One of Hammer Films lesser known historical adventures The Scarlet Blade, released for the first time on DVD, proves if nothing else that they were better when they stuck to horror. Starring Lionel (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)) Jeffries as a power mad Roundhead and Hammer’s resident ‘heartthrob’ Oliver (Gladiator (2000)) Reed as his scheming right hand man, this tale of daring do in Cromwellian England is hardly ‘cutting edge’ even by Hammer’s oft dubious standards.
Charles I, after being captured by a group of Roundhead soldiers led by the infamous Colonel Judd (Jeffries) and his henchman Captain Tom Sylvester (Reed), is to be taken to the Tower of London for execution. But they haven’t counted on the mysterious ‘Scarlet Blade’ alias Edward Beverley (Jack Hedley), a Robin Hood like figure intent on rescuing the king and disrupting the plans of Judd and his troops.
There’s one overriding problem with this film, along with others by the studio which fell outside the horror bracket – namely its lack of horror. By the mid 1960’s the studio had become so synonymous with the macabre, that anything they did outside of it felt lacklustre. Even their black and white psychological thrillers like the Bette Davis vehicle The Nanny (1965), still leant heavily towards the horrific.
Despite being written and directed by John Gilling, who breathed life into two of the studios best monster pictures with the Cornish ‘freak-shows’ Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Reptile (1966), The Scarlet Blade with it’s studio bound appearance and hammily ‘earnest’ acting fails to make a dramatic impact beyond its 83 minute running time. In accordance with the studio’s economic approach to reusing sets and scenery, many of those from the film would be seen in later outings like Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). However where lack of substance in the horror films could be glossed over by the sheer preposterousness of their situations, the same shortcomings in the studio’s historical stories are glaringly obvious.
Where the performances are concerned Jeffries is almost as emotionless as the army colonel he portrays, whilst Hedley soon buckles under the weight of too much swashing. Though June Thorburn is wonderful as Judd’s feisty daughter Claire and Reed a characteristically over-the-top rotter, they fail to make this a must-see for anyone but the most diehard Hammer fan.