GUNS OF THE BLACK WITCH, aka IL TERRORE DEI MARI
Italy-France 1961, released in the USA by American International in Dec. 1961
starring Don Megowan, Emma Danieli, Silvana Pampanini, and Livio Lorenzon
Directed by Domenico Paolella
This morning on the drive to work, I was listening to a Document Records CD of 78’s recorded by blues pianist/vocalist/songwriter Roosevelt Sykes, recorded in the late 1940’s. As I listened to the 26-track CD, it became very clear that these songs were recorded with the jukebox market in mind. Sykes was a popular recording artist at that time, so he may well have released 4 or 5 singles a year, and those singles went on to jukeboxes for a month or two at a time. Many songs were about drinking, or about the decisions one makes after drinking, or about reasons to drink. Others were based on a catchy novelty phrase, which would have gone over well with an audience who’d already had a few. The original audience would hear these records TWO SONGS AT A TIME at a bar, and those two songs would have been on the bar jukebox for a month or two. That’s how the original audience would have enjoyed them…not on a 26-track CD, one after the other, in a car during a morning commute. Of course, it’s great to have them in this format, and as the music is excellent, it is providing joy to listeners long after Mr. Sykes has passed away. However, it is of value to consider the ORIGINAL CONTEXT of the appreciation and enjoyment of an artistic/entertainment product.
The film GUNS OF THE BLACK WITCH, made in Italy/France and featuring American film and television star DON MEGOWAN, did play the US widely when it was released by American International in late 1962 (and posters and lobby cards for that US release are not hard to find today), and was released in both color and widescreen. Surely, a copy of that color and scope print must exist somewhere, but no copy that I know of has begun circulation “in collectors circles,” as we say.
However, most Americans who eventually saw this film probably saw it on television, on a local station or a low-power UHF station, perhaps in the middle of the night….and if that showing was pre-1975, they probably saw it in BLACK AND WHITE. The circulating copy (at least in North America) of the film is a B&W TV pan-and-scan print, meaning the color widescreen image of the original film is in monochrome AND you are only seeing the middle 50% of the image. However, that’s how we saw many of these films back in the day, AND we saw them on relatively small TV screens. My parents may have had a 21″ screen when I was growing up, but when I finally had my own TV as a teenager, it was a 13″ portable, and I was lucky to have it.
We fans of European historical genre-films of the late 50’s and early 60’s have been spoiled in recent years by the beautiful color and widescreen versions that have dropped into grey-market circulation from European cable-TV broadcasts and European DVD releases….but the way I originally saw films such as this was in small screen pan-and-scan black and white. Thus, the copy of GUNS OF THE BLACK WITCH which I own–a DVD-R burn of the same B&W, P&S print I had a VHS dupe of 20 years ago–can be of value in reminding me of how I, and many other people, developed a taste for dubbed European historical films through TV viewings back in the 60’s and 70’s. Younger readers need to be reminded that in the pre-Cable TV world (even before the pre-Internet world), most people had the choice of 5 or 6 TV stations at most: 3 network stations, perhaps a PBS station, and then maybe a few independent and/or UHF stations. The latter were usually low-power and sometimes came in a bit “snowy.” Indie and UHF stations programmed a LOT of both older American B-moves and dubbed European films, and a lot of people watched them. I would guess that a higher percentage of Americans would have watched a European film (I’m not counting films from the UK) back then, when European genre films regularly played American theaters and especially American TV, in any 3-month period, compared with now, when there are 1000 cable channels to choose from. And it would NOT be the kind of people who would go to art-film theaters–it would be genre film fans, who’d be watching a crime film or a pirate film or a western.
