The Scarlet Blade, 1963.
Directed by John Gilling.
Starring Jack Hedley, Lionel Jeffries, Oliver Reed, June Thorburn and Michael Ripper.
The daughter of an anti-royalist loyal to Oliver Cromwell falls for the Scarlet Blade – a dashing Robin Hood figure leading the Royalist rebels.
Civil Wars aren’t the most sensible of affairs at the best of times. Americans at least got some square-jawed heroes out of it all, to the point where a film has actually been made about Abraham Lincoln moonlighting as a vampire hunter. So what do we have to match that? We’ve got Prince Charles II heroically hiding in a tree from some soldiers. This is probably the most famous single act of the English Civil War, and probably also the reason cinema has largely ignored this entire period of English history.
Hence the imaginary hero of The Scarlet Blade, about a Robin Hood type (Jack Hedley) who organises guerrilla-style raids on villainous Parliamentarian forces to effect daring escapes for noble Royalists. That’s about as deep as Edward Beverley (or Ed Bev, which is much catchier) gets, so he can step aside for a minute and make room for the reason everybody’s here: Oliver Reed.
With twice the screen time and ten times the charisma and intrigue of Ed Bev, Reed’s Captain Sylvester hardly even needs to raise an eyebrow to upstage our hero. He embodies a certain wry, morally ambiguous air; other characters always seem on edge around him, completely unable to read him. A scarred, jaded, brutal pirate of a soldier, Sly pretty much sides with anyone he feels like, and with a personality vacuum at the centre of our plot, we almost find ourselves siding with him.
The Judds are the only other notable characters, comprising a gruff Parliamentarian Colonel (Lionel Jeffries) and his flaky secret Royalist daughter Clare (Jane Thorburn). We’re peddled a sort of forbidden romance between Clare and Ed Bev, but, like a blob of fluffy blu-tac thrown at a wall, it never quite sticks. Sly has changed sides in the hopes of seeing some action from Clare, so when this limp-wristed love affair comes to his attention, he changes straight back and captures Ed Bev for some light torture and a spot of dungeon gloating.
Oliver Reed might have just about saved his credibility through The Scarlet Blade, but it’s no thanks to John Gilling’s writing and direction, apparently living ten years behind every other film-maker of the time. Fair enough, Hammer couldn’t muster the kind of budget Zulu was boasting, but it’s no excuse for a story burdened with stagey, repetitive skirmishes and a priest hole that effectively functions like a revolving door for anyone who feels like sneaking into Colonel Judd’s base of operations.
The much-lauded betrayals involve some back-and-forth rescues and raids, and a criminally squandered ‘ambush on an ambush’ scene. But Gilling’s most squandered asset has to be Oliver Reed.
Throughout his career, Reed was a prodigious drinker and renowned bar brawler. He’d invented his own patented drinking game ‘head butting’, in which participants smashed their heads against each other until one collapsed or surrendered. He spiked Mark Lester’s coke with vodka. Bear in mind, Mark Lester was 10 years old and playing Oliver Twist at the time. This was a man you completely believed could and would fuck you up at a moment’s notice. So why waste him in a role where he is almost pointedly restrained from any significant act that might affect the plot?
It’s not even this pointless oversight that spoils The Scarlet Blade in the end. It’s the failure to deliver on the promise of the title. To all appearances, this might seem to be a Scaramouche or Scarlet Pimpernel-style historical swashbuckler. Not so. Ed Bev fits in a few swish, swish, click clicks with the Roundhead stooges, but there’s never any sense of danger or theatrics. It’s even more of a failure because any fan of Hammer films knows that their best efforts were a triumph of expertly-timed theatrics, rich with shadows and foreboding. Making this film exciting and daring and full of suspense was hardly beyond Hammer’s grasp. For shame, Hammer. Dracula is probably turning in one of his many graves at the very thought of it.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.