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Daniel

Daniel Reviews Every Pirate Movie Ever Made

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TREASURE ISLAND (2012)

Directed by Steve Barron.

Featuring: Eddie Izzard, Toby Regbo, Rupert Penry-Jones, Daniel Mays, Philip Glenister, Donald Sutherland, Elijah Wood, Shirley Henderson, Nina Sosanya, Geoff Bell, Shaun Parkes, David Harewood.

Rating (from 1 to 5): 2

Most adaptations of Treasure Island have stuck to well-charted waters, with low risk and low reward. Steve Barron strikes out into unknown soundings, which makes for a more exciting voyage at first, but ultimately he strikes a reef and sinks.

Stevenson’s story is still there in outline. Young Jim Hawkins finds Captain Flint’s treasure map, evades the pirates who are looking for it, and takes it to his friend Dr. Livesey. Livesey in turn takes it to Squire Trelawney, who is not Livesey’s friend here, but instead a rich merchant and the financial backer of Jim’s Admiral Benbow Inn. Livesey turns to Long John Silver to hire his crew, not knowing that Silver is one of Flint’s pirates. Silver prepares to take the treasure for himself and his old comrades. Trelawney cheats Jim and Livesey out of their share in the treasure, and the embittered Jim agrees to steal the treasure map for Silver.

Barron makes an incredibly bold decision here: to dethrone Long John Silver, one of the iconic villains of English literature, from his place as the story’s antagonist. Trelawney, not Silver, is Barron’s true villain, essentially a Lehman Brothers executive of the 18th century driven mad by greed and, like a Lehman Brothers executive, ruining everybody around him as well as himself. By the end, the movie seems to be saying more about the 2008 financial meltdown than about Jim Hawkins’s battle for manhood.

This is certainly an interesting tack to take on Stevenson’s old story, but unfortunately, Barron did not fully calculate the consequences of his decision. By making Trelawney the villain, and further reducing Livesey to an emasculated, hollow shell of himself, Barron has deprived Jim Hawkins of his role models. In the novel and in most previous film adaptations, Jim’s supreme moment is when he stands by his word to Long John Silver, even at the risk of torture and death, because he knows it is what the squire, the doctor, and the captain would do in his place. Jim becomes a man by the stockade wall when he rejects Dr. Livesey’s offer to relieve Jim of responsibility for his own actions. This scene never happens in Barron’s movie. Instead, Jim’s defining moment is at the very end, when he apparently decides that the corpses floating in the story’s wake were caused not by human greed and disloyalty, but by the treasure itself. He then acts accordingly. This is just stupid, and the fact that most of the other characters go along with it is stupider still.

Meanwhile, Trelawney’s shoulders are simply not broad enough to carry the dramatic weight that Silver carried. A story is only as good as its villain, and Trelawney is too weak, hysterical and irrational to make us truly fear and respect him the way we feared and respected Silver.

Another major change in this version is the new prominence of Silver’s wife Alibe. Stevenson stints her a name; she is just called Silver’s “old Negress,” and I imagined her as a plump, matronly woman of Silver’s age. It was fascinating to see her rendered as a slender, sensual, though slightly worn beauty. Mrs. Silver here joins Jim’s mother at the Admiral Benbow and the two of them struggle to survive without the men they depend on. This was an interesting idea, but it goes nowhere: the two women achieve absolutely nothing, and do not affect the plot’s course at all.

The final nail in the coffin is how this movie treats Silver. It’s not Eddie Izzard’s fault; he plays the role well, with a soft-spoken deference that makes Jim’s and Trelawney’s trust in him entirely believable. But Silver, a cripple, controls his old mates by two means – menace and brilliance – and the decision to soft-pedal the menace makes the brilliance absolutely essential. But instead of brilliance, we get tactical chump moves, the worst of which is Silver’s decision to ask Jim Hawkins for the map while still en route to the island. Silver never takes this huge risk in the novel, because he doesn’t need to. He intends to let Trelawney and Livesey find the treasure themselves, load it on board, and then slit their throats – an admirably simple plan that would have worked but for the lucky chance of Jim Hawkins overhearing it. Too, Barron’s Silver is vacillating and indecisive in the face of the premature mutiny aboard the Hispaniola, lacking the sure intelligence and instinct of his counterpart in the novel.

In another interesting but poorly handled decision, Barron decides to make three of the major officer characters black: Billy Bones, George Merry, and Mr. Arrow, all of whom are first mates. This could have worked, but Barron simply ignores the elephant in the room. The story is set in the 1740s, when racist justifications for slavery and the slave trade had taken full hold in England and America. The vast majority of European whites at that time believed that black people were inferior and unfit to command white men. The fact that we have three black mates anyway is conceivable, but it requires explanation; there has to be some reason why these three black men are not being treated the way most black men were at the time. And we are never told that reason, leaving an anachronistic flavor in our mouths. This is unfortunate, because the decision to show the ordinary seamen themselves as ethnically diverse is quite historically accurate (the crews of Woodes Rogers’ Duke and Duchess were over one third non-English), and a welcome change from previous movies.

It’s a shame to see such a beautiful set of production values stranded on the rocks. The Hispaniola is magnificent – a full-rigged ship rather than a schooner here. The sequence of her setting sail for the island as her crew chants an Afro-Jamaican sea shanty is unique and stunningly beautiful. The costumes are magnificent and colorful, aided by the good decision to portray a motley crew from all over the world (although it is a bit strange to see Israel Hands apparently wearing chain mail). The fight scenes are well choreographed.

I hate to knock Barron’s Treasure Island so hard. In a time when artistic boldness is so rare in movies, Barron really made a lot of gutsy moves. But if you want to be captain, or director, you need to be cunning like Silver, not just brave like Trelawney.

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TREASURE ISLAND (1999)

Directed by Peter Rowe.

Featuring: Jack Palance, Kevin Zegers, Malcolm Stoddard, Patrick Bergin, David Robb, Al Hunter Ashton, Christopher Benjamin, Cody Palance.

Daniel’s rating: 2½ out of 5.

Synopsis: Jim Hawkins runs an inn for his ailing grandmother. One day, Billy Bones comes to stay there, warning Jim to watch out for a one-legged seafaring man. When Bones’s old pirate crewmates attack the inn, Jim escapes with Bones’s treasure map, although both Bones and Jim’s grandmother die in the fracas. Dr. Livesey, who took care of Jim’s grandma before her death, partners with his friend Squire Trelawney to charter a ship to find the treasure. Trelawney charters the ship and raises the crew with the help of an old salt named Long John Silver. But when he meets Silver, Jim discovers him to be a one-legged seafaring man.

Evaluation: Peter Rowe’s version of Treasure Island, based on his own screenplay, is easily the darkest ever filmed. Much as Steve Barron did later, Rowe decided to subvert Stevenson’s black-and-white morality tale by making Jim Hawkins the victim of treachery by the “good guys.” But where Barron recoiled from the consequences of this choice, Rowe took it to its logical conclusion: Jim Hawkins joins the pirates and fights against his former comrades. It’s still a coming of age story, but in a much less wholesome way – at the end of the story, Jim Hawkins has irrevocably started down the road to becoming another Long John Silver. If you’re a purist, this movie will shock and anger you.

Not being a purist, I wasn’t angry, but neither was I fully satisfied. The movie’s greatest weakness is Jack Palance’s performance as Silver. Although Palance made a living as a professional villain, and could have done the role justice if the movie had been made by 1990, he was eighty years old and obviously in declining health by the time Rowe got around to casting him as the sea cook. He gives an impression of forgetfulness, shortness of breath, and frailty in almost every scene. When he isn’t given a hand up after parleying with Captain Smollett and his allies, he doesn’t fight to his feet and storm off with the immortal threat, “Them that die will be the lucky ones!” Instead, he is forced to crawl on his belly to the edge of the stockade, where Jim Hawkins curses his erstwhile friends for not taking pity on a man in need. Fair enough, but pity kills respect, and Silver is simply not dangerous or charismatic enough here to command respect.

Palance does manage to shine in two moments, both when he is sitting down and has a chance to catch his breath: when Jim overhears him plotting mutiny in the hold, and when he tries to persuade Jim to join his pirates. Then his gravelly bass voice takes command and he shows what he might have been able to do with the part if he had received it a decade before. But two scenes do not a performance make.

The rest of the actors are quite good, especially Keven Zegers as Jim Hawkins. Timid and deferential at first, Zegers lets Jim’s resentment of the adult characters’ patronizing treatment of him grow convincingly into fiery rebellion. Malcolm Stoddard’s Captain Smollett is alert, opportunistic, and ruthless: a much more exciting foe than Rupert Penry-Jones’s Squire Trelawney from the 2012 version. Al Hunter Ashton does a very good George Merry; he’s palpably gormless, but cruel, ruthless, bullying, and ambitious. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to believe that Merry could dethrone Silver at will.

Back in 1986, Peter Rowe directed Splatter: Architects of Fear, a cheap, lurid documentary about horror film special effects. Looking at Treasure Island, it is easy to see that Rowe lost none of his fascination with blood and gore in the intervening 13 years. The violence is very explicit: we see Silver’s leg chopped off in gory closeup in the opening scene, numerous swords run redly through people’s bodies, and most horrible of all, a major character gets a pistol shot directly in the eye. I actually approve of this. Pirate fighting wasn’t fun and games; it was serious, terrifying stuff, and at least some movies ought to show it that way. Even so, the fact that this movie got a PG-13 rating shows that the MPAA really doesn’t take screen violence seriously.

The cinematography and the set of the inn are beautiful, with the Isle of Man standing in for both Treasure Island and England. But Rowe makes a serious misstep in the Bristol scenes; his budget only allowed for a tiny set that makes Bristol look like it has just one street. A wise director would have stuck to closeup in these scenes and hustled the city off the screen as soon as possible. Instead, Rowe indulges here in an incredibly tedious and prolonged chase scene between Jim Hawkins and Black Dog that magnifies the weaknesses of the Bristol set threefold. Compounding the problem is a tinkling, brassy musical soundtrack by Neil Smolar, who seems to think he’s scoring the 1934 Treasure Island instead of this morally ambiguous, violent production.

Piratical tropes and comments: This is Treasure Island, folks. Nearly all the pirate tropes are here, because this is where they came from: the map to buried treasure with X marking the spot, the black spot, the one-legged sailor, the parrot on the shoulder (a scarlet macaw here, much like in the 2012 version), excessive rum drinking, colorful tattoos, cutlasses. The tattoos are especially emphasized; not only are Billy Bones’s tattoos from the book recreated, but Jim Hawkins himself gets a tattoo from a pirate showing the Admiral Benbow Inn, and this is shown as marking his initiation into the brotherhood. The major tropes that are absent – hooks, long periwigs, justaucorps, and plank walking – are those that come from Peter Pan.

Besides the curved cutlasses, long thrusting swept-hilt rapiers appear a lot here, and do some deadly work of running people through. This anachronism has a long pedigree (it goes back at least to The Black Swan and probably further), but not to Stevenson’s original novel, where cutlasses are the only swords used. Real pirates viewed the rapier with contempt, viz. Benerson Little’s The Sea Rover’s Practice (“he had no Arms to defend himself with, save only Rapiers”). Some attention is paid to how flintlocks work; in one sequence, Merry threatens Jim with a pistol, until Silver forces him to admit that it isn’t primed. Also retained from the novel is Flint's crew's ahistorical tendency to use the Jolly Roger as an open declaration of criminality to all the world, rather than as a warning to their prey.

The Hispaniola here, as in the 2012 version, is a full-rigged ship; I doubt the producers knew the difference between a schooner and a three-masted square rigger. She’s a magnificent vessel, although the wake she leaves behind reveals that she has a hidden screw propeller somewhere.

This Treasure Island adds a piratical element that doesn’t often appear onscreen: torture, as Merry menaces Jim Hawkins with a “poisonous” snake to get him to talk. Even this is mild enough compared to the tortures real pirates used, but it’s something. Also, in the movie, just as in the novel, the pirates are accurately shown electing their own captain.

Meanwhile, in an authentic period touch, Dr. Livesey uses leeches on Jim Hawkins’s ailing grandma, which we have to look at in closeup. Indeed, we are left to wonder whether Dr. Livesey, as much as the pirate attack, is the ultimate cause of poor Grandma’s death.

The movie sacrifices a good deal of Stevenson’s nautical language, assuming that we won’t understand it. At one point, Billy Bones even sings, “Drink and the Devil took care of the rest” instead of “drink and the Devil had done for the rest,” although Silver later sings the original version. Likewise, the nautical touches like “Silence, there, between decks” and “I’ll shake out another reef” are discarded. We don’t even get to hear any timbers shivered. Sigh.

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FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (1944)
Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

Featuring: Joan Fontaine, Arturo de Córdova, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Cecil Kellaway, Ralph Forbes, Harold Maresch, Billy Daniel, Moyna MacGill, Patricia Barker, and David James.

Daniels rating: 3½ out of 5.

Synopsis: In 1668, wealthy Dona St. Columb dumps her oafish husband, taking her children from London to the seaside estate of Navron in Cornwall. There she meets Captain Aubrey, a French pirate who has been raiding the countryside from a ship anchored in a nearby river mouth, and sleeping in Navron's master bedroom, where he has fallen in love with her portrait on the wall. Dona is taken with Aubrey and joins him on his adventures, returning between times to Navron, her children, and her place as a lady. But how long can she keep her double life from being discovered?

Evaluation: Frenchman's Creek is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, which became one of Alfred Hitchocks best and most famous movies. Looking at this movie alongside Rebecca, I feel pretty safe saying that du Maurier was obsessed with elegant, lonely manors with seacoast views and names like Manderley and Navron.

I enjoyed Frenchman's Creek a lot more than I expected to. I was anticipating a limp, lifeless heroine bemoaning her fate in sterile black-and-white for a couple of hours. What I got was Joan Fontaine - mmmm, Joan Fontaine - lighting up the screen with verbal fireworks and kicking large quantities of butt whenever necessary. Fontaine nearly carries the movie all by herself. Her face is always full of intelligence and perception, accurately sizing up every character she meets, and she shows a palpable sense of excitement and love for adventure. Handed the worst, most stilted script you'd ever want to crumple up and throw in the trash, she tosses off her lines effortlessly and naturally, making them sound almost like something an actual human being would say. But there's nothing she can do to save the film's ending, which simply ignores the most obvious solution to her problem.

Unfortunately, Fontaine's leading man is not a good match for her. Arturo de Córdova's Captain Aubrey has dashing good looks, but no style; all he can express is puppy-dog enthusiasm, and he stubs his toe on every third word of that same awful dialogue that Fontaine handles with such aplomb. Córdova's weaknesses hurt all the more because Captain Aubrey is hard to believe to start with. I mean, why does a French pirate leave his ship anchored for days in an English river mouth and cavort in the locals' beds instead of striking fast and hard and then escaping out to sea or back to France? Couldn't you easily get captured that way? Oh, wait, he does get captured that way, almost as if the plot demanded it. Aubrey says that "A slipshod pirate is a dead pirate, and serves him right." Sorry, Captain, but that means you.

But Fontaine does get to face off with a nice, strong villain in Basil Rathbone. Rathbone is one of the greatest baddies of all time (pirate movie fans will remember him as Levasseur in Captain Blood), and here he's at his smarmy, sneering best as Lord Rockingham, the two-faced friend of Dona's husband Harry, his Captain Hook nose and steely baritone English accent full of menace. Best of all, Dona gets to defeat him herself, in a white-knuckle contest where both sides are playing for keeps.

The supporting cast is a pleasant surprise too. Cecil Kellaway steals scene after scene as Dona's sly, beneficent servant William, while Nigel Bruce delivers his patented stuffed-shirt performance as Lord Godolphin. Ralph Forbes as Dona's husband Harry evokes sympathy; while a modern movie would surely have caricatured him as a wife-beating monster, here he appears as a well-meaning bumbler.

Oh, and that sterile black-and-white photography I was expecting? Nowhere to be found. Frenchman's Creek is shot by George Barnes in rich Technicolor, with gorgeous sets everywhere you look. Two beautiful tall ships appear in the movie - Aubrey's flagship and his prize - and the mansion of Navron dominates the screen with stately splendor. The shots of the Cornish coast are breathtaking, taken in Mendocino County, California according to some reports. The only flaw in the production values is the saccharine score; Victor Young presents a butchered version of Debussy's Claire de Lune, which wouldn't have been any good for this movie even if it hadn't been mangled first.

Despite the weak dialogue and lame leading man, I doubt Frenchman's Creek could have been made so well today. The strong female lead who revolts against the role of wife and mother, so politically correct today, was very politically incorrect in 1944, and I think that made the movie better. If Frenchman's Creek were made now, Dona would probably act entitled to independence, not so much rebelling against her social role as unaware of it. Here, Dona is very conscious of the impropriety of her affair with Aubrey; she doesn't expect agreement or support from anyone for what she does, and, most importantly, she isn't sure whether she herself approves of what she's doing. In fact, Frenchman's Creek was remade for TV in 1998, and will be reviewed here in due course.

Piratical tropes and comments: Frenchman's Creek is pretty low on the trope-meter; there are no hooks, eyepatches, peg legs, parrots, monkeys, or even earrings on display here. There are lots of Restoration wigs, coats, and boots, but mostly on Restoration gentry, not on pirates. Captain Aubrey comes on set in a bizarre costume calculated more for a romance novel cover than for real pirating: it's a sort of a loose steel gorget and an open coat that shows off his bare chest. A number of pirates wear headkerchiefs, notably including Dona herself, while others wear round brimmed caps.

The swords here are all whip-thin transition rapiers, no cutlasses in sight. The swordplay has a prosaically realistic sound, more clicking than ringing, which is correct. But the deaths are absurd; everybody who's stabbed sort of freezes up and sinks down in absolute silence, while the guys who stab them hold the lunging pose to let us know that, hey, they've stabbed someone, instead of recovering instantly to the en garde position to avoid being counter-stabbed by their wounded opponents. The guns are regular flintlocks. At one point, the pirates assault a ship by swimming, holding their pistols out of the water as they approach and swimming one-handed. Um, good luck with that. I'd like to see how they climbed the ship's side with their hands occupied, but instead the camera just cuts to the deck of the ship as the pirates magically jump over the gunwales.

But Frenchman's Creek avoids the common trope of The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything; i.e. pirates who never commit actual piracy because that would make them look bad. Aubrey's men do a daring combined overland-and-sea attack on a ship, kill several of the crew, and have great fun sharing out the booty. This is justified as a kind of reverse piracy; the ship they are attacking is actually a French ship that was stolen by English corsairs, and is being returned at least to its rightful nation, if not its rightful owners.

Bartholomew Roberts's articles imply that music was common aboard pirate ships, saying that musicians were allowed a rest only on Sundays. Frenchman's Creek is one of the few movies to show pirate musicians at work; Aubrey's men work to lute music all the time. But the drums and hautboys (oboes) that were reported by actual pirate attack victims are not seen.

As usual, we get full-rigged ships instead of schooners and sloops for the pirates to sail. Captain Aubrey's La Mouette is painted white and is so spotlessly clean that it's hard to believe it's ever actually been to sea. La Mouette has no wheel; her rudder is controlled by a genuine whipstaff, a real period touch I've never seen in any other pirate movie. In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow famously tells Elizabeth that "what a ship is, what the Black Pearl really is, is freedom." That is what La Mouette is too, for Dona, and that's why pirate ships never grow dull no matter how many times they appear on the screen.

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Joan Fontaine as Dona St.
Columb dominates the set.

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That's not the screen that Arturo de

Córdova's Captain Aubrey is lighting up.

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Dona St. Columb confronts Rockingham

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Nigel Bruce as Godolphin.

Yes, he's an idiot.

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Dona and Aubrey at the whipstaff.

No sexual undertones here, Mr. Hayes, nosirree.

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THE BLACK PIRATE (1926)

Directed by Albert Parker

Featuring: Douglas Fairbanks, Billie Dove, Sam de Grasse, Donald Crisp, Anders Randolf, Charles Belcher, Tempe Pigott, Charles Stevens, John Wallace, Fred Becker, E.J. Ratcliffe.

Daniel’s rating: 3½ out of 5.

Synopsis: A Pirate Crew robs a merchant ship and blows it to Kingdom Come, together with all the passengers and crew. An old man and his son are the only survivors . . . whoops, make that the son is the only survivor. The newly orphaned son (Fairbanks) swears revenge against the Pirate Crew, which just happens to be burying the treasure on the same island that he washed up on. Calling himself the Black Pirate, he joins the marooners, offering to prove himself by single-handedly capturing the next ship they meet. He makes good on this boast, but the prize ship carries a Princess who is just too pretty for the Black Pirate to allow her to be blasted to bits.

Evaluation: The Black Pirate is a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean. Both are totally absurd, and both are so much fun I don't care how absurd they are.

It's easy enough to say why The Black Pirate is absurd. To start with, nobody ever speaks to anybody else by name. In fact, only one character even has a name, which we learn when he signs a ransom note. (Read that again: he signs a ransom note). Then, even though every merchant ship in the movie is carrying either a Princess or a Duke, none of them bothers posting a full watch topside, sailing in convoy, or mounting enough cannon to fight off a not-particularly-well-armed pirate ship. Then, there are the battle tactics: once you’ve dismasted the enemy ship (with a single shot, no less!) and have it at your mercy, the next step is to scuttle your own vessel and mount a boarding attack by swimming. Then, all the governors’ soldiers wear skimpy black leather outfits that many a gay biker would pay good money for. Then, the pirates tell time aboard their ship with a sundial, which can’t possibly work unless the sea is perfectly calm and the ship never turns. Then, a pirate standing four feet behind Fairbanks fails to notice that Fairbanks’s hands are no longer tied. Then . . . but you get the idea.

It’s harder to say why The Black Pirate is so much fun anyway. I think it’s because the film is so energetic. The whole movie only lasts about 95 minutes; the synopsis above covers only the first forty minutes. Everything comes at you at such a breakneck pace that you really don’t have time while you’re watching to kvetch about how implausible the thing that just happened was, because the next implausible thing is already under way. A lot of this energy comes from Douglas Fairbanks, who handles all his action sequences with such verve and gusto that he wins the loyalty of both the pirates and the audience effortlessly, although he may not even be a good guy at heart.

