by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I joked to Charles last night that I was going to show him a movie whose title began with “Raiders of the … ” — no, it wasn’t that movie but Raiders of the Seven Seas, which I’d recorded off TCM recently during an afternoon in which they were showing a collection of low-budget action movies, including Smuggler’s Gold. I had expected this to be a Columbia production but Raiders of the Seven Seas was actually a United Artists release of a film by “Global Productions,” whose main proprietor seemed to be Sidney Salkow, who produced, directed and (with John O’Dea) co-wrote this. It should have been a good movie; the plot — dealing with the international pirate Barbarossa, who escapes from Morocco, steals a Spanish ship (absurdly easily, simply by holding its captain at knife-point and getting the prisoners being kept in the hold to mutiny and eject the crew) and heads for the Caribbean, where he kidnaps Spanish princess Alida (Donna Reed), holds her for ransom and finally falls in love with her (and vice versa) — wasn’t exactly the freshest piece of screenwriting in the world but had the potential to be an exciting film.
It had good people behind the camera — the cinematographer was W. Howard Greene (co-Academy Award winner for the 1943 Phantom of the Opera) and the sets (Edward L. Ilou, art director; Howard Bristol, set decorator) were stunning and appropriately lavish looking. The star was John Payne, not an especially great actor but a reasonable choice even if he couldn’t quite play a pirate with the panache of Errol Flynn (but then, who could?) and he looked odd in the red hair and beard he wore to justify the name of his character; and the film benefited from a good sidekick performance by Lon Chaney, Jr. So what went wrong? Mainly, just sheer dullness; as marvelous as Raiders looks it suffers from surprisingly little action, and what little action there is is indifferently staged and hardly projects the thrills we expect from this genre. The most powerful scene is when Alida leaves a message in the sand telling the Spanish authorities where Barbarossa’s hideout is, and Barbarossa returns there to find that virtually all his men’s wives and children have been massacred by the Spaniards (an imdb.com reviewer correctly noted that this plot gimmick was a ripoff of Shakespeare but got the play wrong — it’s Macbeth, not Henry V).
Aside from that, very little of this film stirs the emotions, and not too much of it stirs the senses either; it’s mostly a lot of lovely Technicolor photography of some pretty boring attempts at action, and there’s about zero chemistry between Payne and Reed — they look totally indifferent whether the script says they’re supposed to be loving or hating each other. They were both actors who did better work in other genres — Reed as James Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life before and on her TV series afterwards; Payne on a series of compelling noir movies, including Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street, that gave him much more suitable roles in dark, modern-day melodramas instead of overstuffed period pieces like this. Raiders is a disappointment because it’s not good enough to be genuinely exciting and entertaining on its own merits, and it’s not bad enough to work as camp; instead it just drones on, leaving one to wonder why a group of fairly talented filmmakers working in a genre that’s inherently exciting could produce something this dull.