Hammer Films, the British studio famous for their horror films of the 50s and 60s, produced "Captain Clegg" based on Russell Thorndike's novel, "Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh". An atypical choice for Hammer, this swashbuckling melodrama had the bad luck of being produced the same year as Disney's version of another Dr. Syn novel ("The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh"), which forced Hammer to change the names of the characters to avoid legal issues. Disney's competition and the fact that it was not exactly a horror movie (despite being called "Night Creatures" in the U.S.) contributed to send the film to oblivion for several years. After being lost in limbo, "Captain Clegg" is finally available again, and now it's possible to see this wonderful lost treasure in all its glory.
Set back in the 18th-century, the Royal Crown suspects that smuggling is being done near Dymchurch, so Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) and his crew to investigate. After they arrive, they learn of the legends of the ghosts of Romney Marsh and the curse of the pirate Captain Clegg, but Collier believes that it's all superstitions, and continues his investigations. Collier suspects that the kind village priest, the Reverend Dr. Blyss (Peter Cushing) knows more about the smuggling that what it seems and he'll do whatever is necessary to discover the truth. Even if that means to face the curse of Captain Clegg.
"Captain Clegg" is a wonderful and sadly forgotten film that mixes everything that made Hammer famous in the horror genre with the classic swashbuckling adventures of old. The amazing and beautiful sets and costumes, the cleverly written plots, and the brilliant performances of the cast combine to create a terrific and very enjoyable film. The fact that its director, Peter Graham Scott had a lot of experience with drama and ensemble casts definitely was a defining factor in the result, and while certainly different than most of other Hammer films, the movie retains that certain magic the Studio gave to everything it did.
The film is a better adaptation to Russell Thorndike's novel than Disney's mainly in the fact that the screenplay (by John Temple-Smith) retains the character's anti-hero status, and plays with his dubious morality. Forecasting the renewal of cinema of the 60s, the film has not a definite good and evil, it's all gray scales and the very well constructed characters move from one side to the other in a very realistic manner. The film also makes an interesting point of how our past actions can affect us in the future. Like they did with the horror genre, Hammer modernizes the swashbuckling melodrama with great power and superb care.
The acting is the film's strongest feature and basically every member of the cast is remarkably good. Hammer regular Peter Cushing gives one of his best performances ever and he seems to enjoy the whole movie. It's a joy to watch him in a more complex character than his usual heroic Van Helsing or his wickedly evil Victor Frankenstein. Oliver Reed is also present and his performance as young Harry Cobtree is quite effective. Along with Yvonne Romain they form the romance side of the film and both of them have great chemistry. Patrick Allen and Michael Ripper complete the cast with equally good performances as the script gives everyone a chance to shine.
The film is near perfect and very enjoyable, as it delivers its mix of action, well-handled suspense and old school melodrama blends together smoothly delivering high doses of entertainment. However, some of its scenes at first sight seem definitely outdated (as always happen), later they become part of the film's charm and add to the fun of the story. It was near tragic that the film nearly got lost due to its legal problems and probably bad marketing, as while its American title and its Hammer pedigree suggest Horror, it's far from being in the genre which may turn off viewers expecting a scare-fest.
"Captain Clegg" is a very enjoyable film that modernizes swashbuckling films and gives the chance to watch a different side of Hammer and a wonderful performance by Peter Cushing. It's definitely a must-see and fans of period films filled with suspense and adventure will feel right at home here. A wonderful lost treasure that finally sees light again. 9/10