The other secret to The Black Pirate’s appeal is its visual flair. Some of the images seem inspired by Howard Pyle, especially Fairbanks marooned on the island after his father dies. The early Technicolor looks strange, but the flamboyant costumes and theatrical, silent acting are hypnotic. The movie is also very funny at times, especially when we learn that counting the paces on a treasure map is very tricky when you have a peg leg, and that sleepy pirates have interesting ways of keeping themselves awake.

So far, so POTCesque, but the cruel, flinty core of Parker’s The Black Pirate is absent from Johhny Depp’s and Gore Verbinski’s film. All the best pirate films are ambivalent toward piracy, never quite certain whether pirates are good guys or bad. This ambivalence appears in The Black Pirate too, as the hero commits some acts of brazen piracy to prove himself and some of the pirates protect him and the Princess. But overall, the movie leans decisively toward making pirates villains. The opening scenes show the freebooters dispassionately stripping rings and wealth from the men they’ve just murdered, and twice they sink ships with the intent to kill every man and woman aboard. In a modern movie, a hero would probably have swung in to rescue the doomed victims of the pirates at the last second, but that doesn’t happen here; scores of people are drowned basically to make the point that these pirates are really evil. In the most unsettling scene in the movie, the Pirate Lieutenant is sitting by the prisoners of the latest capture, when he suddenly sticks his sword into one of them, for no apparent reason but sheer boredom, and then looks at his red-stained sword in a vaguely irritated way, as if he hadn’t considered the inconvenience of cleaning his blade until now. The utter casualness of the murder is emphasized by not showing the dead man on screen. To the viewer’s eyes, just as to the murderer’s conscience, the victim doesn’t even exist.

In sum, The Black Pirate is a fantasy, although a darker-shaded fantasy than Pirates of the Caribbean. Like its great-granddaughter, The Black Pirate has nothing to do with actual historical piracy, and everything to do with the fancies that pirate art and literature put into our heads: sails billowing, trade winds blowing in your hair, flashing blades, booming flintlocks, danger, action, excitement and romance, and all the other images that run through the head of a boy dozing on the schoolbus headed for home, or a girl at the end of a too-long study session in the library, or, for aught I know, a young foretopman at the masthead in the last few minutes before eight bells.

Piratical tropes and comments: Ladies and gentlemen, we have sighted bucket boots in 1926! I don’t know if this is their earliest appearance, but it is surely the most ridiculous. We first see them when Fairbanks has washed up on the island with his father, which means Fairbanks must have swum more than a mile while wearing them.

Like POTC, The Black Pirate doesn’t seem committed to any particular time period. Elizabethan props are most common, as the merchant ships are genuine galleons with those enormous foc’sles and sterncastles that you see in 16th-century illustrations. The Black Pirate also wears an Elizabethan cup-hilt rapier at one point, and both he and the Pirate Leader fight in Elizabethan style with rapier and main gauche. But the film also features walking the plank, which occurred in the 19th century when it happened at all, and the pistols are small true flintlocks with sharply curved butts, not Elizabethan wheel-locks and snaphaunces. Add to that the Georgian-era cocked hats, and Douglas Fairbanks’ short shorts and sleeveless tunic, and you have a medley of anachronism.

Maybe the most unique trope that The Black Pirate established was using a knife to slide down the face of a sail, tearing the sail as you go. In the context of the movie, it makes some sense; Fairbanks does this very dangerous stunt not because he’s in a hurry to get down, but because he wants to disable the ship quickly. I can’t say for sure that this is the first appearance of the trope in fiction, but it is surely the one that made it famous.

The Black Pirate is unusual in that the pirates’ vessel isn’t a full-rigged three masted ship. It’s a single-masted craft with low freeboard and a giant black lateen sail, looking something like a tartan or a felucca. It’s an intimidating, evil-looking vessel, very well chosen, and it makes sense that it would be able to overtake the wallowing galleons. It does not have any visible gunports, though; the cannons are all tiny things on small carriages, and at one point a loose cannon is shown on deck while the pirates feast, which would be unbelievably negligent.

The Jolly Roger, in its incarnation as a skull with crossed bones below it, appears here. Everywhere. It’s in a flag flying from the rigging (not from a flagstaff or the masthead, curiously). It’s also on the pirate leader’s hat. Several of the pirates even have it tattooed on their chests, thus giving us another famous trope, the tattooed pirate.

The pirate leader uses another well-known trope, the knife clutched in his teeth. He has no reason at all to be doing this; he’s not fighting or climbing the rigging, he’s just counting the loot, and acts like “I’ll just bite my knife today, because I’m that cool.”

There are no parrots in sight, but there is a monkey, a cute little thing captured from the same vessel that the Black Pirate rode on. The pirates draw lots for the monkey, one wins, and the animal then disappears from the movie, never to be heard from again. Hopefully it did not end up like the monkeys that Bartholomew Sharp’s men found and ate in 1681.

The hidden-treasure trove is here, of course, although the pirates don’t bury the loot in a hole, instead carrying it into a hidden cave with a flooded entrance, another device that POTC would copy. Incidentally, the treasure chest is quite small, accurately showing that you could carry a fortune in gold in a very small space.

A pirate here is shown sporting a peg leg, which doesn’t fit very well, but eyepatches are absent. One pirate is missing an arm, but he just ties his sleeve over his stump, with no hook.

The piratical language used includes “Dead men tell no tales,” as well as “avast,” and “yo ho,” which are both incorrectly used as a vague way to say “hey!” But the usual pirate forms of address – “my hearties, matey, mates, bucko” – are absent. Instead the pirates call each other “bullies.” “Bully” was an often used word at sea; much like “bucko,” it was an unfriendly word for an overbearing, aggressive officer (i.e. “Bully Bob Waterman,” captain of the Challenge), but could also be a term of respect and even endearment.

Fairbanks wears earrings in both ears. This, combined with his short shorts, revealing tunic, mustache and armbands, makes him look very much a gay leather idol, or at least my conception of one. I assume this wasn't intentional, since Fairbanks does woo and win Billie Dove, but the effect is there. Back in the bad old days, when most gays had to live in the closet, I’m told they identified each other as “Friends of Dorothy,” a reference to Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, so they could talk about each other without the intolerant community catching on. Having seen this movie, I really don’t understand why they didn’t call each other “Friends of Doug.”

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Fairbanks, the Black-Clad Pirate.

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Pirates are irresistible.

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The famous sail-tearing scene: not as silly as it looks.

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Tartan to port, galleon to starboard.

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The Pirate Lieutenant has second thoughts about the Black Pirate.
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Pssst! His hands aren't tied!
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Fairbanks marooned.
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Howard Pyle's Marooned. Coincidence?

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I think on a commentary track or one of those featurettes I saw they specifically note that Parker was paying homage to Pyle in that scene (and some others, too, if I remember correctly.)

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PIRATES (1986)

Directed by Roman Polanski

Featuring: Walter Matthau, Cris Campion, Damien Thomas, Charlotte Lewis, Olu Jacobs, Ferdy Mayne, David Kelly, Richard Pearson,

Daniel’s rating: 2 out of 5.

Synopsis: One-legged Captain Red and his crewmate Jean-Baptiste begin the movie lost on a raft at sea. They sight the Spanish galleon Neptune and manage to climb aboard, where Captain Red’s stupidity immediately gets them chained in the brig. While imprisoned, Red learns that the Neptune carries an Aztec throne of solid gold. Plotting to seize the treasure, he leads a mutiny, which fails, and he is sentenced to hang along with Jean-Baptiste, but he still has more tricks up his sleeve.

Evaluation: When I first watched Pirates about 12 years ago, I loathed it. And having revisited now . . . well, I loathe it less this time, probably because my expectations were lowered to zero, but I still don’t like it. The main reason is that I don’t think Polanski ever figured out what kind of movie he wanted Pirates to be – an Indiana Jones-type picaresque adventure, or a black comedy like Brazil. He then tried both and accomplished neither.

The movie is already off course in the opening scene, in which Polanski proves that he doesn’t understand what makes pirates so powerfully magnetic: their appeal to our inborn tribalism. We humans evolved as tiny groups of hunter-gatherers, relying for our lives every second of the day on our fellows inside the tribal circle, and permanently at war with every other human being beyond the limit of that circle. Pirate crews were the last gasp of that way of life. As Bartholomew Roberts’ articles say, he who cheats the company to the value of a dollar is marooned – only people outside the company are fair game. Captain Red openly betrays this ethic in the first five minutes of the film, robbing his crewmate Jean-Baptiste of the tiny fish he caught, then trying – twice – to kill and eat him.

OK, so Red’s not much of a pirate when he’s hungry and dehydrated, but what about in happier times? Well, no, he’s not any better with a full stomach and refurbished peg leg. Where Long John Silver is smart, and only fails because he has to rely on his foolish fellow pirates, Red is usually stupid, with intermittent flashes of low cunning, and his fellow pirates are undone by relying on him. When his stolen ship is stolen back from him, he tries to recapture it by leading a flotilla of boats right into the galleon’s broadside, with predictably disastrous results. His plan to capture the Aztec throne at Maracaibo goes awry, twice, through his own bungling, with his crewmates bailing him out each time.

Still more frustrating is that Red’s crewmate and co-star, Jean-Baptiste, never comes into his own. At the beginning of the film, he accepts all of Red’s abuse without a murmur. Red can’t even be bothered to say his name, calling him Froggy throughout the film. Then Jean-Baptiste falls in love with Dolores, the beautiful niece of the governor of Maracaibo – and this changes him not at all. At the end of the movie, he is still doing everything Red tells him to, even when this could have

and does

cost him the woman he loves. This pattern is repeated in Red’s ally Boomako.

Boomako succumbs to a particularly cruel instance of the Black Dude Dies First trope. He is shot dead within arm’s length of both Red and Jean-Baptiste, neither of whom so much as glances at the man who tilted the Neptune’s crew in favor of making Red captain, gave Red and Jean-Baptiste the treasure, and saved both their lives.

Floundering from its weak characters, Pirates is then sunk by one more shot: the horrible cinematography. The focus is often dull, the light usually weak and browning out the images, or else so strong that it washes everything out. The best way to say it is that when I watched The Black Pirate, I saw an image I wanted for the review every five minutes, and ultimately I had far more images than I could use. I never once saw an image I wanted while watching Polanski’s Pirates. This is supposed to be the Caribbean and was actually shot in the Mediterranean; is it really too much to ask that it look beautiful?

This is, of course, more than enough to ruin the movie, but it has some virtues that I didn’t notice the first time around. John Brownjohn wrote some quite good lines for Captain Red, making him sound very salty but still intelligible, with phrases like “Do you see the course I lay?” for “Do you see what I mean?” I have always loved Walter Matthau, and he manages to give his repulsive character a little superficial charm. And I had forgotten how heart-achingly beautiful Charlotte Lewis was, although it’s unfortunate that her character, Dolores, is given almost no chance to develop. Damien Thomas makes quite a pleasingly nasty villain as Don Alfonso, his performance even more remarkable for being a last-minute replacement after Timothy Dalton walked out. Ferdy Mayne’s brief but shining turn as the murdered Captain Linares seems almost to channel Christopher Lee. A lively score by Philippe Sarde gives the movie some much-needed spunk. A number of the period details are good too, but more about that later.

