“What should it trouble a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul” – Herbert Marshall
There’s not a finer prospect I can think of than a Jacques Tourneur-helmed swashbuckler starring Jean Peters as a swarthy pirate who terrorizes the high seas. At this point in her career, Peters had yet to garner a starring role. Pictures like Pickup on South Street and Niagara were still in her future, but she more than proves her salt, taking to the role ferociously. The best part is that regardless of its humble running time, this is the kind of material an actor can really sink their teeth into.
Her Captain Providence proves fierce and stout-hearted in a sea of growling seafarers. Despite being one of the few women on the landscape, she’s a domineering captain of the ship who wears her sea legs well; there’s a believable pitilessness about her.
It’s the only way one survives such a climate. In their opening takeover of a ship from the British fleet, we get a perfect showcase for their merciless treatment of any foe. It primes our expectations going forward.
However, there is one uncharacteristic move our protagonist makes by pardoning a man they find shackled in the brig. He is a Frenchman (Louis Jourdan). Her right hand man is distrustful of such a rogue, but the enigmatic fellow becomes an addition to the crew after appealing to the captain’s judgment.
If she has anything close to a resident conscience, it would be the jaded doctor (Herbert Marshall), who cares for the crew’s ailments while also keeping her apprised of the words of scripture and what scrupulous men might do. This is very much the war playing out within the character. She tries to maintain her mastery of the sea while also grappling with love, opening herself up, and risking an admission of weakness.
For instance, feminity is not something to be flaunted, but Jourdan’s La Rochelle manages to coax it out of her. Like other wenches, she’s fallen for a man. He effectively comes between her and the only mentor she’s ever known.
Thomas Gomez takes on the larger-than-life task of Black Beard. He is both mentor and partial antagonist worthy of all the scurvy legends and tall tales that have been spun about him over the years. He’s armed with an agreeable bluster full of throaty good humor but also the edge of prickly menace. It makes him more threatening as the story progresses because he doesn’t forget a grudge easily.
Their initial fight is everything we could ask for in a rousing duel between a pair of boisterous daredevils. However, if this is what they do in a jocund company, you can only imagine what it will look like when animosity is stirred up between them.
Debra Padget is hardly a flash in the pan and for all the solid pictures she was a part of, more often than not it seems like she’s given very little to do. Once again she shows up as a pretty albeit sympathetic face. In this picture, she’s a fitting contract to Anne, if little else. She was rarely allowed anything more substantial.
It’s easy enough to summarize the latter half of the picture as a game of successive feints and parries back and forth with several lovely offensive thrusts from both sides. They’ll see it through to the end hell or high water, cannonballs raining down, masts crashing, fires burning all over. If it’s not obvious already, there can only be one victor in the fight to the death and the total subjugation of the sea.
The ending is another twist of romanticism. To me, it does twinge with the feelings of a cop-out, but it brings back Black Beard to fight it out with his old yard arm. They were meant to meet one final time. Except for this time, his old accomplice has been stricken with a momentary conscience. She takes her furious grit and puts it to use in one final stand of sacrificial defiance. Still, the famed pirate goes out much the way she came in as a titan among men.
There are few things I abhor more than a bloated picture where the scenery and the running time get away from the filmmakers. While Tourneur’s not anti-epic, he takes shorter, more compact material and still manages to give it the scale and import of much larger pictures. He did it with horror, westerns, and certainly swashbucklers like this one. Because genre pictures have the auspicious opportunity to offer their spectators atmosphere — all kinds of atmosphere — and we see it in spades with Tourneur. This surely is one of his finest attributes as a director.
Part of me still marvels that they actually made a movie like this in the early 1950s. But that quickly dissipates in lieu of a total appreciation for what this cast and crew are able to conjure up onscreen. It’s like they had the key to rousing swashbucklers that we’ve all pretty much forgotten. For a picture that very few people seem to remember today, Anne of the Indies is a good time, and a novel one at that.