(the UK double-bill where GUNS was paired with THE PHANTOM PLANET!)
good 60’s Italian pirate swashbuckler
The beginning sequences, about how the abuse of the Spanish led the buccaneers to organize to defend themselves, give this early 60s Italian swashbuckler an interesting spin and help to get things moving and create motivation and sympathy for buccaneer leader Don Megowan (first seen played by a child, depicting the childhood incidents that led him to become what he did). Director Domenico Paolella helmed fine peplum, spy, western, and giallo films and this little-known film is another feather in his cap. Star Don Megowan, an American best known for roles in Westerns and science fiction films in the late 50s and early 60s (he seems to have made only two films in Europe–this one and another called valley of the doomed, with Hildegard Knef, which is quite distinctive and highly recommended), cuts a strong, tough figure and was an excellent choice for the role (it’s a shame he made no Italian westerns). Other faces such as Phillipe Hersent and Livio Lorenzon will be familiar to any fan of Italian early-60s genre films. This actually received an American theatrical release, and according to the AFI it was released in color and in widescreen. Unfortunately, the copy circulating among collectors is a panned and scanned b&w print no doubt made for TV. Also, the European release is listed as 13 minutes longer than the American release. I would imagine the film would be much better in color and in widescreen and I only hope that with the growing market for 1960s European genre films on DVD in their original format will cause someone to restore and release GUNS OF THE BLACK WITCH in its full glory. Until then, and I don’t expect that time will be soon, the film is worth watching for fans of the genre. The director’s next film was WOMEN OF DEVIL’S ISLAND, starring Guy Madison (and prior to GUNS, Paolella worked with Lex Barker–after Devil’s Island, he worked with Richard Harrison on Avenger of the Seven Seas). Color, scope 35mm prints of this must be out there somewhere from the film’s US release. Let’s hope someone finds one and transfers it.
Watching the film again now in 2017, I’m just as impressed as I was in 2003 (and as I undoubtedly was when I saw it on TV on a low-power UHF station in the late 60’s or early 70’s)….and as I’m watching it in B&W in a butchered version, I can see how despite its alteration for American TV, it still manages to impress. Remember, many of the classics of 50s and 60’s rock and roll were first heard on tiny, tinny transistor radios by most people–yet their power came through IN SPITE of that. Leading man Don Megowan, who reminds me of Rod Cameron with a twist of Rock Hudson, makes a strong impression here as does villain Livio Lorenzon—-with or without color or widescreen. Much of the film takes place on ships or on the coast right near the ocean, something many low-budget pirate films cheat on (but not this one), and the castles and historical buildings look quite different from anything Americans are used to seeing here. The costumes look quite different from those seen in American swashbuckling films, and the balls at the Spanish Governor’s Palace also look quite different from what they’d look like had the film been American-made. Thus, it had quite an exotic appeal to that person watching it at 2 a.m. on TV in Kansas or Alabama or Idaho after eight hours of security-guarding or factory work, and it went perfectly with a tallboy of Miller or Pabst. The film also delivers the goods in terms of fights, sea battles, swordplay, and action of all kinds. There is that archetypal plot device of one brother selling out and betraying the other, And lest I forget, this is a film where the pirates (oh, they call themselves Buccaneers, you should know) are the heroes, and the Spaniards are the heavies (no wonder this was an Italian-French co-production, with no Spanish involvement)—-the background for this is spelled out in the film’s first ten minutes, where Spanish aggression and tyranny basically FORCE the locals in the Caribbean to take up arms against the Spaniards to make any kind of living. That is certainly an untypical approach.
As someone who has seen MANY European swashbuckling adventures of the late 1950s and early 1960s, I would have to rate GUNS OF THE BLACK WITCH rather highly among them. Maybe someday in this lifetime I will have the opportunity to see the film in color and widescreen, but even without that, it satisfies, and seeing it in B&W and pan-and-scan reminds me of what about this genre appealed to me originally, when this mediocre format was how I saw ALL the films of this type…..as did millions of other genre-film loving Americans. most of whom may not even remember their enjoyment of such films as they now watch NETFLIX or the offerings on Amazon Prime. Me, I’m standing by Captain Jean, as played by DON MEGOWAN, and the crew of the Black Witch, rooting for him as he takes on Spanish villain Livio Lorenzon in the film’s climactic sword-fight…..and feeling vindicated as he triumphs and the credits roll. I wonder what’s up tomorrow night on Channel 27 at 2 a.m.? Could it possibly be as satisfying as GUNS OF THE BLACK WITCH? We’ll have to see….
OTHER RECOMMENDED FILMS STARRING DON MEGOWAN: