Brigands in airships terrorizing the populace of England in that far-off future date of… 1920? Well, the predictions of this adventure picture may not have come true but it’s still a fun little picture.
Home Media Availability: Available for streaming from the BFI for UK users.
Cloudy with a chance of pirates
Did you know about the fad for airship adventures in pre-WWI British cinema? Both The Airship Destroyer (1909) and The Aerial Anarchists (1911) show the threat posed to cities by lighter-than-air aerial bombardment while The Aerial Submarine (1910) featured the hybrid vehicle of the title as a pirate hunter.
Aerial piracy figured into the writings of Jules Verne (naturally) and speculative fiction in general and obviously daring raids, abductions and other nefarious airship doings were often featured, all the better for the hero to show off his derring-do and whatnot. Garrett P. Serviss, who also wrote the bonkers fan fic Edison’s Conquest of Mars, penned a serialized six-part story entitled The Sky Pirate in 1909. Set in the not-too-distant future, it contains several similarities to the film we are covering today.
The Pirates of 1920 gives us a glimpse of the distant year of, well, 1920, a future in which the Roaring Twenties are menaced not by scandalous jazz music, female kneecaps and bobbed hair but +by a those cursed lighter-than-air vessels. Anti-aircraft weapons seem to be totally unknown, as are lookouts on the watch for airborne raiders. The shipping of Europe is ripe for plunder.
To prove this point, the captain of a pirate airship robs a ship and then drops a bomb on the crew for good measure once the raiding party returns. (Red tinting, as well as setting the ship miniature on fire, tells us of the bombs devastating effectiveness.) Before the bombing, Jack Manley, one of the ship’s officers grabbed onto the airship’s rope ladder and is, presumably, the sole survivor of the attack.
Manley isn’t so great at this surprise attack thing and just dives right onto the airship’s deck and is promptly captured and then dangled by a rope over the side. The pirate captain, meanwhile, has discovered a photograph of Manley’s sweetheart and means to capture her. How he got her address, I don’t know. Does the sweetheart always sign her photos with her full address?
The pirates do not realize that waistcoats have pockets and Manley’s contains a knife, which he uses to slice through the rope holding him and tumble into a convenient body of water. Now it’s a race to see if he can rescue his sweetheart before the pirates snatch her.
As you can probably tell, this is as pulpy as it comes and I am definitely there for it. The cast is highly enthusiastic, perhaps a little too enthusiastic in the case of the pirate captain, who sometimes falls into Ford Sterling territory in order to convey his nefariousness. However, this picture was the product of Cricks and Martin’s Lion’s Head film company, which also made comedy pictures, so it is entirely possible that the cast was intentionally playing things broadly to match the fantastic scope of the production.
And the scope was large. Models, painted sets and other trickery was employed to make the most convincing airship possible in 1911. Further, the pirates are smartly clad in coordinated flight suits with two tidy rows of buttons. They may be brigands of the skies but that doesn’t mean they have to be unfashionable. So, if you’re looking to get inspired for a raygun sci-fi project, The Pirates of 1920 will likely be a visual goldmine for sets, props and especially costumes.
Another argument for the rather emphatic acting being intentional would be the obvious comedy flourishes that fill the picture, including the heroine writing a note asking for help and dropping it out of the airship onto a policeman’s head.
Jack Manley’s race to the rescue with a carload of even more policemen has led some reviewers to compare the action in this picture to the Keystone Cops but it is worth nothing that this production pre-dates the first appearance of the cops on United States screens by at least a year.
I wish I could share details on the who’s who of the cast but I am afraid that not much information is available. Directors David Aylott and A.E. Coleby do a good job of keeping things moving and I would describe the overall tone of the picture as cheerfully hyperactive, which is never a bad thing with pulp content.
I should note at this point that the last few minutes of the film do not survive and the picture ends rather abruptly with the heroine on the run from the pirates after forcing them to land their airship by threatening to blow it up with a bomb they carelessly left out for her to find. Unsurprisingly, production materials indicate that the heroes arrive just in time and the heroine is saved, so well done there. I mean, let’s face it, there was never much doubt in the eventual fate of the villains but getting there is all the fun. I hope the missing footage turns up, so be sure to check your attics, cellars, old barns, ex-Soviet archives, eccentric collector stashes, etc.
The Pirates of 1920 doesn’t work as prescient speculative fiction but it succeeds beautifully as a bonkers bit of sci-fi adventure. It’s a bit overacted and none of the characters have two brain cells to rub together but it’s grand fun in the old school manner and I had a swell time watching it. The current runtime is less than twenty minutes, so why not give yourself a treat? It’s especially recommended for fans of science fiction, classic pulp and something a little different.
Where can I see it?
Available for streaming on the BFI Player for UK readers. Everyone else, Google should provide some answers. Hint, hint.
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