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The Scarlet Blade (1963)

The Scarlet Blade

Writer/Director: John Gilling

A zombie-like performance from Jack Hedley is the only hint that The Scarlet Blade originates from the legendary Hammer Film Productions. Released on DVD for the first time, this English Civil War adventure is notable mainly for the presence of Oliver Reed, who brings a much-needed air of menace to the proceedings.

We’re all familiar with the stirring adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel during the Reign of Terror. But the premise of The Scarlet Blade (originally released in the US as The Crimson Blade) is that Edward Beverley (Hedley) was engaged in similar acts of derring-do more than 100 years earlier. He’s the son of a stalwart Royalist family that has been harbouring the fugitive King Charles I and guiding his followers to safety. When the story begins in 1648, Roundheads led by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) have just commandeered Beverly Manor. Edward’s father is murdered after he refuses to betray his monarch or his principles.

As the Scarlet Blade and his merry men continue their guerrilla campaign, Judd’s doe-eyed daughter Claire (June Thorburn) becomes a co-conspirator. Of course she falls hopelessly in love with the man who is top of her father’s Most Wanted list. Judd’s right-hand man Captain Sylvester (Reed) soon joins her cause, though he’s driven more by lust than altruism.

The Scarlet Blade has more than enough dramatic potential to fill its brief 80-minute running time. Unfortunately, writer/director John Gilling (The Plague of the Zombies) fails to capitalise on the love triangle or the unfolding clash of political loyalties, and the sprinkling of action scenes don’t stir the blood either.

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The script is notable for an over-reliance on lines like “Can I trust you?” or (ominously) “I’m placing my trust in you”, as the characters struggle with shifting allegiances. The casting doesn’t help either, with Hedley and Thorburn (who tragically died in 1967) failing to generate any chemistry — romantic or otherwise. By contrast, Reed smoulders as the ambitious and completely smitten Sylvester, who hopes to win Claire’s heart by barging into her bedroom. But should she trust a man who tosses out such corny chat-up lines as “I’d change my coat for you any day”?

From the opening strains of Gary Hughes’s jaunty score you know we’re closer to Robin Hood territory here than the dark, twisted and sickeningly violent world of The Witchfinder General. Of course it’s unfair to compare this routine action flick with Michael Reeves’s masterpiece, which was released four years later.

The Scarlet Blade is definitely not a horror film, though a schlockier approach might have made it a lot more fun to watch. Unintentional humour is provided by the hero’s gypsy sidekick Pablo (Michael Ripper), who during one raid camouflages himself behind what looks like a giant Christmas wreath.

Elsewhere, Pablo’s wardrobe choices include a psychedelic patterned shirt and leather jerkin that look more 1960s than 1640s. Sylvester’s flashing eyes and saturnine good looks are much better served by his breastplate and red tunic — though wearing his heart on his sleeve does prove a costly mistake.

(The Scarlet Blade is released on Region 2 DVD by Studiocanal on 16 January 2012.)
– Susannah Straughan

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