Although perhaps now best remembered for their horror output (and that includes the ‘horrors’ of the On the Buses movies!) Hammer studios produced a huge variety of films which, regardless of initial reception or reputation, have become far less well remembered and are difficult to view these days, short of scouring for afternoon broadcasts on obscure television channels. So it is a pleasure to see that two films by Hammer stalwart John Gilling are finally getting a release on DVD. Both films have historic and political themes and are notable for featuring a young Oliver Reed, fresh from his remarkable role as the titular werewolf in Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).
The Scarlet Blade (1963) is set during the height of the English civil war. One of the key fighters for Cromwell is Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) and his band of roundheads, including the suave Captain Sylvester (Reed), who occupy the mansion of Royalist Edward Beverly, whose family just happen to have been giving refuge to King Charles. Unfortunately the Colonel’s daughter, Claire, is actually a Royalist sympathiser and, although destined to be wed to Sylvester, is secretly in love with Beverly. Designed to be a swashbuckler, The Scarlet Blade (1963) manages to be an enjoyable historical romp that is entertaining enough for its running time. Reed’s performance is great, moody and smouldering, and you are not quite sure where his true allegiances lie.
The Brigand of Kandahar (1965) is another historic drama set, this time, in the exotic East. Officer Case has been having an affair with the wife of his companion, Captain Connelly. When he returns from a mission that he had undertaken with Connelly he informs the colonel that his comrade was captured and most likely killed by local bandits. His commander is disturbed to learn that Case apparently did nothing to help his companion and surmises that in fact he may have allowed his capture in order to carry on the affair. Case is appalled at such a suggestion and escapes from the camp, joining local bandits and vowing to clear his reputation. The leader of the outlaws is played with something approaching aplomb by Reed, wearing a turban and slightly embarrassing make-up.
While the premise that an officer aims to get his revenge on those who have wronged him by joining a bunch of evil bandits (rather than being a paragon of virtue who strives to clear his name with honour) has plenty of scope for interesting plot developments, the script doesn’t really fulfil its potential. It doesn’t help that The Brigand of Kandahar feels very much like a stage play because it was confined to being filmed on studio sets and, as such, the action feels restrictive.
Both The Scarlet Blade and The Brigand of Kandahar are very much products of their time and modern audiences, who are more demanding when it comes to complexity of story and character development, are probably going to want more excitement and thrills than they can offer. Although Gilling went on to make the great socialist zombie film The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and enjoyably different monster movie The Reptile (1966) these earlier films fall more into the realm of interesting curios rather than lost classics. That said, it’s great to see some of Hammer’s more obscure films getting a release on DVD, and hopefully we will see an increasing number of rare films becoming available for viewing once more.