Two scenes are key to understanding Pirates: one when the Neptune’s mutineers jump meekly back to work at Don Alfonso’s command, and the other when Red’s old pirate crew stands gazing dumbly at him until they’re sure he’s really back. Incompetent and untrustworthy as Red is, nobody has any initiative without him; ordinary people are cowed and spiritless until he takes charge. This is supposed to explain, and even justify, the way his own associates continue to treat him well even after he abuses their trust. It’s not surprising that the man who directed this movie is a convicted pedophile.

Piratical tropes and comments

Pirates is set in 1660, give or take a year, after the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 but before the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661. The props are mostly appropriate for that period, with broad-brimmed hats for Captain Red and the aristocratic Spaniards; the Spanish dons are also shown continuing to be attached to old-fashioned rapiers while the rest of Europe was moving on.

The Neptune is a pretty amazing prop. She’s called a “galleon,” but she looks more like an East Indiaman to me, with a double row of cannon and that high, sloping sterncastle that you see on the Batavia. The beakhead, though, looks like something from the late 17th or early 18th century: short and upswept instead of long and low like the galleons and early Indiamen had. But for all that, she’s huge, she creaks, she has a magnificent set of stern lanterns, and she’s beautiful. The low headroom of period ships is accurately shown: one mutineer puts it to good use by repeatedly slamming his opponent’s head into the ceiling. The Neptune has rats, and the sailors are correctly shown holystoning the deck. The Neptune is still docked in Genoa today, a graceful monument to a bad movie.

Hardly any cutlasses appear in the movie; the Spanish use cup-hilt rapiers, while Matthau uses a shell-guard rapier; I never saw him actually use the cutlass that he's shown holding in the movie poster. But the movie also showcases two real pirate weapons that rarely get any play on screen: the boarding axe, which Boomako uses with deadly effect in the mutiny, and grenades, which Red’s pirates throw into the gunports and hatches while assaulting the Neptune.

The Jolly Roger here is the famous Rackham version – a skull above crossed swords – later used in both Cutthroat Island and POTC. It is, of course, forty years too early for that or any black Jolly Roger to be used. Red apparently carries a full-sized Roger in his pocket, which he pulls out and gives to Jean-Baptiste when they capture the Neptune. Much like Stevenson in Treasure Island, Polanski doesn’t know what the flag is used for; his pirates fly it even when not chasing a prize.

A ghastly period-correct touch is used here: Spain's main method of capital punishment in the colonies was the garrote, not the gallows, from at least the time when the Inca emperor Atahualpa was executed.. We are shown the aftermath of a mass garroting in gruesome close-up, which utterly destroys any attempt that Pirates was making at comedy.

Much as in the 1999 Treasure Island, we are treated to the painful side of period medicine. Captain Linares is given an enema with a gigantic syringe that looks like something right out of Mission’s kit.

Captain Red is a virtual walking pirate lexicon, using “alongside” for “beside,” “my hearties,” and so on. He’s also the only movie pirate I’ve ever heard mention “the Brethren of the Coast,” although no other captains of the Brethren play any role in the movie at all.

The major pirate accoutrements here are Red’s peg leg and Jean-Baptiste’s earring. The peg leg proves a constant bother to Red, as he’s always getting it stuck and at one point has to pay a carpenter to cut him a new one.

The games pirates played with prisoners included forcing them to ride each other around the deck. Pirates takes this one step further, as the pirates force their captives to play “Dead Man’s Nag,” where Don Alfonso and his men are forced to sword fight each other to the death while riding on the shoulders of other captives. Alfonso does as bidden and stabs his fellow hidalgo, proving that when his life’s on the line, he'll kill his friends just as readily as Red will.

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Walter Matthau as Captain Red;
there's less to him than meets the eye.
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Cris Campion as Jean-Baptiste; it would have been
better if he'd turned this face toward Red more often.
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Damien Thomas as Don Alfonso. "I'm a Spanish
don; what do you mean I'm not the good guy?"
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Charlotte Lewis as Dolores, trying to
mitigate Don Alfonso's nastiness.
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Olu Jacobs as Boomako: overworked
and underappreciated.
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Open boats versus galleon's broadside..

This does not end well.

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TREASURE ISLAND (1990)

Featuring: Christian Bale, Charlton Heston, Oliver Reed, Julian Glover, Richard Johnson, Clive Wood, Christopher Lee, Michael Halsey, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas Amer, Isla Blair, John Benfield, John Abbott, James Cosmo.

Daniel’s rating: 4½ out of 5.

Synopsis: Billy Bones is an unwelcome lodger at Jim Hawkins’s Admiral Benbow Inn; Bones’s ex-comrades, pirates all, are even less welcome when they come looking for his treasure map. Young Jim escapes with the map, and together with his grown-up patrons Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey, they sail in search of the treasure. And with them sails Long John Silver, the warm and fatherly one-legged sea cook who just happens to be the smartest and most ruthless of the pirates who buried the treasure in the first place. But Jim accidentally learns that Silver plans to lead a mutiny, take the treasure, and kill Livesey, Trelawney, the captain, and perhaps Jim too.

Evaluation: I’ve seen eight versions of Treasure Island in my life, and this one by Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser Clarke Heston, is the best. Not because it’s the truest to the original novel – although it is – but because it has the clearest vision and purpose. Both when Heston is telling Stevenson’s story and when he is telling his own, he takes the tale seriously, and lavishes love on it.

Let’s start with the elder Heston. No production of Treasure Island can be better than its Long John Silver, and Charlton Heston is one of the best ever to play the role. His performance here is dialed back several notches from Robert Newton’s full-broadside dynamism; this Silver is quieter and more restrained, but has every bit of the cunning and subtlety of Stevenson’s original, all covering up a satanic savagery at his core that he lets loose when it serves him best. But he has another side, a paternal side that admires Jim Hawkins’s wit and pluck, which is so much like his own and so unlike his stupid and weak shipmates’. He clearly means it when he tells his pirates, “I like that boy. I’ve never seen a better boy than that. He’s more a man than any pair of you bilge rats aboard of here!”

The other half of the story is Christian Bale's Jim Hawkins, struggling to live up to the example of his heroes: Livesey, Trelawney, and Captain Smollett. This is why we are supposed to root for Jim's allies to find the treasure first, even though they have no more lawful claim to it than Silver’s pirates do: because they are morally superior to the pirates by dint of their honesty, piety, courage, loyalty, temperance, and industry. These values sound stuffily middle class to us today, but they were the steel and concrete that built Stevenson’s world. Jim aspires to these virtues, and by the end of the movie he has won them. Jim stands by his word to Long John Silver to testify in his favor in court, but when Silver gruesomely describes his own imminent hanging in an effort to get Jim to go beyond his word and let SIlver loose, Jim won’t bite the hook. His acid reply, “Maybe you should have thought of that before you turned to piracy,” seems to be aimed not only at Silver, but at the sappy ending of the 1934 Wallace Beery version.

Behind the leads is a standout supporting crew, led by Julian Glover’s Dr. Livesey, who slowly realizes that his deference to Trelawney is misplaced, and grows into the leader of the expedition. Then there is Oliver Reed, surely the best Billy Bones ever. The movie retreats a little from its moralistic stance to show what a tragic character Bones is; he beat the odds for twenty years, evading scurvy, the noose, cannon fire, malaria,yellow fever, storms, and shoals, to finally reach the pirate’s dream of retiring with his plunder. And having achieved everything he ever wanted, he literally cannot think of anything to do but to drink himself to death. The pathos is still greater when you consider that Reed himself had a serious drinking problem that finally killed him.

As I said, this is a very faithful adaptation, probably the closest ever made to Stevenson’s original. But the movie’s real virtue is not slavish copying for its own sake, but simply recognizing what was best in Stevenson’s original and using it to best advantage. When Fraser Heston departs from Stevenson’s text, it is almost always to make an improvement. Stevenson makes Jim’s mother faint, even though she is a hardy and determined woman; in the movie, she defends her inn at gunpoint, making her a far more memorable and consistent character. Stevenson makes Israel Hands a coxswain, which never plays any role in the plot; in the film he is a gunner, which proves very important. Stevenson’s Silver makes an uncharacteristic tactical error by assaulting the stockade without any support or plan; here, he has a cannon dragged up to soften up the stockade, which incidentally lets him fight in the battle personally, and which very nearly defeats the good guys. But one deviation from the book is less justifiable: it makes no sense for Billy Bones to admit his real name as soon as he walks in the door of the Admiral Benbow, since his whole reason for staying there is to avoid being recognized.

The film was shot on location in Jamaica and England, and has magnificent scenery, brought even more to life by the Chieftains’ stirring musical score. Long stretches of Stevenson’s beautifully salty dialogue are adopted intact, making you feel that you are really in the 18th century. And the battle scenes, apparently done without a fight choreographer, are outstanding, full of real desperation; at the end of the stockade battle, all the heroes are nearing exhaustion and gasping for water.

Not many directors are willing to suppress their vanity and tell another man’s story as best they know how. Fraser Clarke Heston was one of the rare exceptions. And that’s why this film is not only the best Treasure Island ever made, but a serious candidate for the best pirate movie of all.

Piratical tropes and comments: Like any version of Treasure Island, this one is heavy on famous tropes. Silver’s parrot Captain Flint is present, played by a red-lored Amazon that fits comfortably on the shoulder; she’s green, just like in the novel. Of course, there is also a one-legged pirate, although the movie follows the novel in giving Silver a crutch rather than a peg leg. And as always, there is the treasure map with X marking the spot – multiple X’s, in fact, since Captain Flint decided not to put all his eggs in one basket.

“I’m cap’n here, by ‘lection,” says Silver, quoting the book and accurately showing how pirate captains were chosen. Although we never see the articles of Flint’s crew, it is clear that they have them and that they lay great store by them; Silver himself is not ready to break the “rules” until pushed to the last extremity. But it is clear that these rules are a way the pirates have of getting along in company; they are not moral principles, and the pirates discard them quickly whenever they are left alone, or even in pairs, as Billy Bones and Israel Hands show.

The knife in the teeth is present here, and makes some sense in context. Israel Hands is trying to stab Jim Hawkins; when Jim climbs the rigging, Hands just clamps the blade in his teeth and climbs after him, rather than lose time by tucking the blade back into the secret scabbard inside his shirt where he had it hidden.

As usual, the Hispaniola is portrayed by a full-rigged ship: the same Bounty that appeared in the Marlon Brando Mutiny on the Bounty and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and which was tragically lost in Hurricane Sandy along with her captain and a deck hand. It is the only pirate ship I’ve seen that has a pump, which Jim Hawkins improbably uses as a weapon. The ship is equipped with a spritsail and spritsail topsail, which would have been some of the last of their kind in the 1750s, but it does have a wheel, which by that time had been widely adopted. The sails are recognizably 19th century – short-leeched, taut, and tapering toward the top – instead of the long-leeched, billowing sails of the early-to-mid- 18th century. But the Bounty was a beauty and Fraser Heston knew it, giving the ship a full share of the spotlight.

