Best known for gritty crime films and, for better or worse, cannibal movies, Italian director Umberto Lenzi spent his early career making fun swashbuckling adventures.
During the 1950s, and sort of culminating with the glorious, studio-destroying boondoggle Cleopatra in 1963, Italian film studios and craftspeople enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood that resulted in, among many other things, a whole lot of stuff piling up in prop and costume rooms. Italians were the pioneers of the ancient world spectacle, and rightly so given their cultural history. 1914’s Cabiria was a massive, beautiful, and thoroughly modern adventure film that outshines its contemporaries and pioneered many of the techniques that would go on to define cinematic language. I was also thrilling, full of stunts, and featured staggering, massive sets. So it’s not as if Hollywood had to come in and teach Italian filmmakers how to do spectacle. They were the oldest hands at it in the picture business.
But post-World War II, Italy was reeling from defeat and, perhaps more so, it’s years under the thumb of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The war left Italy impoverished and many of its great cities in ruins. It’s film industry was in a weird place where, without many of the basics (like film and electricity, for example), there was little hope of making movies — and yet this is the environment that birthed the neo-realists, led out of the gate by Roberto Rossellini, who took to the streets with battered equipment and whatever film stock he could scavenge to shoot his Occupation drama Rome, Open City almost before the Nazis and fascists had finished retreating. He followed it up with an anthology film, Paisan, that wove in and out of various stories taking place as the Allies advanced through Italy, and finally Germany Year Zero, shot in the ruins of Berlin shortly after the end of the war. Other neo-realists followed, including Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini. They proved that not, war, not occupation, not deprivation could stop people from creating art.
As rough and tumble as the early films were, lurking in the background of it all was the ghost of Cinecitta, the film production facility built at the height of Mussolini’s power to show off Fascist might in all things, including art and film. Cinecitta was a potentially world-class resource, if only someone could figure out how to repair it and get it up and running at the full of its potential. Through one of those wonderful series of coincidences and seemingly small things all happening to create something bigger, As Italy entered the 1950s, Rome suddenly became the focal point of international cool. A group of scrappy fashion designers and photographers (oddly, the same professions would help establish Swinging London a decade later) turned all eyes on the recovering city, and soon the world’s newly minted Jet Set were skipping Paris and New York in favor of Rome, where to be seen drinking, carousing, and making the scene along the Via Veneto became the thing to do — and there were packs of what were later dubbed, by Federico Fellini in his account of the era La Dolce Vita, paparazzi that were more than happy to make sure you were seen (especially if you were drunk or Anita Ekberg).
With money, celebrity, and chic allure flowing in, the city began a rapid recovery, and before too long, the Hollywood machine followed the many movie stars who were heading to Rome for vacation anyway. Cinecitta recovered, widescreen color films were all the rage, and Rome was the perfect location to shoot the sort of epics that took full advantage of the format and provided audiences with a level of sexy, colorful opulence they could not get from that upstart, the television set. And when Hollywood came calling on Rome, they came big. Italian prop makers and costume designers were hired in droves, along with hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of extras, the whole of the country enthusiastic about such work after so many lean, horrifying years during and immediately after the war.
Hollywood on the Tiber, as it became known, was hesitant at first to hire Italian film technicians, however. Crafts and tradespeople, sure, but a director of photography or an editor? Better, they thought, to just fly an experienced crew over from California. This eventually changed, as studios realized 1) that costs a lot of money, and 2) the Italians were actually really good at this stuff. However, Italian filmmakers still benefited, because as more Hollywood productions set up shot in and around Rome to indulge the appetite for historical epics, the store of lavish costumes and props began to pile up. A director like Umberto Lenzi might not be hired to work on a major Hollywood picture, but after that picture was complete, he did have access to all the stuff they left behind. Which meant that even a modestly budgeted Italian production could dress itself up in the clothes of a multi-million dollar movie.
As such, Italy enjoyed a boom in the 1950s of adventure films that were able to take advantage of sets and outfits that had been constructed at great cost for other, much more expensive movies. This sort of hit its crescendo in 1957 when someone got the bright idea to dress up American bodybuilder Steve Reeves in a tunic and have him toss around boulders and evildoers in Le fatiche di Ercole, better known simply as Hercules, the movie that launched an entire genre (which, in honor of the designers and tailors who helped bring so much money into Italy, became known as “peplum,” after the material from which so many of the costumes had been fashioned).
