Friday, June 20, 2014


 I tuned in to TCM the other night and found one of my all-time favorite movies—THE CRIMSON PIRATE, starring Burt Lancaster.  Watching the athletic Lancaster in his glorious prime made me wonder, what is it about pirates, anyway?  In reality they were murderous and foul, but in our romantic imaginations, they look like the tow-headed, blue-eyed Lancaster, or the square-jawed Errol Flynn of CAPTAIN BLOOD, or Johhny Depp's Jack Sparrow or Harrison Ford’s Han Solo or Nathan Fillion’s Captain Mal Reynolds. (And though the last two may not technically be pirates, or even space pirates, they have enough of the pirate soul to qualify.)

First of all, a word about THE CRIMSON PIRATE.  I’ve loved this film since the first time I saw it on television in the early Sixties, which would have been some ten years after it came out in 1952.  I was captivated, even as a youngster, by Lancaster, a former circus performer who moved like a spring-loaded tiger and had a grin that lit up the screen, even in black and white.  He made a splendid pirate, swinging from the yardarm with a cutlass in his hand!  Even better, as Captain Vallo, he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a revolutionary leader on a Caribbean island and broke the (questionable) pirate code to rescue and win her!  How romantic is that?

In the commentary after the movie on TCM, I learned that THE CRIMSON PIRATE is often seen as Lancaster’s poke in the eye of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which was devastating Hollywood at the time with its accusations of “collusion” with the Communists.  A “crimson” pirate, helping a people’s revolution against a bunch of oppressive stuffed shirts?  Oh, yeah, I see it now.

But the best part of it has always been that foundation of why we love the idea of pirates.  Lancaster’s Captain Vallo was loyal to his crew, resourceful, courageous and self-sacrificing.  He resisted feminine wiles for the most part, but when he fell, he fell hard.  He had his own personal code of ethics, from which he never deviated.  He was a leader, full of natural charisma.  Vallo, indeed, was like every other ship’s captain we’ve grown to love from Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey to Jim Kirk and Trilby Elliott.  It just so happened he captained a pirate ship.

Pirates choose to operate outside the boundaries of the law.  Sometimes they are forced to do so, for reasons of politics or personal circumstances.  That makes them dangerous, but, depending on the backstory, it doesn’t always make them bad people.  At least that is the romantic version of piracy.  We can imagine a Captain Vallo, a pirate with a heart of gold, if you will.  He operates under the pirate code as long as it suits him (or if it’s necessary), stealing without remorse, or killing men in a fair fight.  But when an ethical choice is forced on him, he will follow his own personal code, refusing to betray a trust for money or to stab a man in the back. And his past can always be redeemed by his actions—and his love.

Most of the lone traders or “space pirates” of SFR fall in this category.  (And if you don’t think there are plenty of those out there, just call up the space pirates tag in Amazon and see what you come up with!)  Like Captain Mal’s Serenity crew, these anti-heroes aren’t Blackbeards boarding ships, raping, killing and pillaging.  Instead they wander the galaxy trying to earn a living any way they can, with one barely legal deal after another.  They go where others won’t go, trade where others won’t and with those whom others scorn.  They conduct business in sleazy bars and back alleys, or maybe in the darkest corner of a spacedock warehouse. They lead dangerous lives; there’s always a chance somebody will end up dead. 
Writing for space pirates is space noir at its best.  And it’s a lot of fun.  The third book in my Interstellar Rescue series, Fools Rush In, features Captain Sam Murphy of the Shadowhawk, a man with a reputation ruthless enough to make anyone traveling the space lanes through the Minertsan Empire think twice.  Those who fear him call him “blackjack”—pirate—but it is the slavers Murphy hates that are the true criminals.  He stops them at any opportunity, returning the “cargo” to the nearest Rescue center and taking the ship as bounty. 

But when he stops the slaver Fleeflek, he gets more than he bargained for.  Rescue agent Rayna Carver is undercover among the slaves onboard, set to infiltrate the Minertsan weapons factory on a tiny planetoid called LinHo.  Murphy’s rescue has ruined months of planning for her, and she demands his help in getting to LinHo.  As things heat up between the captain and his insistent new passenger, a bigger danger threatens the Shadowhawk.  Rayna Carver wasn’t the only agent undercover on that slaver, and the lovers’ soon discover that their fate and that of their ship, is tied to the progress of a civil war in an alien empire.

Sam Murphy doesn’t look much like the gallant Captain Vallo of THE CRIMSON PIRATE.  He has black hair and green eyes instead of Lancaster’s tow head and blue eyes.  He’s tall and broad-shouldered, rather than lithe and lean.  And he doesn’t flash that grin nearly as much.  But the heart of gold?  That’s still there.  Circumstances made him a pirate, but he’s no blackjack, the term I use in the book for a true rapist/murderer/pillager.  He loves his crew; they love him.  And whatever he may have done in his past, his actions in the book—and his love of Rayna—redeem him.

That’s what it is about pirates.  And it makes them irresistible.

Cheers, Donna


  1. I always loved "The Crimson Pirate" as well, for all the reasons you've cited here. Just a fun movie! I'll have to go check out "Fools Rush In" now...enjoyed the post!

  2. Deutero-canonically speaking (drawing on the Brian Daley Han Solo trilogy and the Return of the Jedi novelization) Han Solo has 19 acts of piracy, in addition to smuggling, on his record.

    He totally counts.

  3. I have to agree that the mystique surrounding pirates translates beautifully into SFR. Whether it be a vast ocean or the immense void of space, the pirate's code and lifestyle of choice always makes them a fascinating study.

    Speaking of which, I'm just in the process of getting reacquainted with Captain Murphy and Rayna and really enjoying the journey. :)

  4. Hmm, only 19 acts of piracy, Angelia? Oh, that's just the ones ON RECORD! And thanks, Veronica, but you'll have to wait a bit for Fools Rush In--it's still a work in progress. Glad to hear you're enjoying it, Laurie!


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