This is the only pirate movie I’ve ever seen which uses the word “avast” correctly, as a command to stop what one is doing, as in Smollett’s crisp order “avast talking.” Other nautical language is sprinkled liberally throughout, and used very accurately: “to raise an island” meaning to come within sight of it, “a lee shore” for a dangerous situation, and “ran down our easting” for making eastward progress. But Silver’s use of “bucko” as a term of endearment is a late 19th century anachronism.

The usual cocked hats, broad belts, and puffy-sleeved linen shirts are on display, but no bucket boots. Trelawney and Livesey have short white wigs that look like something George Washington would wear. Several of the sailors wear peaked hats that could almost pass for Monmouth caps, except that they bend backward instead of forward.

The Jolly Roger here appears in its most popular form: white full-face skull above crossed bones on black field. The movie faithfully copies Stevenson’s rather absurd use of the flag, even including Ben Gunn’s silly observation that “Silver would fly the Jolly Roger” above the stockade if he had captured it! Kudos, though, for showing a merchant ship flying a Red Ensign rather than the full Union Jack.

Weaponry is ordinary flintlocks and basket-hilted cutlasses, which look fairly authentic except for being a bit on the long side. Jim is put through the harrowing ordeal of having to re-prime his pistols while Israel Hands climbs up the rigging to murder him. We get to see a blunderbuss, rarely shown in the movies, but it is used by Jim’s mother, not by the pirates. Its kick is enough to knock her down!

In all, there’s plenty of piratey goodness to go around. Certainly, there’s more than enough for a story which (we too easily forget) takes place a good twenty or thirty years after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

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Charlton Heston's Long John Silver.
God, how I love being evil!
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Christian Bale's Jim Hawkins really needs
a Bat-Signal about now.
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Oliver Reed's Billy Bones, looking
for trouble - and finding it.
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Julian Glover's Dr. Livesey is
impressed by Jim Hawkins.
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Michael Halsey's mild, inoffensive Israel Hands.
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Introducing the Bounty in the role of the Hispaniola.
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Israel Hands brings a knife to a gunfight.
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Ben Gunn has to stop meeting
Long John Silver like this.

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THE SPANISH MAIN (1945)

Directed by Frank Gorzage.

Featuring: Paul Henreid, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Slezak, Binnie Barnes, John Emery, Barton MacLane, J.M. Kerrigan, Fritz Leiber, Nancy Gates.

Daniel’s rating: 2½ out of 5.

Synopsis: When a shipful of Dutch immigrants is shipwrecked off Cartagena, the malicious Viceroy Alvarado orders the survivors enslaved. Laurent van Horn, the Dutch immigrants’ captain, escapes and turns to piracy. When van Horn captures Alvarado’s intended bride, the aristocratic Francesca de Guzmán, he decides to marry her and thus goad Alvarado into sending his valuable ships to recover her. Francesca refuses at first, but then strikes a bargain with van Horn: she’ll marry him if he’ll let her consort ship go free. It is so agreed, and the pirate marries the countess. But many of van Horn’s crew are not pleased with their captain’s decision . . .

Evaluation: The Spanish Main is a confusing movie. I don’t know whether to be grateful that it’s as good as it is, despite its glaring flaws, or frustrated at all the potential that it wasted.

When both the hero and the villain are duds, you know your movie’s in trouble. Van Horn is played by Paul Henreid, best known today for doing Casablanca, where he played Ilsa’s husband Victor Laszlo. But while Henreid’s mild-mannered persona was perfect for Laszlo, he has none of the panache you need to play van Horn. His thick German accent must have sounded right in auditions for a Dutch pirate, but it garbles a lot of his dialogue. And he shows so little lust or passion for his gorgeous leading lady that he might as well have been gay.

Meanwhile, the Hitchcockian maxim that a movie can be no better than its villain hits The Spanish Main hard. Don Alvarado is played by the great Walter Slezak, who gives it his best shot, but this part is too clownish to save. All Slezak can do is yuk up his character’s funny parts, most of which are at the beginning. In the opening scene, when van Horn begs Alvarado’s help for the immigrants whose ship has broken up on Cartagena’s rocks, Alvarado answers: “How inconsiderate of my rocks. I’ll have them reprimanded.” Ha ha, but it’s all downhill from there. Alvarado oozes tons of malice, but not an ounce of danger. The only real challenge to van Horn comes from an unexpected quarter that I won’t spoil for you.

The bad news doesn’t end there. The dialogue is fluffy and lusterless, and many of the supporting actors, supposedly Spaniards, drawl as if they’ve just stepped off the set of a John Ford cowboy movie.

But a number of strong points save The Spanish Main from total failure, with the actresses leading the rescue. Maureen O’Hara, already a pirate movie veteran from Jamaica Inn and The Black Swan, plays Francesca de Guzmán with effortless grace, guzzling her close-ups and bringing verve to what easily could have been a plastic, insipid part. Meanwhile, Binnie Barnes’s Anne Bonney is a fiery dynamo, stealing every scene she gets as the third leg of the love triangle with Francesca and Van Horn.

Frank Gorzage’s direction also diverts The Spanish Main from what seems like certain disaster. After a weak opening, the remaining hour and a half move at lightning speed, cramming a very complex plot into just 100 minutes, and rushing the numerous story holes past the viewer so fast that it’s hard to see them. What Gorzage could not do, though, was decide whether he wanted The Spanish Main to be an action film or a comedy. The comic parts he did well; the perfunctory and uninspired action scenes weigh down the laughs.

Most of the cast of The Spanish Main were, or would become, pirate movie veterans. O’Hara was the most freebooting of all; she had already featured in Jamaica Inn and The Black Swan, and would go on to star alongside Errol Flynn in Against All Flags. Henreid, in what I can only call a lapse of judgment by the studios, would star in two more pirate movies: 1950’s Last of the Buccaneers, and 1955’s Pirates of Tripoli. Slezak had played a villain in the previous year’s The Princess and the Pirate, and would go on to play Squire Trelawney in Orson Welles’s Treasure Island. And at the ripe old age of 46, Binnie Barnes would net the leading lady role in The Masked Pirate (aka The Pirates of Capri).

In all, The Spanish Main is a film that you’ll see either as half full or half empty. O’Hara, Barnes, and the rollicking action are either good enough that you’ll see them as saving the movie, or good enough to leave you wishing the rest of the movie had been worthy of them.

Piratical tropes and comments:

The Spanish Main’s plot shows a surprising amount of historical research for a 1940s swashbuckler. Spain’s policy of declaring all foreign vessels in the Caribbean interlopers provides Don Alvarado with his excuse for enslaving van Horn and his passengers. Moreover, pirate articles play a larger role in this movie than in any other I know of besides Treasure Island. They are correctly called “articles,” rather than “the rules” as in Stevenson’s story, and it is made clear that Captain van Horn cannot break them at will. We even get to see a pirate duel conducted under these articles, very loosely following Bartholomew Roberts’s eighth article.

The Spanish Main pioneers two plot points that Pirates of the Caribbean would later copy: the prisoner finagling the cell keys out of the guard, and the tongueless pirate. The former, though, is less subtle than in POTC; van Horn simply reaches through the bars and throttles his guard. The guard is conveniently holding the keys in his hand, even though he has no reason to be doing this because he is not letting any of the prisoners out. This greatly simplifies the job of grabbing the keys once the guard passes out. There is also a POTCesque revelry-on-Tortuga on scene, where we first meet Anne Bonney and discover what might have happened to her after Rackham’s hanging.

On the costuming front, The Spanish Main is as inaccurate and anachronistic as most of the ‘40s swashbucklers. Although the reference to the “viceroyalty of New Granada,” not to mention Anne Bonney, would suggest a setting in the 1720s, the costume flavor is mostly late 17th century, with broad-brimmed plume hats and the usual Monmouth caps that bend backward instead of forward, and few if any tricorns to be seen. Standard-issue justaucorps appear occasionally, but mostly we see puffy-sleeve shirts, which are probably the most accurate part. Swords are the usual whippy rapiers, with no cutlasses to be seen. The duel is conducted with gigantic flintlock horse pistols; Francesca has trouble cocking hers. Nobody wears any wigs.

The cat-o’-nine-tails, a regular actor in Nelsonian movies but not often seen in pirate films, puts in an appearance here to flog Captain van Horn. None of the strokes is shown on screen, showing yet again that Gorzage wasn’t sure whether this movie was comedy or action.

The ships here are some very nice little models that only rarely reveal their tiny size. Their sails are color-coded for our convenience in telling pirate ships from Spanish ships, and are very 19th-century in their size and shape. But they are accurately shown with lateen mizzens. And, like Frenchman’s Creek, this movie correctly shows the ships being steered with whipstaves.

Oddly, the Jolly Roger puts in no appearance at all. Van Horn’s ship Barracuda is flying some kind of flag, but the print I saw was too fuzzy to make out anything about it.

In sum, there’s nothing here for the perfectionist re-enactor, but there is plenty of piratical flavor for everybody else.

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Why, Captain!

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Anne Bonney will drink Francesca's health.

And then try to kill her.

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The Barracuda evading fire from the Santa Madre.

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Binnie Barnes's Anne Bonney cuts a more

dashing figure than Henreid's van Horn.

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The course of true love never did run smooth.

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John Emery shows his moves as Captain Billar.

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Walter Slezak's Don Alvarado.

Fear my incompetence!

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NATE AND HAYES (1983)

a.k.a. SAVAGE ISLANDS

Directed by Ferdinand Fairfax.

Featuring: Tommy Lee Jones, Miles O’Keefe, Jenny Seagrove, Max Phipps, Grant Tilly, Peter Rowley, William Johnson, Kate Harcourt, Reg Ruka, Bruce Allpress, Pudji Waseso, Prince Tui Teka.

Daniel’s rating: 4 out of 5.

Synopsis: Bully Hayes and his crew are running guns to some native rebels. Instead of paying Hayes, the rebels kill his men and chase him into the arms of Spanish bounty hunters. As Hayes awaits his hanging, he reminisces about the events that led him here.

When Hayes brought the engaged couple Nate and Sophie to Williamson’s Mission in the South Pacific, Sophie showed clear signs of falling in love with Hayes. After Hayes departs, Nate and Sophie’s wedding is interrupted by Ben Pease and his pirates, who slaughter Nate’s family, enslave the islanders, kidnap Sophie, and leave Nate for dead. To add insult to injury, Pease frames Hayes for the crime. We learn that this is standard operating procedure for Pease, who has a longstanding grudge against Hayes. Hayes never took much notice of this before, but Pease never abducted the woman Hayes loves before.

Evaluation: Making movies is all about fakery. Actors pretend to be people they aren’t, pretend to feel things they don’t, and say things that aren’t true, in front of sets that aren’t what they look like, while the special effects make living people look dead and safe people appear threatened. But there is one thing that movie makers can’t fake: a love for their material. If the actors and the director really care about what they’re doing, it will always show, and if they have contempt for it, that can’t be hidden either. Nate and Hayes is one of the first kind: a movie with heart, a movie with joy in its story, in its characters, and above all in its images.