While ancient Greek, Roman, and Biblical adventures (and the Italians always seemed to lean more on the adventure and action side of the story than their more dramatic American counterparts) were the bread and butter, they were by no means the only settings of the era. Europe had a long and fabulously costumed history, after all, and during the 1950s, running well into the 1960s, you could hit up the warehouse and find anything from King Louis the XIII finery to Robin Hood tights to suits of armor at your disposal. And, of course, pirate stuff. Lots of pirate stuff. Which is how, in 1961, when Umberto Lenzi directed his first feature film, he was able to make it look so expensive without actually spending that much money.
Like a shadowy, more exploitative version of Federico Fellini, Lenzi dropped out of law school to pursue filmmaking and, in his spare time, worked as a journalist, including a stint with Bianco e Nero, the oldest film magazine in Italy. In 1958, he directed his first film, a Greek production called Mia Italida stin Ellada or Vacanze ad Atene. It was never released, but Lenzi recovered and, in 1961, scored his first legitimate feature film directing credit with the Italian romantic adventure Le avventure di Mary Read (Queen of the Seas). He settled into a groove for a few years that found him directing several adventure films that ranged from swashbucklers and historical hellraisers to sword and sandal spectacles, enabling Lenzi to hone his skill at crafting exciting action scenes and competently mounted productions.
The film is a colorful, light hearted adventure about real-life bandit and pirate Mary Read, though as was the way with pretty much all “based on a true story” epics of the time (and still), Queen of the Seas plays fast and loose with the facts. The historical Mary Read was born in 1685 and raised by the widow of a sea captain. Unfortunately, young Mary wasn’t actually the sea captain’s daughter, so her mother tried to keep both the affair that resulted in Mary as well as Mary herself a secret. When Mary’s older brother, the actual son of the sea captain, passed away, Mary’s mother hatched a scheme to cover up the death and raise the illegitimate daughter as the now dead legitimate son, thus making sure that the sea captain’s mother would not cut the family off financially.
The ruse worked, amazingly, and young Mary spent her early years as a boy, eventually finding work on a ship and then, still successfully masquerading as a young man, joined the military and marched off to war against France. By most accounts she distinguished herself in battle but, eventually, fell in love with a Dutch soldier. Their marriage confused a good many people as Mary came out from behind her male disguise, but it didn’t last. Her husband passed away shortly after their marriage and Mary went back to the life with which she was more comfortable than being a lady. She resumed her male identity and joined the Dutch army.
However, she found little in the way of opportunity once peace broke out and so, perhaps moved by the sea captain’s blood she did not actually share, she joined a ship bound for the West Indies. That ship was soon seized by pirates and Mary became a member of the pirate crew, a transgression for which she was granted a pardon when the pirates were captured, since she’d not had much of a choice. But pirate life must have appealed to her, because when she set sail again as part of a privateer crew attacking the Spanish on behalf of England, she eventually joined that crew in mutiny, having made a name for herself, eventually joined the crew of famed pirate Calico Jack Rackham and his right-hand woman, Anne Bonny. With no sworn allegiance to any nation, Rackham, Bonny and Read (who was still thought by all to be a man) raised hell on the high seas, including a movie-worthy romantic triangle involving the three, which eventually resulted in Read revealing herself to Rackham and Bonny as a woman. Bonny understood; she herself had spent much of her life being raised as a boy by her lawyer father.
The high times came to an end in November of 1720 when pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet caught Rackham’s ship unawares. The pirates had been yo-ho-hoing their way through several bottles of rum, leaving the men either too drunk or too cowardly to repel the boarders. They tumbled into the hold to hide out (not the best plan, but what do you expect from a bunch of drunks). All then that stood against capture were Mary Read and Anne Bonny, and two women, no matter how fierce and sorely disappointed by their male shipmates (Read reportedly fired into the hold out of anger when the men abandoned them), weren’t enough to fight off Barnet and his crew. The entire ship was taken prisoner and every pirate was sentenced to hang, a fate Mary and Anne escaped by both claiming to be pregnant. The stay of execution wasn’t long for Mary Read. In April of 1721 she died of fever, possibly brought on by complications during childbirth. Anne Bonny however, whose last words to her cowardly partner Calico Jack had been “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog,” was never executed. Or at least there is no record of her execution. Or of her being freed, or remaining in prison. What she did between her stay of execution and her reported date of death decades later in 1782 remains a mystery.
