Universal, 1952, 83 minutes
Cast: Errol Flynn, Maureen O’Hara, Anthony Quinn, Alice Kelly and Mildred Natwick
Screenplay: Joseph Hoffman and Aeneas MacKenzie
Producer: Howard Christie
Director: George Sherman
Following the increasing crackdown on piracy in the Caribbean and the decline of the Spanish empire in the late 17th century, pirates looked elsewhere for plunder, and they found it in the waters near Madagascar, preying on the trade from the Red Sea to India. Since England, or more properly, the East India Company, had a stranglehold on goods shipped from India to North America, colonists were happy to deal with pirates who sold their loot at much cheaper prices. A key intermediary was Adam Baldridge, who had built a fort that dominated the harbor of the island St. Mary’s, just off the north-eastern coast of Madagascar. New York merchants sent ships to St. Mary’s to trade necessities for slaves and gold. When the war between France and England ended in 1697, hundreds of former privateers and sailors made their way to the waters around Madagascar. Unwilling to abandon their respectable lives, many captains had purchased a privateer’s commission as cover for their piracy in the Red Sea. The practice was widespread, involving a number of governors and members of their councils. An early success was Thomas Tew, but he was soon eclipsed by Henry Every, who captured the Ganj-i-Sawai in 1695, which was transporting members of the Grand Moghul’s court, so the cargo set new records. Furious, the Grand Moghul, ruler of much of India, closed several ports used by the East India Company, so the English government decided to make an example of Every, sending a proclamation to every colony ordering his arrest, but he was warned by a sympathetic governor, enabling him to disappear along with most of his crew and the treasure.
After receiving a flogging in order to pose as a deserter from an East India ship, Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) is sent undercover to the pirate base of Diego-Suarez on the coast of Madagascar in order to discover the location of hidden batteries that had destroyed previous attempts to wipe out the pirates. A romance soon sparks between Hawke and Spitfire (Maureen O’Hara), a member of the Captains of the Coast. The captains remain suspicious, despite the flogging, until Hawke wins a duel with boarding pikes, and becomes Captain Roc Basilone’s (Anthony Quinn) navigator. While cruising for targets, they come across the Grand Moghul’s ship, transporting pilgrims to Mecca, and capture its massive treasure, burning the ship to hide the evidence. Hawke rescues a young girl, unaware that she is Princess Patma (Alice Kelly), the Moghul’s daughter, because her Scottish governess makes her pretend to be a maid. The grateful girl falls in love with him, which complicates his budding romance with Spitfire, who wants to go to London because she is tired of Madgascar. Having signalled a British warship, Hawke and his two associates sabotage the batteries but need to save the princess, otherwise every Englishman in India will be killed. Caught trying to leave the island by Spitfire, the princess forgets her cover story, so Hawke finds himself tied to a stake to be eaten alive by lobsters, while Roc uses the threat to kill Princess Patma to escape with an unenthusiastic Spitfire until Hawke arrives to save the day.
The opening narration explains that in 1700, the Pirate Republic of Libertatia on Madagascar was a constant menace to the rich trade routes to India. The screen pirates’ base is a decent-sized town with a proper wharf and paved streets, which seems quite civilized for a pirate colony. Libertatia does not seem to have actually existed, but St. Mary’s did, and it had little resemblance to the Libertatia presented in the film. In fact, the real Henry Every and his crew decided to vanish with their loot into England’s colonies in the Caribbean because St. Mary’s offered refuge but few luxuries. Admittedly, pirates would rest up between cruises at St. Mary’s but they usually lived in huts and spent their money on rum and female companions. Speaking of which, where are the natives of Madagascar?
The closest to background in the movie is the comment that the Captains of the Coast formerly operated out of Tortuga in the Caribbean, although there is no explanation why they had shifted operations to Madagascar. It is true that most of the pirates who had operated in the Caribbean had either found new careers or drifted away from the region, and some ended up in Madagascar.
The Captains of the Coast are led by Captain Kidd, whose glory days are behind him. Despite his notoriety as a pirate, the real Kidd was a pirate-hunter with an astonishing ability to make enemies. When he captured a treasure-laden ship belonging to the Moghul, he was disowned by the powerful nobles who had financed his mission to hunt pirates, and declared a pirate to hide their involvement in a scheme of dubious legality.
Spitfire’s father was a captain and the republic’s blacksmith, who had been sentenced along with his daughter to transportation to Virginia to serve as convict labor as punishment for poaching. When their ship was captured by pirates, he joined them and built the batteries that defend the republic. This brief biography is the only hint that many pirates became outlaws to escape harsh oppression.
The only two rules of the republic seem to be: do not steal from your shipmates and do not molest women. Given the absence of women in the sausage-fest of a pirate republic, the latter rule appears to be more wishful thinking than anything else.
Princess Patma is supposed to be a naive, sheltered teenager. Alice Kelly was twenty-years-old when the movie was made but does a good job of pretending to be an innocent teenager who had lived a cloistered life, kept away from men other than an eunuch and her father. She is less successful at pretending to be Indian.
The fight with boarding pikes is well-choreographed, and Flynn still moves well for his age. Sadly, less attention was paid to the climatic battle, and the sword fighting scenes are not Flynn’s best.
To be honest, the design of the hidden batteries is impressive, but it seems unnecessary. Once the batteries start firing, an enemy ship can fire back.
Even though he is an undercover spy who is suspected of spying, and will receive a horrible death if it is proven that he is a spy, Hawke immediately turns on the charm with Spitfire, who falls hard for Hawke’s flirtatious manner, living up to her nickname when he rejects her. Man, Flynn just dripped charm.
Admittedly, the romance was not as entertaining as Flynn’s previous matches with his usual co-star Olivia DeHaviland, but Maureen O’Hara portrayed a suitably fiery temper, which dissipated when confronted with Flynn’s effortless charm. Sadly, the villain was less satisfying. Anthony Quinn was still coming into his own, and did not manage to be a memorable opponent.
The scenes with the jealous Spitfire and the princess overcome by puppy love are the standout parts of the movie. Hawke’s repeated attempts to look nonchalant despite his embarrassment as Patma tries to kiss him, could only have worked with Flynn, although more could have been done with the sticky situation of the Mughal finding out about his daughter’s crush. The dialogue is good, but Flynn makes it better. I actually cracked up several times.
Not the most accurate movie, but at least it is fun.