Bully Hayes is the sort of character Kenny Rogers would have played in the 1970s, a bearded tough guy who exudes irreverence, always falls for a pretty face, and openly delights in beating stronger, richer, more socially acceptable opponents. He and Ben Pease have both fought their way up from the bottom of the heap, breaking every law in their path, but Hayes has made his fortune by crossing the rich and powerful, while Pease has made it by doing the upper crust’s dirty work. Hayes is the guy we straight males all wish we could be: effortlessly attractive to women, commanding men’s trust and loyalty, lethal in combat, rarely doubting what to do or say. The role requires the actor’s deepest reserves of confidence, and Tommy Lee Jones gives it all he has.

Michael O’Keefe’s Nate Williamson is an uptight, headstrong young preacher who is uncomfortable in his own skin. At first, it looks like he’ll be just a punching bag for Hayes, like Slezak’s Alvarado from The Spanish Main, or worse, Beau Bridges’s Major Folly from Swashbuckler. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen. Nate sheds his incompetence as the movie goes on and grows into a hero, saving Hayes’s life and earning his respect in the process. When the inevitable drunken bonding scene comes, it works because the foundation has been properly laid. And instead of going at each other’s throats over their mutual love Sophie, Nate and Hayes actually behave like civilized human beings, promise to leave the decision to Sophie, and refuse to let it get in the way of their friendship. And they both keep their word. When was the last time you saw a love triangle resolved like that?

Our leading lady, Jenny Seagrove’s Sophie, is a delight: independent minded, strong , brave, romantic, and beautiful. At the beginning, she clearly thinks she is too much woman for her fiancé, Nate, and Nate begins to suspect the same. Her main problem is that the story doesn’t have enough room for her; this is essentially a buddy movie between Nate and Hayes, and so poor Sophie spends much of the movie shunted into the damsel-in-distress role, complete with the obligatory rescue-me-from-being-a-virgin-sacrifice scene. She deserved better.

The usual trouble with a strong hero like Hayes is that he kills suspense by overmatching the villains, but there's no danger of that with Max Phipps around. His Ben Pease is everything a good pirate villain should be: greedy, ruthless, cunning, and vengeful. And boy, has he got a lot to be vengeful about - Hayes once gave him a .44-caliber vasectomy when they fought over a woman. Even better, all Pease's confrontations with Hayes are battles of wits; the two antagonists never once cross blades or trade shots on screen. And Pease is supported by an ensemble of memorable minor baddies. Grant Tilly’s Count von Rittenberg, while harmless and even sympathetic enough in himself, is both powerful and dangerous because of the strength of the Second Reich behind him. Maori rock singer Prince Tua Teke literally chews the scenery as he enjoys his rather hackneyed role as King Oatopi of Ponape. The queen of the native rebels is a menacing, regal presence; Hayes is horrified when she accidentally shoots two of her own warriors with the guns he is selling, but she just laughs and says it proves the guns work well.

Nate and Hayes is one of the most violent pirate movies ever made, doing the same thing for the genre of The Black Swan and Treasure Island that Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch did for the Western. Hayes’s entire crew gets killed off in the first ten minutes, being resurrected only by flashback; pirates massacre peaceful missionaries, chain up their innocent native hosts, and carry them off into slavery; Hayes himself graphically kills lots of attacking native rebels, including several women. Gore, screams, and death rattles visit the screen often. This is only proper for a pirate story, since the whole history of piracy is written in blood, but it was in bad taste to try to make light of the violence with Hayes’s forced one-liners, Nate waving goodbye to a drowning enemy, and the like.

The movie’s worst flaw is unnecessary strains on credibility. For example, while Hayes asks a barkeep where Pease is, one of Pease’s crew sneaks up behind Hayes, but he shoots the barkeep instead of Hayes. Hayes invents a clever trap, but then sets it in such a way that it only works through dumb luck. An explosion destroys an entire ship, but the person standing at ground zero of the blast is barely harmed. King Oatopi negotiates with a German envoy and demands shrunken heads and a virgin sacrifice, all of which he could easily obtain himself, instead of guns, ships, modern medicines, schools, or other things that only the German envoy can provide.

It must also be admitted that Nate and Hayes is a bit predictable, especially at the end (hmm, I wonder who might show up to help Hayes out of his predicament?). Also, the film’s depiction of the various South Pacific native peoples will strike some people as racist. In the movie’s defense, I would say that many of the natives are perfectly decent people, particularly the ones at Williamson’s Mission, while those that are villainous are no worse than the white pirates and colonialists. Even the inhabitants of Ponape, who are shown in the worst light, are clearly not primitives, but highly intelligent engineers who understand leverage and counterweights. But while I don’t think Nate and Hayes is racist in the sense of depicting South Pacific islanders as mentally or morally inferior, there’s no denying that the film is careless and indifferent to the reality of South Pacific societies and customs. It’s ridiculous to show the Ponapeans continuing to wear their ceremonial masks once a battle breaks out. The costumes given to the native rebels at the beginning are beyond ridiculous. And we have yet another of those native tribes where every one of the women is between ages 18 and 25 and gorgeous. Some viewers will find this unforgiveable; I didn’t.

But the best part of the film is the sheer beauty and majesty of the cinematography and the scenery. Every good pirate movie understands that the sea, the ships and the costumes are characters in themselves, just as Stetson hats, horses, and Monument Valley are characters in every good Western movie. This is where the director’s true feelings about his material show up most; no one who doesn’t feel the beauty of the white sails, the blue sea, and the gently curving palm trees can possibly translate that beauty onto the silver screen. If you think that Ferdinand Fairfax couldn’t have gone wrong shooting on location in Fiji and New Zealand, just look at the hideous footage of Roman Polanski’s Pirates, most of which was shot in dazzling Mediterranean locations. In Nate and Hayes, every hue is vivid, every line crisp. The missionary Williamsons aren’t leading their flock to paradise; they’re in paradise already. Hayes’s men are literally a motley crew, no two alike, from Blake with his beautiful burr and faded U.S. Cavalry uniform to Pegleg with his magnificent skull-and-shinbone prosthesis, to Fong’s mesmerizing eyes and dashing headband. And Hayes’s white costume with red sash and pistol is so beautiful that you can’t blame Sophie for falling in love with him.

Piratical tropes and comments: Nate and Hayes lacks most of the standard piratical tropes, mainly because it takes place much later than most pirate movies. Hayes is selling a box full of Winchester 1873 rifles to the rebels in the beginning, and lest we dismiss that as an anachronism, Rittenberg says he is the representative of “Kaiser Wilhelm,” which places the action no earlier than 1871. This means that the opening scene is probably in the Philippines, the only big overseas colony that Spain had left by the 1870s, and the site of many rebellions against Spanish rule. It also suggests that the movie is set before 1898, when the U.S. captured the Philippines in the Spanish-American War.

Indeed, it’s not immediately clear that Nate and Hayes is a pirate movie at all. Sure, Hayes bombastically says that he’s a pirate, and the Williamsons say he is, too. But Hayes never actually commits any piracy during the movie, and he says that he never pillaged anything. And the Williamsons are probably mistaking Pease's crimes for Hayes's. If Bully Hayes were tried for piracy, he would probably be acquitted. The only real pirates in this movie are Ben Pease and his men, stealing people and selling them into slavery. The slave trade by this time had specifically been defined as piracy, and that alone would be enough to send Pease to the gallows. No wonder that he says his slaves are “contract laborers.”

So, the weapons are different from most pirate movies. The swords are mostly cavalry sabers, with Fong wielding what looks like a hiltless Malay or Javan longsword. (Whatever you may have been told, Fong is not a samurai; there is no such sound as “ng” in Japanese, and that sword is nothing like a katana). Hayes and Pease both use .44 Remington revolvers, while their men rely on caplock muzzle-loading pistols; long arms of any kind are mysteriously absent. The native rebels at the beginning fight with triple-barbed spears, much like Filipino war spears. The Ponopeans use gigantic, impractical--looking spiked war clubs, which I suspect are purely imaginary.

Also unique are the ships. The Rona is a gaff-rigged schooner, while Pease’s Leonora is a brig. On both vessels, there are signs that the age of sail is ending: anchors are held by chains instead of manilla cables, the hulls are sleek and low, and neither carries any cannon, not even a swivel gun. The director deliberately contrasts the white, swanlike grace of these two vessels to the smoke-belching ugliness of a German steam-powered gunboat.

There are no Jolly Rogers in this picture. Hayes expressly – and quite falsely – says that the skull and crossbones flag is fictional. Nor are there any pirate articles; Hayes rules his crew absolutely, though not heavy-handedly.

The only eyepatch that appears is on one of the German sailors. And while one of Hayes's men does have a magnificent peg leg, Hayes and his men aren't really pirates at all.

In all, Nate and Hayes shows us just how little of the pirate trappings you need to convey the pirate ethos. No headkerchiefs, no cannons, no bucket-top boots, no flintlocks; just picaresque adventures from one danger to another with dashing heroes in sashes are all you need to give us that Jack Sparrow frisson.

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Are you ready to match beards with Bully Hayes?

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Sophie's many talents include lock-picking.

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Even Jack Sparrow's boat was seaworthier than Nate's.

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Ben Pease. More brains than, well, you know.

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The Leonora sweeps out from behind the headland.

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How many did you get, Fong?

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Not all women are happy to see Hayes.

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Best. Peg leg. Ever.

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PETER PAN (1953)

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, and Jack Kinney.

Featuring the voices of: Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conried, Bill Thompson, Paul Collins, Tommy Luske, Candy Candido, Tom Conway, Heather Angel.

Daniel's rating: 3 out of 5.

Synopsis: It’s Wendy Darling’s last night in the nursery with her brothers John and Michael, before her father sends her to live alone in a room of her own. On this last night Peter Pan come to the nursery to take the three children flying away to Neverland, where children never grow up, but where they do need a mother like Wendy. The only grownups in Neverland are a crew of wicked pirates led by Captain Hook and his bumbling bosun Smee, who are always searching futilely for Peter Pan and his never-grown-up Lost Boys. But Peter Pan’s pixie companion Tinkerbell is very jealous of Wendy, and that may prove Peter Pan’s undoing .

Evaluation: Peter Pan and Treasure Island are the two most popular pirate stories ever written in English, and they are as different as Ashley Olsen and Clint Eastwood. Treasure Island is a very masculine story, full of danger, violence, and virtue battling depravity, driven by Jim Hawkins’s search for gold, for manhood, and the lost father that he naively believes he has found again in Long John Silver. Peter Pan is a feminine, childlike fantasy, just as much about Wendy Darling as it is about Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie’s novel was titled Peter and Wendy), and is about the magic of being a child and having the childish imagination. Treasure Island is about Jim Hawkins growing up; Peter Pan is about Wendy Darling staying a child, at least for a while longer, while Mr. Darling regains a little of the child he once was.

Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up, is carefree and contemptuous of danger, seemingly unaware of his own mortality. He is interested in Wendy because she tells stories about him, which he tells to the Lost Boys, and when he invites her to Neverland, he wants her to be a mother there. All the girls in the story, though, want to be Peter's romance, not his mom, - Wendy, Tiger Lily, the mermaids, and most especially Tinkerbell - and the bizarre thing is that he never notices this. Even when Tinkerbell tries to murder Wendy, Peter never figures out that this is jealousy at work; all he understands is that Tinkerbell has betrayed the gang, and so he banishes her. Ironically, Peter is voiced by Bobby Driscoll, the same child star who played Jim Hawkins in the 1950 Treasure Island, who would die tragically from the effects of drugs and alcohol before the age of 40, an end more reminiscent of Captain Flint than Jim Hawkins or Peter Pan.

Wendy is just on the cusp of growing up; she is already half a mother to her younger brothers, and clearly her being sent out of the nursery will mean the end of her childhood. And she already has grown-up attitudes and prejudices; she is jealous of Peter, demands that they can't stay in Neverland like "savages," and is quite ready to drown rather than become a pirate.

The villain, Captain James Hook, is really the most remarkable character in the story. He is the only grown-up of the three leads. And what is it that marks him as a grown-up? The sound he always hears: tick-tock, tick-tock. Time is running out. Death is nearing. With this tortured soul as his main example of adulthood, no wonder Peter Pan doesn't want to grow up. From the moment we meet Hook, he is hunting Peter, who cut his hand off in a fight long ago. But why was Captain Hook fighting Peter in the first place? My best guess is plain envy. He can't stand having someone else around who do plainly doesn't suffer the constant terror of death.

But Peter Pan, for all that it says to grown-ups, or just reveals about them, is really meant for children. It wasn't a random whim when Barrie willed the rights to Peter Pan to a children's hospital charity; he imagined this story cheering children who were sick, some perhaps dying. How good is Peter Pan for them? Well, when I was a kid I loved it; now that I’m grown, my own son loves it; and I think most children will too. Being a child means having the Unknown much closer around you, always at arm's reach, sometimes close enough to bite. That’s not just because you haven't had all your schooling yet, but because you haven't had time yet to recognize patterns that adults see instantly. You don't know yet that the mad killer under the bed is a phantom while the drunk driver is an omnipresent threat; you don’t know yet that buried treasure and an M.D. degree aren’t equally plausible paths to wealth. The constant presence of the Unknown gives children a capacity for fear and wonder that shrinks or dies as we grow up. Children's feelings about a story depend on what you put in that so-huge, so-close Unknown. So when you tell them that the Unknown beyond the second star to the right contains not the monster under the bed, but Indians and mermaids, hollow trees and pirates, and Captain Hook can be avoided because there you can FLY, you will get that squeal of delight that only children can make.

Piratical tropes and comments: Peter Pan is one of the least credible pirate movies ever made, because Hook's pirates don't seem to be interested in stealing anything. There aren't even any other ships to attack or towns to plunder. Maybe this is why the pirates seem to be perpetually mad at Smee when he serves them their thin victuals.

Barrie wrote that Hook looked like "the ill-fated Stuarts," and he certainly could pass for Charles II in this movie with his long wig and coat, sinister mustache, narrow face, and stockings. His shoes are bizarre, with something like wings protruding from the ankle; whether this is a Disney invention or some short-lived period fashion I can't imagine. He acts like an absolute monarch, too, abusing his confederate Smee and shooting one of his own men out of the rigging for singing annoying songs.

Hook's hook is a trope in itself, of course. Obviously, he’s named after his prosthesis; Barrie wrote that revealing Hook’s true name would have scandalized the country. This is the story that made the hook a fixture in pirate mythology. Some real pirates lost a hand, for sure – Christopher Condent was nicknamed “Billy One-Hand” – but there’s no proof that any used hooks.

Hook's sword is a complete anachronism; a. 19th century épée de duel with cup guard. The other pirates stick to short cutlasses that are perhaps a bit wider and straighter in the blade than typical pirate cutlasses, but would certainly serve for hacking and stabbing on a crowded deck.

One last accessory that the movie’s Hook retains from Barrie is a double cigar holder. Unlike most of Barrie’s pirate images, this one never caught on; I’ve never seen a cigar holder in any subsequent pirate movie, much less a double one. I severely doubt this is period; cigars weren’t popular yet in the 18th century. The period paintings show pipes and snuff boxes, not cigar holders.

Probably the most important trope that Peter Pan popularized is walking the plank, done here face forward (not sidewise as in Pyle’s picture), and with the hands tied, but no blindfold, although Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had already walked the narrow timber road in The Black Pirate. There are two cases from the 19th century where pirates did this, and one from the 1750s when mutineers used the plank, but there are no known cases from the Golden Age.

Smee and the other pirates are very different from Hook, ragged and ugly and brutal. Smee wears the usual backward-bending sailor’s cap, and he wears sandals, one of the very few screen pirates to do so. The other pirates tend to go for the headkerchief style popularized by Howard Pyle.

Peter Pan follows the Black Pirate in having the pirates’ victims all tied to the mast as they await their fate. At least one 19th century pirate victim was reported being tied to the mast and tortured, and Captain Low once burnt a ship with the cook tied to the mainmast, but tying bunches of people to the mast at once probably wasn’t practical.

Lastly, this is the only pirate movie I can recall where the pirates try to force prisoners to sign the articles under threat of death. Refusal means the plank. I can’t imagine why this hasn’t been used more often. Real pirates did this all the time, notably Roberts and Low. And it has such dramatic potential, as we see when Wendy refuses and faces her death on the plank so bravely. I want to see more movies, and more stories, that deal with this.

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Peter Pan brings a knife to a swordfight;
luckily, that's all he needs
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Every pirate map should have an Indian Camp,

a Cannibal Cove, a Mermaid Lagoon, and a Skull Rock.

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All this female attention can't be good for Peter.

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Tinkerbell, have you been up to no good again?

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Hook, meet Crocodile. Crocodile, meet . . . oh.

You already know each other.

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Words couldn't possibly improve this picture.

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How're we doing?" "Same as always."

"That bad, eh?"

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Greg Louganis never had to do this

with his hands tied.

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CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935)

Directed by Michael Curtiz.

Featuring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill, Ross Alexander, Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, Forrester Harvey, Pedro de Cordoba, George Hassell, Leonard Mudie.

Daniel’s rating: 3 ½ out of 5.

Synopsis: Irish doctor Peter Blood is happily indifferent to Monmouth’s rebellion against King James II, but he readily answers the call to treat a wounded rebel, and for this he is sentenced to slavery in Jamaica. Arabella Bishop, a rich planter’s daughter, first buys Blood to save him from death in the sulfur mines, and then arranges a soft job for him as doctor to Jamaica’s gouty, gormless governor. Blood, though, is not content with personal comfort. He means to escape and turn pirate in revenge against the King. But he may not be able to have both Arabella and his vengeance.

Evaluation: Five of Rafael Sabatini’s pirate novels were adapted into major movies. They were The Sea Hawk, The Black Swan, and a trio of tales that started life as a series of short stories about an Irish physician turned buccaneer: Captain Blood: His Odyssey, Captain Blood Returns and The Fortunes of Captain Blood. In all these works, Sabatini showed a flair for writing magnificent heroes, larger than life in their courage, intelligence, and strength, but with flaws as big as their virtues.

The movie Captain Blood is a simple story – much simpler than the novel, much of which was cut. It’s one man’s triumph over adversity all the way, as one might expect for a Depression-era movie. A simple story is probably harder to make well than a more complex one, because there’s less novelty to sustain the viewer’s interest, and thus Michael Curtiz deserves all credit for keeping Captain Blood a riveting watch all the way through, even during the long second act on Jamaica. Blood is a great character; not just deadly and determined with a sword, but a clever planner, a wise and compassionate leader, and brilliant in his reading of men (though not of women, to his regret). Above all, he’s stubborn, refusing ever to accept the bad hand life has dealt him or stop fighting against it. There are some forces you can’t destroy, like King James or the Depression, but you can still outlast them, and that’s just what Blood does.

At the same time, Blood has big flaws in the true Sabatini style, although the grand hubris he had in the novel is softened here into something more like naivete. Blood blithely assumes that he won’t get in trouble for dressing a rebel’s injuries because “Christian men don’t make war on the wounded.” Even when a royal officer threatens to hang him, Blood is so overconfident that he mouths back to the officer. And when he’s drunk, he can make serious errors in judgment, as he himself recognizes. The main reason Blood is determined to save his fellow prisoners, not just himself, is his sense of guilt toward them: they had fought against King James’s tyranny back when he, Blood, had been ignoring it.

Blood’s lady love, Arabella Bishop, is well drawn too. Though no more experienced than Flynn, Olivia de Havilland is much more confident and convincing in her role. She’s independent of her bullying uncle Bishop, and fascinated but not at all intimidated by the beautiful Peter Blood. She saves his life on multiple occasions, is attracted rather than by offended by his refusal to flatter her, and finally comes to understand his resentment of being bought by her when he turns the tables on her.

The worst problem with Sabatini’s novel is that none of its villains equals Blood in stature, probably because each of the short stories the novel grew from had to offer its own little bad guy for Blood to beat. The movie doesn’t completely overcome this problem – Mr. Bishop is a contemptible adversary for Blood – but Basil Rathbone’s Captain Levasseur is another story. Handsome, dangerous, and ruthless, Levasseur admires Blood at first for his success, but then fatally underestimates him. His duel scene with Blood is the highlight of the film; Levasseur takes a mad joy in sword-fighting and is certain that, having been outwitted once by Blood, he now has his opponent where he wants him. We can almost envy Levasseur when he dies doing what he loves most.

What about drawbacks? Well, strange to say, the worst problem with the movie is Flynn himself. Captain Blood made Flynn a star, but it’s safe to say that it was his Adonis-like beauty that did it, not his acting. He does reasonably well in the early scenes, but every now and again a weird, forced grin crosses his face. Then, in the later scenes, when he is called on to inspire his men, his every word becomes forced, a problem aggravated by the clunky dialogue (much of it not Sabatini’s). Flynn soon outgrew this – his rabble-rousing scenes in The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood showed boundless charisma – but he was clearly still cutting his leading-man teeth in Captain Blood. Also, Curtiz’s comedy is often too broad, especially in the closing scene, as well as with the odious comic relief of Forrester Harvey’s Nuttall and the brainless Governor Steede.

There is a very strong supporting cast egging the leads on, notably Guy Kibbee as Blood’s graceless but honest gunner Hagthorpe, and a deliciously evil Leonard Mudie as Judge Jeffreys, the man behind the Bloody Assizes that killed and enslaved hundreds of Monmouth’s followers.

Sabatini will never cast as long a shadow on pirate literature as Stevenson or Barrie have, but he did something neither of those two more famous writers did: he introduced us to the pirate as a hero, not a villain. Without that idea, Flynn wouldn’t have become a star. Nor, very likely, would Fairbanks.

Piratical tropes and comments: Captain Blood begins in 1685 and ends in 1688, the exact duration of King James II’s reign.

The movie has a mixed record on historical accuracy. It has some magnificently rendered ship models, most especially the Spanish ship that Flynn and his men capture to start their pirate careers, but many of these were built for Napoleonic-era movies, and have square-rigged mizzen sails instead of lateen mizzens. The cannon are accurately shown being fired with linstocks.