The Mary Read of Umberto Lenzi’s Queen of the Seas bears a passing resemblance to her real-life inspiration. Played with an impish twinkle by Lisa Gastoni (already an established player in the Italian film industry by then), the film’s Mary Reade is a blonde beauty and notorious bandit who is more than willing to disguise herself a man in pursuit of some bit of criminal mischief but does not otherwise life her life under the guise of manhood. A bit of cross-dressing thievery gets her imprisoned in the Tower of London, where she meets and is smitten with a rascally young lord named Peter Goodwin (Knoxville, Tennessee native Jerome Courtland, whose acting career was tepid but whose behind-the-camera career included long stints as a principal director on The Flying Nun, The Love Boat, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Knot’s Landing). Goodwin discovers Mary’s gender charade, and the two strike up a jailhouse romance that is cut short when it’s discovered that Goodwin is the Lord he claims to be and is quickly released from prison. Mary engineers an escape of her own, out the window and into the Thames, and is soon reunited with her grandfather/partner in crime (Agostino Salvietti). After discovering that Goodwin is a flirty gadabout lord, Mary signs up with the famed corsair Captain Poof (prolific American actor Walter Barnes). When Poof is shot and killed during a raid, the daring Mary Read leads an escape, takes over the ship, renounces their allegiance to England, and begins a new career as a pirate queen dressed in scarlet.
Pirate films enjoyed a colorful revival in the 1950s, and pirate queen films in particular proved popular, affording women a chance to take part in the fun that had previously been reserved for men. Taking full advantage of all the pirate paraphernalia, sets, miniatures, and sailing ship stock footage at his disposal, the rookie director Umberto Lenzi turns in an assured and handsomely mounted mini-epic in 1961. Lenzi was a fan of director Raoul Walsh, and it’s obvious the influence Walsh’s own swashbucklers (which included the silent era Douglas Fairbanks epic The Thief of Bagdad and the 1950s pirate films Blackbeard the Pirate and Sea Devils) had on guiding Lenzi’s hand. Taking full advantage of all the pirate paraphernalia, sets, miniatures, and sailing ship footage at his disposal, the rookie director turns in an assured and handsomely mounted mini-epic. Working with cinematographer Augusto Tiezzi, who’d been working as a cameraman since 1935, Lenzi makes the most of everything he has, including some location work at the actual Tower of London and a lot of convincing scenes of the high seas. Although it doesn’t feature the intricate swordplay and swashbuckling of an Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, or Basil Rathbone, Queen of the Seas is still packed with humor, spirited fun, and thrills.
Gastoni’s Mary Read may not be very faithful to the real Mary, but she’s still afforded a chance to partake in all sorts of derring-do that, even in 1961, was frequently denied women, even in pirate movies, where they were often relegated to the role of sidekick or haughty lady taken prisoner by a dashing pirate with whom she will eventually fall in love. In contrast, Lisa Gastoni (and her stunt double) gets to engage in fist fights, high dives, sword fights, shootouts, and assorted acts of swinging from the rigging that are pirates are expected to do. She’s never presented as comical, the men rarely doubt her ability (and if they do, they are taught a swift lesson), and she’s written as smart as she is physically capable (when a ship pound for Florida yields little in the way of riches, Mary and her crew just go to Florida and rob all the Spanish lords and ladies there as punishment for owning such a poorly treasured boat). Jerome Courtland is a likable goofball cad who finds himself thrust into the fight against pirates as a result of his attempt to avoid marriage to a homely royal lady, but this is Lisa Gastoni’s show, and silly Lord Goodwin is just a harmless comedic aside for most of the film. Being an adventure movie from the early 1960s, there will be a romantic subplot, but for most of the film it isn’t front and center. Heck, it’s hardly even mentioned at all until the finale, and by then we’ve had so much action and adventure from Mary Read that it’s hard to hold a respite from pirating against her, especially when it comes after a thrilling sword fight (in which Gastoni is doing her own fencing) and a lot of cannons blowing stuff up.