The Crimson Pirate

The Crimson Pirate is a 1952 American Technicolor tongue-in-cheek comedy-adventure film from Warner Bros. produced by Norman Deming and Harold Hecht, directed by Robert Siodmak, and starring Burt Lancaster, who also co-produced with Deming and Hecht. Co-starring in the film is Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok, Leslie Bradley, Torin Thatcher, and James Hayter.

The Crimson Pirate
Crimson pirate655.jpg
Directed byRobert Siodmak
Written byRoland Kibbee
Waldo Salt (1st draft)[1]
Produced byNorman Deming
Harold Hecht
Burt Lancaster
StarringBurt Lancaster
Nick Cravat
Eva Bartok
Leslie Bradley
Torin Thatcher
James Hayter
CinematographyOtto Heller
Edited byJack Harris
Music byWilliam Alwyn
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release dates
  • August 27, 1952 (1952-08-27) (New York)[2]
  • September 27, 1952 (1952-09-27) (U.S.)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.75 million[3]
Box office$2.5 million (US)[4]

The Crimson Pirate is set late in the 18th century, on the fictional Caribbean islands of San Pero and Cobra, where a rebellion on Cobra is underway by the mysterious "El Libre". Pirate Captain Vallo captures the King's ship carrying His Majesty's envoy. Baron Gruda plans on crushing the rebellion on Cobra and toward that end makes Vallo a surprising offer. If accepted, it would make a sizeable profit for the Captain and his buccaneer crew.


Late in the 18th century, Caribbean pirate Captain Vallo (Burt Lancaster) and his crew capture a frigate of the King's navy. The ship is carrying Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), a special envoy of the King on his way to the island of Cobra to crush a rebellion. Vallo proposes selling the frigate's weapons cache to El Libre, the leader of Cobra's rebels. Baron Gruda counters by proposing that Vallo capture El Libre and bring him to the Baron for a sizable reward. Vallo accepts, and Baron Gruda and his crew are released, while Vallo keeps the frigate. Some of his crew complain that this is not pirate business, but they come around when they find out the large amount of profit to be made.

Vallo and his crew sail to Cobra, where the captain and his lieutenant, Ojo (Nick Cravat), go ashore and meet with the island's rebels, led by Pablo Murphy (Noel Purcell) and Consuelo (Eva Bartok). Vallo and Ojo learn that El Libre has been captured and is in prison on the island of San Pero. The meeting is interrupted by the King's guards, and Consuelo quickly leads Vallo and Ojo to safety. Returning to the frigate, Vallo informs his crew he will rescue El Libre, though Consuelo only believes Vallo is interested in selling weapons to him. While promising Vallo that he will receive his payment, she informs him that El Libre is actually her father.

After sailing to San Pero, Vallo impersonates the Baron and goes to a dinner held in Gruda's honor by the Colonel of the island's garrison (Frank Pettingell). For the disguised Vallo, the Colonel puts on display El Libre (Frederick Leister) and another captured rebel, Professor Elihu Prudence (James Hayter). Vallo orders the prisoners released into his custody, and he leaves, returning with them to the frigate, which sets sail for Cobra.

Consuelo is grateful to Vallo for rescuing her father, but is distraught to hear that Vallo intends on selling her, El Libre, and the professor to Baron Gruda. Ojo suggests that Vallo has fallen in love with Consuelo, but he denies this after releasing all three prisoners. Consuelo now begs Vallo to come with them but he refuses. Vallo's first mate, Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), overhears this exchange, and turns against his captain for breaking his word, sending a message ashore to Baron Gruda.

Vallo lets El Libre and Consuelo leave, but the King's guards are waiting, and El Libre is killed and Consuelo is captured. The pirates mutiny against Vallo, and Humble Bellows is elected their new captain. Baron Gruda promises Bellows gold for dealing with Vallo. So the professor, Ojo, and Vallo are cast adrift in a skiff in the outgoing current and left to die. Gruda proposes a toast, presenting the pirates with a barrel of rum. Unknown to them, the rum has been drugged; after consuming the rum and passing out, they are captured and transferred back to Vallo's ship, now prisoners for Gruda to sell to the King.

Baron Gruda informs Consuelo that she will now marry Herman (Eliot Makeham), the governor of Cobra, or he will execute the island's population. Consuelo is compelled to accept, and Gruda announces the wedding date and mandatory attendance by everyone. In the meantime Vallo, Ojo, and the clever professor escape their dilemma by capsizing their skiff, trapping a large air pocket for them to breathe; walking along the sea bottom toward Cobra, they come ashore, where they quickly find out about the wedding. Vallo intends to rescue Consuelo, but the professor convinces him to first enlist the island's cooperation. Vallo agrees, and along with the professor's advanced knowledge, the people of Cobra build his advanced weapons for their coming revolt. Nitroglycerin grenades, multiple-cannon tanks, flamethrowers, rapid-fire rifles on revolving drums, and a large inflatable balloon with gondola are constructed in secret.