Captain Blood follows a common trope for early pirate movies: thick slashing cutlasses for the men, but elegant dueling swords for the heroic captain. In this case, Flynn and Levasseur fight with smallswords. The fencing style, though, is more suited to early rapier cut-and-thrust technique, which is much more cinematic than the extremely linear, speedy, thrusting-only tactics that would have been used with the smallswords.

We also see one of the very few moments in film where pirates wear armor. Blood’s men use Spanish morions and cuirasses, which is partly justified because they’ve ambushed Spanish troops and taken their gear, but which are still anachronisms because by 1687 the Spanish hadn’t used morions for decades.

A great deal of attention is paid to Blood’s articles, which are glossed over in the original novel. They are closely modeled on Henry Morgan’s articles, even specifying the same number of pieces of eight that Morgan offered for each wound, although the option of taking your compensation in slaves is mercifully omitted. We get to see a division of treasure according to these articles, with the extra shares for the maimed; in some dubious comedy, one pirate purposely shoots off his own toe to get the extra money.

Blood’s Jolly Roger is unique: a white banner with a skull above interlocked arms, both wielding swords. The white color and the implication of brotherhood in the crossed arms are perhaps inspired by the mythical Captain Misson’s flag. Unfortunately, the buccaneers hoist it only once for practice, and after that it serves for a few seconds as a transparent overlay for a montage of implied derring-do. We never see it again.

Port Royal is represented with Spanish-style adobe walls, square towers and tile roofs, appropriately enough for a former Spanish colony. But it has been provided with sulfur mines to threaten Blood with; Jamaica actually had no mining industry until the 20th century. Bishop is a sugar planter, which we would expect. His slaves are shown working a gigantic machine whose purpose is not apparent: it has a giant horizontal wheel for the slaves to turn, and a giant vertical wheel which is water-powered, linked by a second vertical wheel which doesn’t seem to do anything at all.

Levasseur’s wardrobe is a perfect Halloween pirate costume; puffy-sleeved linen shirt, sash belt, bandolier belt, and tight trousers with high boots. Other clothing is surprisingly restrained, with Blood often appearing a simple waistcoat. The most luxuriously dressed characters are the Bishops, uncle and niece both. Broad-brimmed 17th century plumed hats are common. Periwigs do appear on Governor Steede and Judge Jeffrys, but not on others who you’d expect, like Mr. Bishop. Sabatini has Blood himself wearing a periwig at his trial, but Curtiz doesn’t, appreciating that modern audiences won’t cheer for a fop.

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Peter Blood, M.D., sometimes forgets
the Hippocratic Oath.
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Arabella Bishop can buy me for ten pounds
any time she wants.
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No, Bud Light!
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Basil Rathbone really sinks his teeth

into the role of Levasseur .

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Blood's Jolly Roger. I want one, I want one!

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Leonard Mudie's Judge Jeffrys and his Periwig of Evil.
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This is exactly why we don't give
slaves armor. Or swords.

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CARAIBI (1999)

A.K.A. PIRATES: BLOOD BROTHERS

Directed by Lamberto Bava.

Featuring: Nicholas Rogers, Paolo Seganti, Jennifer Nitsch, Padma Lakshmi, Anna Falchi, Remo Girone, Mario Adorf, Francesco Casale.

Daniel’s rating: Rating withheld.

Synopsis: The Milanese brothers Ferrante and Ippolito have both fallen in love with Livia, daughter of the Count Cornero. She chooses Ferrante. When Cornero murders their father, Ippolito tries to take revenge, but shoots Livia by mistake. Both brothers are condemned to death for murdering Livia, but they escape. Ferrante is captured by a Barbary corsair, is liberated by other pirates, flees to the Caribbean, and works his way up to pirate captain. Meanwhile, Ippolito, consumed by guilt over shooting Livia, takes service with the King of France, hoping to find his brother again and beg his forgiveness. On their adventures, both fall in love again; Ippolito with Isabella, a mysterious prisoner promised to a French nobleman, and Ferrante with Malina, a Yucatan Indian whose people have been murdered by the Spanish army.

Evaluation: Evaluating this thing I just watched is like trying to evaluate the Mona Lisa after somebody poured acid on the canvas. The movie was originally a six hour TV miniseries called Caraibi, released in Italy and Germany in 1999. Later, some madman with a cutlass chopped it down to under four hours, and hired the first five people he met on the street to do the English dubbing. Several characters are dubbed by the same voice, and all of them are as hokey and hammy as anything you would hear in a small-town high school play. The result was then dumped on the U.S. DVD market under the title Pirates: Blood Brothers, where Netflix snapped it up, and it drifted finally into my DVD player.

Pirates: Blood Brothers is obviously a travesty. The mystery is, what was Caraibi? Did the original actors have some clue what they were doing before their lines were all overdubbed by amateur-hour hacks? Are the huge plot holes due to the mindless cutting, or are they left over from the original script? Were the lines always this flat and lifeless, or were they spoiled in translation?

Only one thing is clear: Caraibi’s original images were spectacular, so rich and august that even this bastardized version couldn’t ruin them. Lamberto Bava, a veteran of the Italian giallo genre, is endlessly inventive in his camera shots and invests lavishly in his sets and costumes. Feast on the piercing eyes and fearsome beard of Nicholas Rogers’s Ferrante, on the suffering face and statuesque torso of Paolo Seganti’s Ippolito, on the Faye Dunaway furtiveness and passion of Jennifer Nitsch’s Isabella, and the sensuous feline grace of Padma Lakshmi’s Malina! Then too, Bava gets that ships are characters, like the saloons and corrals of the Western and the castles and churches of the medieval period piece; his spinning aerial shots of Ferrante’s three-master Livia are magnificent. His only misstep is the clumsy computer animation of the cannon balls, which did not have to appear on screen at all and shouldn’t have.

The heart of the story (or what’s left of it) is Ippolito’s quest to reunite with his brother, which corrupts him instead of redeeming him, and leaves us wondering what exactly he expects to happen when he finds Ferrante. Ippolito also gets the more interesting cast of characters around him; a pair of convicts one of whom is mute and another who has an uncanny talent for wax sculpture, a thuggish French spymaster, and the evil Count Cornero who is accompanied by an unpleasant masked assassin whose identity is a bit too easy to guess. When Isabella joins Ippolito halfway through the story, Ferrante has almost no one left to play with except Malina. And Malina, unfortunately, is not that well drawn; she’s less a unique individual and more a symbol of the New World that Ferrante is falling in love with, and which will ultimately separate him from his brother more permanently than Livia’s death will.

There’s so much romance and action in the story that little room is left for humor, but we do get some funny moments when we find that Devil Claw the pirate has a sort of Dread Pirate Roberts schtick going, and one of Ippolito’s friend’s waxen masks fails in an amusing way. And there’s a dark take on the old trope of the quest for revenge.

Pirates: Blood Brothers confronts the old ethical question every pirate movie must face – how do you justify making pirates heroes? – in the standard way: contrast them favorably with the governing institutions of the time. Black slavery in French Martinique is prominently showcased, as well as the use of torture by French officials. There is a pointed montage where Ferrante’s oath to the Brethren of the Coast,with its ideals of freedom and equality, is interspersed with Ippolito’s oath of service to the French king, where he promises to lie, steal and murder at the crown’s command.

But bizarre plot loopholes are everywhere. One man begins to succumb to poison slowly after taking several mouthfuls of poisoned soup over several days; then another man takes one spoonful of the soup and drops dead in minutes. The man sick from poison suddenly develops the ability to leap around and climb ropes, then goes back to being sick again. Another character is hit by a pistol bullet that does no visible damage to the face, but then has massive facial scars after healing. In another error that must have come from bad translation, the pirate Devil Claw claims to find his name in a book, which is clearly shown calling him “Devil’s Tail.” Perhaps the most bizarre moment is when a pirate captain, for no apparent reason, abandons his crew to set up shop with a new one.

Caraibi may well be worth watching, for all I can tell, if a full version with English subtitles exists somewhere. Pirates: Blood Brothers should be avoided by all but the most hard-core pirate fans.

Piratical tropes and comments: Ah, those ships! Pirates: Blood Brothers features some magnificent ship reproductions, starring the Kalmar Nyckel as Ferrante’s ship Livia, and a beautiful red galleon that I didn’t recognize. Bava takes full advantage of the rigging, the figureheads, the anchors, the capstans, and even the transoms to give us the full flavor of pirate shipboard life.

The story is supposed to be set in the 1650s, with references to Queen Christina of Sweden and “the Cardinal,” who could be Richelieu or Mazarin. But the costumes and sets look more Elizabethan, with huge matchlock arquebuses fired from stands, long slashing rapiers, doublets and even lace ruffs exactly like what Queen Elizabeth I herself wore. The hats look more period-appropriate, with broad brims sharply upturned on one side. The Indians’ costumes are pure fantasy.

Pirates: Blood Brothers is one of the few pirate movies to feature Barbary pirates, complete with slaves chained to the oars. The Barbary captain, true to history, is a Polish renegade, not a Turk or Arab at all.

Our good old standby, the pirate parrot, appears prominently on the shoulder of Captain Devil Claw. It’s a red-lored Amazon, just like Heston’s Long John Silver has, and here it does double duty as a carrier pigeon.

We have two Jolly Rogers. Devil Claw flies the Richard Worley flag with a skull in full face and crossed bones directly behind the skull. Ferrante’s Roger is more interesting: a human hand offering a wedding ring to a skeletal hand, clearly representing his enduring love for the dead Livia. I love it; you can never have too many variations on the Jolly Roger.

The knife in the teeth makes a brief appearance in Captain Devil Claw’s mouth, as he swims out to board a canoe. The pistols are all true flintlocks, which make a bizarre companion to the matchlock muskets. I guess Bava thought wheel-locks wouldn’t be telegenic enough. And the stiletto makes several ghastly appearances in the hands of the masked assassin.

A full-on assault by a pirate ship on a shore fort appears, which the pirates improbably win by using secret massive artillery. What, landing miles away and sneaking through the jungle to assault the fort from behind wouldn’t have worked?

There are no treasure maps; instead, Ippolito has all the maps, which he ominously marks with X’s as he eliminates one potential pirate hiding spot after another.

In sum, Pirates: Blood Brothers has almost all the pirate tropes except justaucorps and plank walking, both of which are properly absent because they belong to a later era. What is nice is that the tropes are invigorated, not tired out. Pirates: Blood Brothers is silly, not stale.

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Anything about that old man look familiar, Ferrante?

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Ippolito and Isabella share a moment together.

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Yes, there's a reason I'm called Devil Claw.

Why do you ask?

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Malina wants this one for herself.

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Not what you want to see through your spyglass.

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Shooting fish in a barrel is not as easy as

you've been led to believe.

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I admit it, Lamberto Bava could shoot pictures.

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Warning: warranty on waxen mask is void if

wearer stands next to torch.

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"Evaluating this thing I just watched is like trying to evaluate the Mona Lisa after somebody poured acid on the canvas."

Ha ha ha ha ha!

And...

Ha ha ha ha ha! Hee hee....

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