Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Seven Seas to Calais: A Review



In Elizabethan times, daring men sailed for Queen and Country as privateers, taking booty from the Spanish Empire to fill the coffers of Gloriana. Seven Seas to Calais is a callback to those swashbuckling days and film. It is not a good callback, however.

Francis Drake (Rod Taylor) has been sailing those seven seas, raiding Spanish ships and taking their treasures. It is an open secret that Queen Elizabeth I (Irene Worth) is his patroness, sharing in the profits. Drake now has a new voyage, and with him a new crewman.

That is Malcolm Marsh (Keith Michell), an eager young man seeking fortune and adventure. The adventure is for himself. The fortune is for Arabella (Edy Vessel), a pretty young French maiden at Elizabeth's court. He, despite her objections, sails with Drake to irritate and benefit off the Spaniards' gold and land in the New World.

In said New World, Drake finds a literal gold mine and liberates its enslaved Native population. Marsh, for his part, ends up accidentally married to many an Indian maiden, particularly one named Potato (Rosella D'Aquino). While he must leave Potato behind, he takes some sweet tasting earth fruit to Court, naming the delectable delight in her honor.

Marsh is displeased to find Arabella engaged to Babington (Mario Girotti), another courtier. She, however, is unaware that Babington is in cahoots with the Spanish to overthrow the Virgin Queen and bring her cousin Mary Queen of Scots (Esmeralda Ruspoli) onto the English throne. Babington and his fellow coconspirators dupe Arabella into helping them and plot to assassinate the Queen when she is touring various castles. Will now-Sir Francis Drake and his men be able to stop the coup and save their monarch?

Seven Seas to Calais tries to be a throwback to the Errol Flynn-type films of swashbuckling and derring-do. Yet it takes only a few minutes into the film to see that it is a B-picture, made on the cheap.

A major clue is the predominance of Italian cast and crew, which seems so at odds with Seven Sails to Calais very British setting. An unintentionally funny moment is when there is an aborted mutiny. As the ringleader demands they rally to his side, Drake faces him down. Cheering his victory, the crew begins shouting, "DRAKE! DRAKE!" but it came across as the extras attempting to figure out how to pronounce "Drake". 

That is not to say that Italian productions are cheap. Rather, there is a lot in Seven Sails to Calais that just does not look right. For example, take when Drake and his men arrive in America. When they enter the gold mine, it looks far too nice to be believable as a gold mine. This gold mine, where the indigenous people were made to work, is very nicely decorated and open. It looks like a more upmarket version of the Morlock mine in Taylor's The Time Machine. I half-expected some green-skinned creature to pop out and try to take some poor Spaniard down.

Filippo Sanjust's screenplay also has a particularly ghastly section. Perhaps as an Italian, he thought it would be clever to have the word "potato" originate from a Native American princess. Hearing it now, it only ends up sounding goofy and deliberately fake. When Marsh flees to his ship at dusk, in Indian headdress and buckskin pants, it is neither funny or sad. It does give Michell a chance to show off his body, so there is that.

Seven Sails to Calais also loses focus on what story it wants to tell. It goes from Drake's privateering adventures to a plot involving Mary Queen of Scots. I think one or the other would have worked, but it is almost as if once Drake returns with his booty the filmmakers needed something else to make the film run its one-hour-forty-minute runtime. Other elements are not answered, such as how Arabella could be seen as a conspirator when she ended up held at sword-point and locked in a room.

The performances were fine. Taylor did his best to be swashing and daring, even if at times he came across as more barking bully than courageous figure. Perhaps there is a reason for his gruff manner. He might have been aware that Seven Sails to Calais seemed more about Malcolm Marsh than Sir Francis Drake. A lot of focus was spent on the Marsh character, such as his romance with the pretty Arabella or his accidental romance with Potato.

Such a silly thing to write. 

I do not know if this was meant to show Drake's story through another's eyes, but Seven Sails to Calais seems more about Marsh than about Drake. Michell is pleasant and pretty enough, but not the best performance all around. The film is populated by pretty people, for both Vessel and Girotti were very pretty to look at. Irene Worth more than lives up to her name as Queen Elizabeth I, in turns haughty and naughty, she made the film more entertaining than perhaps it should be.

Seven Seas to Calais is a bit empty in its presentation. It is not dreadful, but it is a bit cheap looking. Perhaps someone can come along to remake it in a more grounded and more entertaining manner. Seven Sails to Calais is the type of film where after seeing it, you wonder why not remake this to see a better version.

Circa 1540-1598

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