On the day of the wedding, the people unleash the advanced arsenal just before the ceremony, over-throwing the governor and his guards. Baron Gruda manages to escape to his frigate, taking Consuelo with him. Vallo and Ojo go after them in the large balloon. They spot their old ship below and slide down the balloon's tie-down ropes to its deck, and release the pirates. They then pursue Gruda's frigate. As the pirate ship gets close, Vallo orders the pirates below deck, making Gruda believe they are about to launch a full broadside. Instead, they sneak out through the gun ports, drop into the sea, and swim underwater to Gruda's frigate. A repentant Humble Bellows stays aboard to keep the ship on course, sacrificing himself after Gruda orders a broadside, which destroys the pirate ship. Vallo and his pirates surface, climbing aboard the frigate; the guards are defeated in the ensuing battle, while the Baron is killed. In victory Vallo and Consuelo embrace.



While the film is set in the Caribbean, all of the exterior shots were filmed on and near the island of Ischia in Italy. Historically, the island of Ischia was a pirate haven in the 18th century, making it a suitable location for a period piece. Interior sets were built and filmed at Teddington Studios outside London, England.

The original screenplay by Waldo Salt was rejected by the producers, fearing Salt's Communist ties. Christopher Lee, in his autobiography, claims that director Robert Siodmak changed the original screenplay:

The script started life as serious, nay solemn, but Robert Siodmak, the director, with all the sure touch of real tension behind him in The Killers and The Spiral Staircase, took stock of the material in forty-eight hours and turned it into a comedy. It was like a Boy's Own Paper adventure, except that Eva Bartok was in it.

— Christopher Lee, Tall, Dark and Gruesome[5]


  • Burt Lancaster and his old partner Nick Cravat made nine films together, the most popular being The Crimson Pirate and The Flame and the Arrow (1950). He kept Cravat on his payroll for life, as both a trainer as well as a co-star. Because Cravat's character in both films is mute, the belief persisted that in real life he was mute. Actually, Cravat was given no dialog lines because of his thick Brooklyn accent.[1]
  • About 10 minutes from the end of The Crimson Pirate, Lancaster and Cravat are in a balloon and about to recapture their pirate ship. The film shows a wide shot broadside view of their ship as they are approaching. In the background can be seen a modern luxury liner cruise ship, one that is quite out of place in the 18th century.


A. H. Weiler of The New York Times described the film as "a slam-bang, action-filled Technicolored lampoon ... Any viewer with a drop of red blood in his veins and with fond memories of the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. school of derring-do should be happy to go on this last cruise of the crimson pirate."[6] Variety called it "104 minutes of high-action entertainment."[7] Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times called it "a good, gaudy, robust sort of feature designed for audience enjoyment, at least that kind of audience which enjoys complete release. It has qualities that Douglas Fairbanks made famous in his time, Lancaster being a worthy successor to that mantle."[8] Harrison's Reports wrote, "A very good swashbuckling pirate adventure comedy-melodrama, photographed in Technicolor. Its tongue-in-cheek treatment pokes fun at pictures of this type, and for that reason it should be enjoyed, not only by the action fans, but also by others who are willing to accept it for the good-natured spoof that it is."[9] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "The jokes are as unsophisticated as the adventure, and the combination of violence and slapstick makes for quite good fun. Burt Lancaster, fighting, swinging from ropes, chased and chasing, and throwing in a little female impersonation, has the acrobatic energy of a Fairbanks and keeps the film going with considerable good humour."[10]


The Terry Gilliam short, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, draws its name from this film. According to The Radio Times, the Disneyland ride "Pirates of the Caribbean" was inspired by The Crimson Pirate.[11]

In the 1970s Lancaster attempted to make a sequel. He hired George MacDonald Fraser and later Jon Cleary to write scripts, but no film resulted from their efforts.[12]

In the 1980s producer Harold Hecht, Lancaster’s long-time partner on ‘’The Crimson Pirate’’ and other films, developed an equally tongue-in-cheek sequel screenplay with playwright Sydney Michaels titled ‘’The Jolly Roger.’’ In the script Lancaster’s character Captain Vallo discovers that he has an illegitimate son in London who is a ballet dancer. Determined to turn him into a real pirate, Lancaster and his mute sidekick Ojo kidnap the young man and several of his fellow dancers and take them all to the Caribbean in search of buried treasure. They are pursued by the king’s head pirate catcher who is an ex-pirate himself, named Lord Carnivore. Hoping to cast Sean Connery in the role, Hecht tried for several years to get the film financed and approached both Sergio Leone and Roman Polanski to direct, but it remained unproduced.


  1. ^ a b "The Crimson Pirate (1952) - Articles -". Archived from the original on 2012-05-04.
  2. ^ "The Crimson Pirate – Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Archived from the original on February 13, 2022. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  3. ^ Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Da Capo 2000 p 117
  4. ^ 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  5. ^ Lee, Christopher, Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Victor Gollancz, 1997, ISBN 0-575-06497-8
  6. ^ Weiler, A. H. (August 28, 1952). "The Screen: Derring-Do". The New York Times. 21.
  7. ^ "Film Reviews: The Crimson Pirate". Variety. August 27, 1952. 6.
  8. ^ Schallert, Edwin (September 27, 1952). "Lancaster's Pirate Tale Wild Affair". Los Angeles Times. Part I, p. 11.
  9. ^ "'The Crimson Pirate' with Burt Lancaster". Harrison's Reports. August 30, 1952. 139.
  10. ^ "The Crimson Pirate". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 19 (227): 170. December 1952.
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-09. Retrieved 2006-09-16.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ George MacDonald Fraser, The Light's On at Signpost, HarperCollins 2002 p160-175

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