I think I might owe director John Gilling a massive apology.
I took a few cheap pot-shots at Gilling earlier this week (although well deserved ones I hasten to add!) because his films can, to put it politely, occasionally suffer from deficiencies of finances, resources and authenticity/believability. This means that some of his movies can be easy to mock but therein lies the danger as aiming for an easy target frequently results in missing what’s really going and you can end up shooting yourself in the foot with a misguided opinion. Who’s looking stupid now? That almost happened to me with Gilling this week because this guy was a WAY better director than I’d given him credit for and it was ‘The Scarlet Blade’ (1963) where it all clicked into place.
“1648: This is a story of a band of freemen who defied a tyrant” reads the opening text as Roundhead forces, under the leadership of the strict Colonel Judd (Lionel Jefferies), capture King Charles and it is now down to the Scarlet Blade to save the monarch from Cromwell’s men. However, Colonel Judd’s daughter, Claire (June Thorburn), has sided with the Royalists and is in love with the Scarlet Blade, something made even more confusing when Judd’s right-hand man, Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed), also falls for the Colonels’ daughter and secretly declares his Royalist sympathies to her and her cause.
Yet is Captain Sylvester’s love for Claire genuine or is it maybe a sophisticated ruse in order for this Roundhead to infiltrate the Scarlet Blade’s confidences, capture the outlaw and win favour in the eyes of Cromwell? Watch ‘The Scarlet Blade’ and find out!
This is your typical Robin Hood-esque tale where a group of plucky wood-dwellers fight a war of resistance against some usurping military meanies. It’s also typical Gilling with the writer/director bringing his usual blend of fast-paced narrative, rugged physical action, intergenerational conflicts and sly subversion to it all. Yet this time the English setting is fitting to the story meaning we have a Gilling film with a modicum of visual and stylistic consistency or without any other, totally different films trying to barge onto the screen. Yay!
And the look of ‘The Scarlet Blade’ is more than just consistent and plausibly authentic but also genuinely impressive. The cinematography is very nicely handled, particularly during a scene where Claire is sneaking about and hiding behind a chair to avoid detection in a room only light by firelight that’s an excellent example of both style and suspense. The atmospheric lighting really helps too with some bold and striking choices giving the movie a pleasing and intriguing look throughout (at one point some stained glass windows cast slices of coloured light like Battenberg cake onto the walls).
But it’s what Gilling does with his narrative and characters that’s of most interest and evidence of some serious skill here. Around halfway through Jefferies’ Colonel Judd drops out as the main bad guy only to be replaced by a completely new main villian. It’s a potentially reckless choice that any other movie would struggle to recover from, yet here it successfully alters the plans and decisions of Reeds’ duplicitous Sylvester which has a knock-on effect to the other relationship dynamics going on.
When Jefferies’ Judd does reappear it allows for an act of retribution that’s a real jolt as well as providing Oli Reed with a surprisingly gripping demise and what might easily be Lionel Jefferies’ most bad-ass moment. It’s completely unexpected and totally cool.
But Gilling hasn’t finished pulling the rug out from under our feet and subverting various conventions to the point that, by the end, we’re not only unsure if the ending is happy or not but we’re also unsure as to even who the actual villains of this tale might be. Think back to that opening text and notice that Gilling doesn’t mention who the freemen are or who the tyrant is so it’s almost as though the entire film can be flipped on its head. It’s like going to a restaurant and eating a delicious steak only to look down as you put the last forkful into your mouth and discover you’ve been eating trout all this time. It’s a fantastic example of changing the entire complexion of the film right at the end and leaving the audience feeling fully engaged and still thinking turning it over in their heads after.
I love it when this happens; when a filmmaker I might casually or flippantly dismiss turns out to have some serious chops but it took me having to do some hard work and some close watching to appreciate the fact. That and drop my high-and-mighty attitude and accept the fact that just because a movie might be somewhat scrappy and lacking in a certain finesse that that doesn’t mean it was made by incompetent idiots and to think so is to simply demonstrate that the only idiot is you. Fortunately accepting our flaws is the best way to encourage personal growth which means that not only do I now have a new director I’m a fan of but have also grown and matured as a human being, too. How wonderful!