The year of Blood and Black Lace and A Fistful of Dollars finds Umberto Lenzi in Singapore filming a follow-up to a Steve Reeves vehicle. Reeves is near the end of his run in Europe; he'll make just one more movie, a spaghetti western four years later. At the brink of the obsolescence of his specialty peplum genre, Reeves is moving away from flaunting his body, opting for more conventional adventure stories. This is his second outing as a character who is hugely popular in Italy, and presumably elsewhere in the world, but is nearly unknown in the United States.
Sandokan is the creation of Emilio Salgari, who seems to have been Italy's answer to Jules Verne, Karl May and H. Rider Haggard. Salgari wrote eleven Sandokan novels, along with many others, before killing himself at the age of 48 in 1911. Sandokan is a heroic Malaysian pirate who thwarts the imperial ambitions of Europe in the South Seas. He has a Portuguese sidekick, Yanez, whose primary characteristic, as far as Pirate of Malaysia will tell you, is his cigarette addiction. Their arch-enemy is a historical figure, James Brooke, known as the White Rajah of Sarawak. From Wikipedia's survey of Brooke's career, Pirate of Malaysia appears to be set around 1851, when a royal commission was appointed to investigate his activities on the island. If so, there has been a telescoping of events, since Brooke is said to have only recently overthrown the rightful ruler, when in fact he had been named Rajah back in 1842. In history, Brooke died in bed, still in power, and succeeded by a nephew. In the Lenzi movie he fares less well.
Pirate of Malaysia presumes some familiarity with the characters, or at least with the preceeding movie, which was released in the U.S. as Sandokan the Great. There's little in the way of introduction. Sandokan, looking pretty swanky and well-fed for a pirate, saves someone adrift on the sea who proves to be a friend of his from the earlier film. This man, Tremal-Naik, is played by Mimmo Palmara, who often plays subordinate strongmen in the genre. He reports the conquest of Sarawak by the infamous Brooke and the flight of the island's princess, a person of interest to Sandokan. We see her trying to make good her escape with the aid of a faithful servant.
Sandokan heads to Sarawak to initiate guerilla warfare, demonstrated by Lenzi on the cheap with much offscreen mayhem and sound effects. It's too bad that he had to scrimp here, since the film benefits so much from the location shooting in Singapore and other exotic sites. Our hero learns that Brooke is sending a gold shipment to India with which to buy guns to suppress the insurgency. He decides to take the ship by subterfuge, hiring on as a humble cabin boy. In the meantime, Tremal-Naik is arrested during a botched rendezvous, while Sandokan fights his way out. Reeves doesn't have to be superhuman here, and his stiff roundhouse punches look pretty convincing just due to the size of his arms.
On the ship, the Young India (Lenzi uses a real ship to good effect) Sandokan is told, unsurprisingly, that he looks more like a pirate than a cabin boy. I suppose Reeves could pass for a cabin boy on some cruises, but that's a question for another time. For now, Sandokan wins the good will of the British commanding officer, who isn't too happy having Brooke's minions, headed by main underling Lt. Clintock, prowling around the ship. As it happens, the princess Hada is also on board. Sandokan conducts some sabotage to make the ship easier for his men to attack by swimming en masse with a rowboat of weapons in tow. In the struggle, Lt. Clintock is knocked overboard.
The first Sandokan novel first appeared in serial form, and it wouldn't surprise me if others did as well, since Pirate of Malaysia has a very episodic structure. For his next trick, Sandokan will pretend to be a shipwrecked prince in order to receive Brooke's hospitality, learn more about his schemes, and find a way to free Tremal-Naik, who's a prisoner there. This guy's a rebellious prisoner, and Sandokan is invited to witness his death by alligator. "I find that the thirst for liberty is best cured by salt water," Brooke remarks. Sandokan saves the day by grabbing a gun and shooting the animal, and excuses himself for failing to suppress his hunting impulse. He sneaks his friends some drugs so he can feign death. Sandokan then arranges for him to be buried in the local cemetery, since Tremal-Naik's people allegedly abhor burial at sea. That way Sandokan's minions can dig him up and free him. The ruse works well until Lt. Clintock reappears and rats out Sandokan. He and his men fight their way free, only to be captured quite easily in the next sequence, in which they're sentenced to slave in the mines. Sandokan promptly marks his territory by beating up a Chinese bully, and then it's on to further exploits leading to a climactic battle at a fortress on a high plateau....
I must confess to dozing off at moments during Pirate of Malaysia. Apart from the nice location work, Lenzi's direction is uninspired here. I was also not seeing it at its best, since this is the DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment's Warriors collection. It is incorrectly letterboxed, as is sadly illustrated by a scene where Sandokan and Brooke sit at opposite ends of a long dinner table and chat, but we see neither of them. On top of that, the image is cropped at top and bottom so that some of the opening credits are unreadable. Thanks to the location work (which strikes me as a preview of Lenzi's cannibal epics to come), the film has a visual quality that can't be denied even in this truncated form. The more serious problem is the acting (or voice acting). It renders this English version of the film pretty lifeless. I also felt handicapped by my unfamiliarity with the characters. This is the sort of film where familiar characters don't really need to be developed, but for a stranger that means little effort is made to make them interesting, apart from the oddity of Yanez's perpetual nicotine fit.
Just for the sake of its visuals, I'd recommend Pirate of Malaysia for a proper remastered DVD release in the correct aspect ratio. I'm unlikely ever to see it on Region 1, however, because of the lack of interest in the Sandokan character and the general disdain for the peplum genre. The peplum is the idiot stepchild of Italian genres, with less prestige even than the crazy uncle of the cannibal genre or the crazier uncle of Nazi porn. Why is that? Most likely because peplums seem childish, which is perhaps a handicap of the time they were made. They lack that certain edginess that emerges in every other Italo genre. The TV theme song probably sums up the problem: "These men of steel could never feel the curse of a coward's fears." Peplum heroes -- Hercules and all his sons, Maciste, Ursus, etc., are too good, too flawless, for their own good, compared to spaghetti western, giallo or police thriller protagonists. They ought to have a more honored place in the history of movie fantasy, but in the wild world of cinema they seem all too tame. Pirate of Malaysia barely qualifies as a peplum, and literally wouldn't due to its period, but Steve Reeves's presence probably makes it easier for people to dismiss a film that at least deserves a better first look than we get today, if not necessarily a second.
There doesn't seem to be any video footage from Pirate of Malaysia available online, so here's another poster.