DVD Review: The Scarlet Blade / The Brigand of Kan

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Review: The Scarlet Blade (PG) / Directed by: John Gilling / Written by John Gilling / Starring: Jack Hedley, Lionel Jefferies, Oliver Reed, June Thorburn, Michael Ripper / Release date: Out now

Review: The Brigand of Kandahar (PG) / Directed by: John Gilling / Written by: John Gilling / Starring: Ronald Lewis, Oliver Reed, Duncan Lamont, Yvonne Romain, Glyn Houston / Release date: Out now

The now resurgent Hammer Studios remain best known for their string of innovative horror shockers in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s (and into the 1970s with inadvertent horrors like their On the Buses film series spun off from the creaky ITV sitcom) but the Studios also churned out a number of lesser-regarded historical adventures, cheap and cheerful romps full of jobbing actors and enthusiastically-realised action sequences and with often desperately low production values. Most of these B-movies have been long since forgotten, eclipsed by the latest Dracula or Frankenstein opus, but Hammer completists or those just curious to see what else Hammer did in its prime, will be intrigued by the DVD release of The Scarlet Blade (1964) and The Brigand of Kandahar (1965), boy’s own tales written and directed by the prolific John Gilling who went on to direct the much more acclaimed Hammer titles Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile.

The Scarlet Blade is easily the most accomplished of these two new discs. Set during the English Civil War in the mid-17th Century it miscasts the stoic British character actor Jack Hedley as Edward Beverley who not only has a girl’s surname but is also a rather insipid take on Robin Hood, rescuing Royalists from the clutches of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarian Roundhead bully boys. The Roundhead hoodlums are led by the shouty Colonel Judd (Jefferies) and his sidekick Captain Sylvester (an oddly camp performance from Oliver Reed). Judd’s daughter falls in love with Hedley’s bland Blade and Sylvester, who’s got his eye on her too, becomes as livid as the scar on his face. The Royalist cause has pretty much collapsed and plans to whisk Charles I away to safety in France are thwarted at the last minute and the Blade and his dwindling band of supporters are left to strike impotently at the Roundheads whilst plotting to rescue the King and restore the Monarchy.

The Scarlet Blade is good rousing fun, handsomely-mounted and with some lively action scenes and striking location filming at Hammer’s traditional Black Park stamping ground. Hedley’s an unusual choice for an action hero but he throws himself into some quite brutal fight sequences with gusto and while the film peters out with more of a whimper than a bang there’s enough going on to sustain interest throughout its brief 80 minute running time and it’s a decent reminder that in its heyday the Hammer production line wasn’t all fangs and vampire bats.

The Brigand of Kandahar is a different kettle of fish though, dodgy hokum with blacked-up white actors which can’t help but evoke happier memories of Carry On Up The Khyber. Here Oliver Reed (in his final appearance for Hammer) plays ferocious tribal leader Ali Khan who recruits British “half-caste” soldier Lieutenant Robert Case to his bunch of desert-roaming bandits in 1850s India when Case is disgraced for apparently abandoning a fellow officer whose wife he’s been having an illicit affair with. Charged with cowardice, Case escapes and is determined to clear his name with the help of the maniacal Khan and his band of cut-throats.

The Brigand of Kandahar is achingly-poor stuff, its realisation of 19th century India largely studio-bound and with stock footage from bigger-budgeted films artlessly inserted to beef up underpowered and under populated action sequences. Whether you think political correctness has been allowed to go mad or not, it’s still tough to watch a film whose lead characters are resolutely British actors in black-face and Case never really presents himself as much of a hero figure. The only fun to be had here comes from Oliver Reed who, we can only assume, drunkenly thought he was signing up for a role in a panto and not a feature film. The Brigand of Kandahar is dated and clunky and is unlikely to hold the attention of anyone but the most determined Hammer fanatic. Best avoided.

Special features: To be fair both films have been beautifully remastered and the colours and images are vibrant. 'The Scarlet Blade' features a silent alternative US opening sequence.

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