This week, with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean buckling a fair bit of swash at the box office, we turn our attention to pirate movies past—the good, the bad and the just plain salty. All hands on deck!
Blackbeard the Pirate
Robert Newton is completely over the top (he says “arr!” at least a hundred times!) as Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, who brought back the treasure of the Spanish Main, “fightin’ Spaniards and Indians all the way through a sea of blood!” in this swashbuckling 1952 tale from the Seven Seas. William “Stereotypical Bronx Accent Guy from Old WWII Movies” Bendix and “Grammy” Irene Ryan from The Beverly Hillbillies also star. Time has not been kind to Blackbeard the Pirate’s three-strip Technicolor process—parts of the movie look as though they’ve been steeping in rusty bilgewater for decades. But the ending is still as cool as I remember from rainy Sunday afternoon TV, with Blackbeard buried in sand up to his neck as the tide starts rolling in.
The ghost of Edward Teach (played by Peter Ustinov) haunts a high school track coach (Dean Jones) who has just accepted a new position in a small North Carolina coastal village conspicuously populated by attractive, eccentric, young unmarrieds like Suzanne Pleshette. One of Disney’s many previous pirate outings, this 1968 comedy is rarely funny, but worth seeing just for the quaint old inn created by Oscar-winning set designer Emile Kuri, the highlight of which is a nightmarish portrait of one of Blackbeard’s fictional wives. Chilling.
How pathetic is it that the combined talents of Cheech and Chong, John Cleese, Graham Chapman (as the titular Yellowbeard), Eric Idle, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn fail to produce a single laugh in this whole movie? I can’t for the life of me figure out who this impenetrably boring, astonishingly unfunny 1983 clunker was intended for. It might, just might, appeal to die-hard Python fans who were able to sit through the equally awful Jabberwocky, but for nearly anybody else, Yellowbeard is stranded in a Sargasso Sea of unrelieved tedium. The humor is anything but humorous, particularly the numerous rape jokes. Watch for an inexplicable David Bowie cameo—and then keelhaul this scurvy dog!
The Black Swan
From the opening cannonade to the many swashbuckling battle scenes, The Black Swan might just be the most exciting pirate movie ever made. Also the most sexist, even by the nonexistent PC standards of the day (1942). “Your father is currently ornamenting a dungeon wall,” a randy Tyrone Power tells Maureen O’Hara, in the hopes of getting her in the mood to sheath his cutlass, “but you’ll forget about him as soon as you learn to call me Jamie-Boy.” She resists, so he shoves her up against a wall and leers, “I always sample a bottle of wine before I buy it. Let’s have a sip, see if you’re worth taking along.” She bites his lip in defiance. So he punches her out. Also highly recommended: Captain Blood (1935), directed by Michael Curtiz and starring the pirate’s pirate Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
It took a few more movies after Cutthroat Island to cement Finnish director Renny Harlin’s reputation as one of the least capable hacks in the business, but not many. This 1995 picture, starring Harlin’s then-wife Geena Davis, should have been fun, sassy, girls-can-play-too buccaneer fluff, with Davis showing that it’s not just for the Errol Flynns and the Tyrone Powers to swing from chandeliers and guzzle rum by the hogshead. Instead it’s a bloated, disjointed mess that deservedly sank straight to Davey Jones’ Locker at the box office.
Ah, the multi-million-dollar Hollywood high-concept pitch: “What if Peter Pan grew up?” Exorcising, for the umpteenth time in his directing career, his pet neuroses of abandonment and lack of fatherly guidance, Steven Spielberg here finds himself veering precipitously close to creepy, quasi-pederast Sir James Barrie territory. I’d think twice before showing this crap to my kids!
Wallace Beery does a great job as the sketchy, manipulative Long John Silver in this tragically colorized 1934 movie, one of at least two dozen screen adaptations of the adventure classic by Robert Louis Stevenson. But Lionel Barrymore mops the floor with Beery as the deranged Billy Bones, a fugitive buccaneer who bullies the good townsfolk at the Admiral Benbow Inn into drinking with him by waving his cutlass and bawling bawdy sea dirges. Barrymore’s Bones is as convincing an argument as you’d ever need for developing your own nautical-jargon affectation—he’s not an “alcoholic,” he’s just had “too much rum over [his] bowsprit.” Child actor Jackie Cooper, a veteran of some 15 “Our Gang” episodes, gives the most annoyingly stylized performance in the film—after about 15 minutes of his incessant pouting and brow-furrowing, you’re practically begging Long John to run him through. Strange artifact of the Ted Turner-endorsed colorization process: the hoard of gold coins looks exactly like a huge mound of Nilla Wafers!