Monday, 21 June 2010

Captain Clegg

Okay, faithful readers (all two of you!), as promised, here are my thoughts on Hammer's Captain Clegg.

I have to admit to being a little nervous when I put the DVD in the machine. I've been wanting to watch this film for many years and have read about it in books and on the internet loads, and I had a few moments of worry that it wouldn't be able to live up to the build up it's had. Luckily, my nerves were proven wrong!

The film opens with a ships court hearing, being held in the captains quarters of a pirate ship. A stocky, bald mixed race man (referred to only as The Mulatto - this was 1962, folks, and that's taken directly from the novel which was published in 1915) is being tried for the murder of the Captain's wife, and he is sentenced to having his tongue cut out and his ears slit before being marooned on a deserted island.

The action then switches to the Romeny Marsh, where a middle aged bearded man is heading home. He seems rather fearful, and we soon see that he has reason to be as he is ambushed by a group of horsemen, clad in black with glowing skeletal figures painted onto their clothing. He is chased a short way over the marsh before he his struck dead and left to the swamp as the horsemen gallop away.

We're set up perfectly for the story to unfold and all that is left to do is introduce us to Peter Cushing's charachter, Doctor Blyss (more on that name change later). We are in Dymchurch church and the parish vicar, Dr. Blyss, is leading the congregation in the singing of a hymn. Dissatisfied by the volume and passion his parishoners have shown, Blyss calls for one more go through the last two verses with gusto.
Inter-cut with this, we are introduced to the antagonist of the film, Royal Naval officer and customs man, Captain Collier. He and his men have landed not far from Dymchurch and are making their way across the marsh to pay a visit to Blyss and the villagers as he's recieved word that they are smugglers extraordinaire! As they are fighting their way through the boggy land, they happen across the body of the middle aged man who died the night before, and it is revealed that he was their informant. No wonder he was looking warey the previous night!

The Captain and his landing party arrive at the villiage in time for the last verse of the hymn, and the officer enters the church and passes his steely gaze over the congregation. As the last notes die off, Blyss asks Collier to remove his hat since he's in church, and Collier declines, saying that he is on the Kings business, not God's, kicking off a verbal duel between the two men that lasts the length of the picture. Soon, we see that Collier has an ace up his sleeve: the Mulatto! It turns out that Collier and his men were sailing not too far behind Clegg, and they landed on the island to see what they had done, found the abandoned man and rescued him, in exchange for him helping capture his former master.

Okay, I'll leave it there, just in case anyone wishes to have a watch themselves - I don't want to ruin the whole film, after all - and I'll get onto the cast.

As previously stated, Peter Cushing is the lead in the film, playing the title role of Captain Clegg and his alter-ego, Doctor Blyss, and boy does he give a good performance. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's one of his best. In the earlier film version of the novel, George Arliss played the good Reverend as a softer version of Clegg, all be it with a twinkle in his eye. Here, Cusing tries his best to portray someone acting as a different person, rather than just facets of a whole, and he succeeds admirably. As Clegg he is tough and confident, hard but fair, while as Blyss, he becomes almost the archytypal country vicar, all soft kindess and piety, but with depths that only the audience (and some of the congregation) know of. Cushing employs his vocal range to great effect, using a more exagerated version of his own softly-spoken voice for the vicar and a deeper, more firm tone for the smuggler, differentiating between the two sides of the man clearly and effectively. Indeed, there are even times when the two meld, denoting the true man behind the masks, but these moments are few in amoungts the intrigue and action, and generally involve Yyvonne Romaine's character, Imogene.

Oliver Reed plays the squires son, Harry, in one of many films he made for Hammer, and his character is one of the areas where Hammer deviated from Thorndikes story. Harry is in on the smuggling ring, unlike in the text, and it is Harry, not Blyss/Syn, who disguises himself as a scarecrow to spy on Collier and his men, gaining a tell-tale wound in the process.

Michael Ripper is present in yet another Hammer film - one can fully imagine a member of the public answering Cushing or Lee if asked who acted in more Hammer films than any other actor, but in reality it was Mr Ripper - this time as the first mate-come-undertaker, Mr Mipps. He has a little more to do here than in his usual Hammer roles as innkeepers and the like, and he clearly revels in it, giving a strong supporting perfomance and proving just why Hammer returned to him over and over again.

The Hammer Glammour quotient was provided by Yyvonne Romaine, who starred along side Oliver Reed in the previous years Curse of the Werewolf. As was usual for the period, she didn't have much to do apart from play the damsel, but she gives a solid performance and really sells her characters love for Reed's squires son.

Captain Collier was played by Patrick Allen, an actor who would later go on to perform voice over work for two programmes I admire, the BBC nuclear war drama Threads and The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, and who started his acting career as an uncredited extra in the 1952 RKO pirate picture, Blackbeard, the Pirate. His lantern jawed looks are perfect for the role of a steadfast Kings man, and he gives the part a dogged determination and grit that really sells his quest to find the apparently dead Captain Clegg and bring him to justice.

The rest of the cast are as solid as any Hammer gathered together during this, their most succesful period, and they all come together to really sell the idea of a small villiage trying to get a little luxury any way they can while avoiding paying the extortionate duty the government places upon the desired items.

The sets are, as one would expect from Hammer at the top of their game, beautifully realised, dressed and shot, really showing an understanding of the period and Hammer's expertise at fashioning it on a budget. Again, they made excellent use of both Bray studios and Oakly Court, as well as finding some excellent locations that could almost be South East Kent (if it weren't quite so hilly).

I'd better take time to mention the name changes, as I said earlier that I would. Around the same time as Hammer decided to adapt the novel, Disney had purchased the film rights to the name Dr. Syn, so Hammer were forced to change the title characters name in order to stave off a law suit. Luckily, they were able to use most of the novels plot points without too much change, although some changes were implimented in order to keep their production as unique as possible, such as the squires son being the one wounded while disguised as a scarecrow.
The film was retitled Night Creatures in the US because Hammer had promised their American distributor, Universal Pictures, a film of that title. They were initially planning to give them an adaptation of Richard Matheson's vampire tale, I Am Legend, but when the BBFC said they would not pass a film version of that tale made by Hammer, they deftly attatched the title to this picture instead, and doubtless ordered the Marsh Phantoms to look all the more demonic and scary in order to fit, hence the all-over glow, rather than just the masks of the novel.

All in all, I have to say this is a fantastic movie and one that I'll have no trouble returning to again and again! I will, however, have trouble choosing between this and the earlier Dr Syn for my favourite adaptation. This keeps Thorndikes bittersweet ending (initially, the tale was to be the only Syn book, so RT killed him off in the end) and the first adaptation sweetens it up by having the crafty vicar live, but they are both excellent adaptations in very different ways and I love them both.


Talia said...

It sounds great! And your enthusiam for it really shines through, which made this great to read! I'd love to see it - maybe you could share it with us all at a meet?

Rocky said...

and I'll provide the popcorn!

Matt said...

I'm sure that can be arranged :D