Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Pirates of Early TV

The Buccaneers was produced in Britain in 1956 and aired its 39 episodes on CBS over on this side of the pond. It starred Robert Shaw as Captain Dan Tempest, a reformed pirate who now helps protect British colonies in the Caribbean from the Spanish and from pirates such as Blackbeard.

Well, it starred Shaw starting with the third episode. The first two episodes starred Alec Clunes as Woodes Rogers, a real-life pirate hunter. The show was highly fictional, but the first episode followed historical events in a general way, with Rogers arriving on the pirate-infested island of New Providence and defeating the buccaneers pretty by giving them all a Royal Pardon.

In the TV version, the pirates on the island included Blackbeard, who refused the pardon. That leads to duels, murder attempts and other shenanigans until Blackbeard runs for it. The second episode dealt with a raid on the island by Charles Vane, another real-life pirate.

So far, there's no Robert Shaw to be seen. According to the show's Wikipedia entry, there's a possibility that Shaw wasn't available for filming the first two episodes, so Woodes Rogers was stuck in as an alternate hero. Shaw, as Dan Tempest, arrives on the island in episode #3 and is convinced by Rogers to go straight. After that, the character of Rogers is sent off to fight the Spanish and Tempest becomes the hero of the show.

It was a fun series, doing a good job of re-creating the twilight of the Golden Age of Piracy despite the low budget, while the actors all seemed to be enjoying themselves. A minor criticism of the show might be that the sword fights had a painfully choreographed look to them, but they are still performed enthusiastically.

Now to finally get to the point of this post. Four Color #800 (May 1957) was an adaptation of the 1st and 3rd episodes. With art work tentatively credited to Tom Gill and a script by Leo Dorfman, the comic is a faithful and cleanly told version of those episodes.

Rogers arrives on the island and finds an ally in Ben Hornigold (another real-life pirate turned pirate-hunter). There's a clash with Blackbeard, which leads to a duel with  Hornigold. Blackbeard tries to back-shoot Horrnigold. Rogers saves Hornigold and Blackbeard flees the island.

Both this half of the story and the next half essentially make up two inter-related but separate short stories, giving the book as a whole a bit of a schizophrenic feel. Because when Dan Tempest arrives, he abruptly becomes the new protagonist, with Rogers essentially disappearing from the tale after talking Dan into accepting the pardon. That's not really the fault of the writer and artist, though. Watching those early episodes has the same awkward feel to it when Tempest takes over as hero. It all works out in the end, because Shaw was great as Tempest and the show was well-written in general. The comic, because it was a one-shot, never has a chance to work past that awkward transition. It might have been better to start the adaptation with Tempest's first appearance, then go from there.

All the same, the comic is a story worth reading. After Tempest takes the pardon, he makes his first ever honest trading voyage, taking goods to Charlston and proving to be a skilled haggler.

On the way back to New Providence, Dan has a run-in with Blackbeard (who would be a reoccurring villain during the TV series). Dan, though, is as good--or perhaps better--in combat as he is in selling trade goods.

Tom Gill (assuming he was the artist) gives us a really nifty action scene here. The TV show might have had to work within a small budget, but comic books have an inherently unlimited special effects budget.

Nest week, we'll accompany Batman to France and learn what Alfred did during World War II.


  1. Thanks for sharing! This was a new one on me. Looks like some of the same production team as "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Good production values, good pacing of the story. It also reminds me a bit of the Disney "Zorro" series.

    That was a good choice of episode to post--the passing of the torch story.

    I think you've got me hooked on this one. I want to look up more episodes plus a copy of the Dell comic book.

  2. Thanks. The series is in the public domain & I've been watching them on Youtube. I think I was able to find the comic at a pretty reasonable price.


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