices (alas, Montalban did not dub his own voice in the English language version of another Italian film of his, DESERT WARRIOR), and it’s a joy to see and hear these two totally unique actors strut and chew the scenery. With the perfect mix of action, intrigue, and costumed adventure (and fancy dances and balls and the like), GORDON, THE BLACK PIRATE would have been great programming for a Saturday or Sunday matinee either at the local second-run theater or on TV, as a change of pace from the sword and sandal films often shown.

It was released theatrically in the US in 1963 as RAGE OF THE BUCCANEERS by Colorama Features, an early 60’s company which specialized in European action/adventure imports, but also released THE GIRL HUNTERS, the fascinating adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel where Spillane himself plays Mike Hammer, and which was shot in the UK (with some New York exteriors) and has an odd look and feel but is haunting and highly recommended. The only other example I can think of where an author plays his own character, which is NOT an autobiographical character, would be author Richard Wright himself playing Bigger Thomas in the strange Argentinian-made version of NATIVE SON (and Wright was pushing 40 at the time, I think, so seeing him as a faux-teenager reminded me of the later Bowery Boys films). I do remember seeing RAGE listed once in TV Guide as showing on my local UHF station, but I don’t remember seeing it back in the day.

Director Mario Costa directed a number of other costumed historical and sword & sandal films between 1959 and 1964, working with such American actors as Gordon Scott (3 films, including the western BUFFALO BILL, HERO OF THE FAR WEST), John Drew Barrymore, and Tony Russell. He’s not mentioned very often as a distinctive stylist, but like many a working director of bread and butter action-adventure films, he knows how to handle action, how to make historical crowd scenes look larger than they really are when shooting on a low-budget set, and how to bring the best out of his leading men and women. The main drawback to the circulating print of this film—which comes from an old Australian videotape with cheesy new video credits at the beginning—is that it’s pan and scan. When Vincent Price first appears in the film, you hear his voice talking in a conversation but you don’t see him for about 20 seconds. You see another actor looking to his left, engaging in a conversation with the voice of Vincent Price and a face you can’t see, because Price is in that section of the widescreen frame that is cut off. Coincidentally, I remember that happening to another Mario Costa film (no fault of his, of course, since this cutting was done by the American distributor for TV prints), THE CENTURION, where John Drew Barrymore is outside the cut pan and scan frame, and you hear his distinctive voice but do not see him, and that happened many times in THE CENTURION since there were often discussions among THREE characters, Barrymore being the third. It got annoying after a while, to put it mildly. Here, though, that happens only once or twice. Still, considering the excellent footage on ships and in large historical sets, we are missing A LOT from the widescreen version being cut. I hope an uncut version surfaces in Europe (it may have and I don’t have access to it). Until then, GORDON, THE BLACK PIRATE is an exciting and enjoyable tale told in a colorful manner with bravura performances from its two great stars. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, alas, and they don’t make actors like Montalban and Price either, so enjoy this kind of classic Italian swashbuckling entertainment whenever you get a chance.

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