This is one of the best Hammer films! CAPTAIN CLEGG was re-titled NIGHT CREATURES for US distribution and this gives a false impression of it being just another horror or monster movie while in fact it is a swashbuckling adventure film. It's a shame that this was Director Peter Graham-Scott's only foray into the Hammer oeuvre because he captured the pure essence of child-like excitement balanced with very adult themes of crime and punishment.
The story begins with a Pirate ship bobbing on a gloomy sea with an inter-title declaring the Year of the Lord as 1776. Cut to: Captain’s Quarters as a huge man (addressed to disparagingly as Mulatto) is being held down and accused of “attacking the Captain’s wife with the intent to assault and murder her”. He screams in defiance as his punishment is read: “Ears be split and tongue cut-out and left on the nearest uninhabited island with neither food nor water and left to die!” The camera pans in to extreme close-up of his eyes full of burning rage. He is then left tied to a post to slowly wither and die of either blood loss or starvation, as he grunts and screams in terror. This may be the greatest opening in the Hammer canon. Who wouldn’t want to keep watching?
There is much left unsaid in this preamble: was the “Mulatto” given a fair trial? Did he actually attack the captain’s wife or was he falsely accused? We only see pronouncement of punishment and the sentence being carried out. He seems to want to speak and offer an explanation but his mouth is quickly covered. I believe it’s no coincidence that this biracial sailor is being judged harshly without trial at the same time as another population, a melting-pot of people, is also fighting for freedom from an unfair British Rule of Law. Also, the Pirate Captain himself flees pursuit of the British Navy for, as we later learn, freeing slaves from British ships presumably traveling to this New World. CAPTAIN CLEGG can thus be seen as a metaphor for the tyranny of British rule when the accused has no recourse to basic Rights or Rule of Law. Interestingly, the Captain is both victim and prosecutor under this reading which creates a complex and quite human characterization nobly embodied by Peter Cushing.
After the opening credits, superimposed upon an eerie scarecrow under dark stormy sky, the camera focuses upon Captain Clegg’s grave marker: hanged at Rye 1776. The camera then pans skyward upon the bell tower of a church and gives us the story’s present tense of 1792. The church is dark and foreboding. We then get an omniscient narration and text crawl stating that the Romney citizens are a proud and independent people, sparing no love for the governments Revenue Men. It ends warning of the legend of the Marsh Phantoms. We then see the skeletal steeds, ghost riders in the darkened sky, as they pursue a lost wanderer through the marsh. These phantom riders seem one with their ghostly steeds, and their glowing bones seem to radiate their own ghastly light. They chase their prey into a literal dead end, where the swamp becomes his watery grave. His last breath bubbles to the surface upon the brackish waters which transitions to the church’s stained-glass window under which a preacher sermonizes. This is Parson Blyss and his bored but dutiful flock.
Soon, the Parson must deal with the Government Revenue men who are investigating claims of these marsh phantoms but which Captain Collier (the story’s antagonist) believes is a front for smugglers. The rest of the film contrasts Blyss and Collier, two men with different goals but are much alike, both moral yet violently punitive: Blyss seems indifferent to the man at the beginning being murdered to prevent their secret from escaping and Collier allows his men to torture Harry (Oliver Reed) in order to get him to reveal the secret hideout. Both men seem to feel that the ends justify the means.
As the clash of personalities escalates and the mystery is on the verge of being solved by Collier, another very interesting plot thread develops. Note that the mystery is revealed very early on to the audience: Blyss and the townsfolk are smuggling wine to bypass the King’s taxes. The secondary plot involves the Mulatto escaping and what it inadvertently reveals about the girl Imogene (Harry’s love interest) and her and Blyss’ lineage. After a paper is uncovered stating that Imogene is the daughter of the Pirate Clegg, Harry rushes to Blyss and together they seek to suppress the information. The Mulatto attacks Blyss after earlier acting hostile towards him, and Collier suspects the Parson may not be whom he seems. When it is revealed that Blyss is indeed Clegg and Imogene his daughter (as confidant, Harry already knew) it is interesting to ponder her age. The bountiful Yvonne Romain obviously looks older than fifteen but Clegg’s harsh treatment of the Mulatto now makes sense: Imogene was the product of that vile rape in 1776. The fate of Clegg’s wife is never mentioned but one could assume her death after childbirth from injuries sustained during the assault…either physical or mental. It adds another layer to this rip-roaring adventure story that doesn’t relent for its 80 minute run time!
Michael Ripper portrays one of the major characters and is excellent as Mipps, Clegg’s faithful cohort and friend. He actually has more than a few speaking parts (not as much as in THE MUMMY’S SHROUD) and carries on with a snarky yet honest demeanor. Oliver Reed also elevates his minor part as Harry into a powerful performance. He is able to express sarcasm and resentment with subtle expression and body language. And Peter Cushing gets to kick and fistfight with his mountainous nemesis, getting thrown around and jumping through a burning window! He’s an action hero!
Director Peter Graham-Scott paces the film with perfect timing and precision as there’s not a moment wasted. He also takes the film out of the usual Hammer backlot and into open fields and swamps, so the locations seem fresh and daring. Graham-Scott also films in natural light giving the film a more realistic or historical texture.
CAPTAIN CLEGG ends without addendum like most Hammer films, as Blyss/Clegg is murdered by the Mulatto and his faithful companion Mipps fires truly and kills the behemoth. Mipps carries his friend to the grave of Captain Clegg, pried open earlier by the Mulatto in his quest for vengeance, and lays him down to sleep forever. It is both sad and full of pathos as one wonders what Collier will do next: arrest Mipps and the townsfolk or consider the case closed. At least Imogene and Harry escaped to begin a new life together…perhaps under that newly created Democracy in a land far, far away.
Final Grade: (A)