How the Crimson Pirate defied the Navy and reality

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The Independent Online
THE SCARIEST film that my six-year-old son has ever seen is not Jurassic Park, though he found that a bit finger-whitening. It is Clash of the Titans, a film that appeared suddenly on television one weekend recently.

I taped this because I thought that a helping of Greek myths - Perseus, the Gorgons and all that - might prove appetising to a six-year-old like Adam.

Well, yes. He loved the film. But he was also appalled by it. Not by the acting or script - he doesn't know about acting or scripts yet, or how odd it is to see Maggie Smith and Ursula Andress acting side by side as Greek goddesses - but by the cruelty of everyone in ancient Greece to each other, by the snaky hair-do of Medusa, by her tendency to turn everything into stone, and also by the tendency of horrible monsters to do nasty things to handsome young American starlets whom I don't think were ever heard of again.

Perhaps he was most appalled by the capricious cruelty of Laurence Olivier as Zeus, who seemed to run the world in the same tyrannical way in which, in real life, he is said to have run the National Theatre.

So upset was he, in fact, that he specifically asked me to wipe the tape and not have it on the premises any more.

I find it interesting that he was more scared by the sunlit cruelty of ancient Greek myths than anything he has seen on our screen from more recent times. But I won't give up videotaping things off the television to try out on him, because that is how we came across what is by now his favourite film of all time: The Crimson Pirate.

This was made in about 1950 in glorious Too-Bright-To-Be-True-Colour, and featured the young Burt Lancaster. And my gosh, was he young when he was young] He was blond and slim, and he wore little more than pirate trousers most of the time, and he leapt with incredible accuracy through the rigging of his pirate vessel, and he always landed on the deck the right way up, always grinning, sometimes smiting his chest with his fist like a seafaring gorilla, and always with blue sky behind him.

He has a name in the film like Fellows, but nobody on the ship calls him Captain Fellows, they call him 'Skipper', and that's what my son calls him, too - in fact, that's what he calls himself every time he watches it.

During the most exciting bits he will walk precariously along the back of the sofa as if it were a rope high above the sea, and if things get too exciting, he will plunge down on to the cushions with a bloodcurdling yell of 'Skipper]' and kill them all.

The opening scene is one of the best. A Royal Navy vessel finds the pirate ship floating in mid- ocean, apparently deserted. When they get closer they see that everyone on board is dead, lying about the decks in agonised postures of collapse. The captain puts a skeleton crew aboard this 'ship of death'. Slowly, the 'corpses', who have been pretending to be dead all along, come to life and overpower the skeleton crew - then Burt Lancaster gives a big blond silent grin and, unobserved, they all swarm along the towropes joining the two ships and overpower the other lot as well.

Now comes the finest moment. There is a sailor in a striped shirt who is knocked overboard by Skipper. We cut to a shot of the man falling into the water - but the man no longer has a striped shirt on] Now he is wearing a full-dress 18th-century naval uniform] My son was baffled. How could a man possibly change from one set of clothes to another in midair, and why, come to that, would he want to?

'Well,' said my wife, who knows these things, 'when it came to the editing stage, they obviously wanted a cutaway shot of him falling into the water, but they found that the only available one was of someone quite different. So they stuck that in instead, hoping nobody would notice.'

Thus it is that a six-year-old becomes dimly aware that film is more than just a real story.

If he hadn't got the point then, he got it half an hour later when, on the first viewing, I leapt in the air and said: 'Freeze the film] Look at that] I don't believe it]'

That was a large modern cruise liner plainly visible behind Skipper's shoulder, which had obviously been around during shooting, as things often are, but which had crept totally unnoticed into one shot.

I do not have space, alas, to tell you of scenes such as those in which Burt Lancaster and a friendly rogue scientist 'invent' the machine gun, and the balloon, and the submarine. Suffice to say that The Crimson Pirate must be one of the 10 greatest films of all time. Yes, father and son don't always agree on things, but Adam and I are at least agreed on that.