Thursday, July 6, 2006

Pirate Movies

Anyone who has read this blog for very long know that I have had a life long fascination with the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly the period from 1690 to 1730). As might be expected, then, I have always enjoyed a good pirate movie (indeed, it is the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest tomorrow which spurred me to make this post). Sadly, while there have literally been dozens of pirate movies released since the Silent Era of movies, there have been very few, truly good pirate movies.

As stated above, pirate movies have been around since the Silent Era. In fact, the first film version of Treasure Island was released in 1912. It is quite probable that Treasure Island is the most filmed pirate novel in the history of both literature and movies. In the Silent Era alone there would be two more versions of the classic book, one made in 1918 and another made in 1920. The advent of talkies would see the classic 1934 version directed by Victor Fleming. It featured Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins. Of course, many consider the quintessential film version of Treasure Island to be the movie released by Disney in 1950. Treasure Island was not only the first live action Disney movie ever made, but also one of the first Disney films to be shown on television (it was first shown on Disneyland in 1955). Character actor Robert Newton gave the best performance of his career and there are those who consider him to have given the best portrayal of Silver on screen. Jim Hawkins was played by Bobby Driscoll, who would later be the voice of Disney's Peter Pan (his life was cut short after his career faltered and he got into hard drugs). Of course, Disney's Treasure Island was not the last version of the novel on film. Since then there have been several more, including some TV adaptations. Perhaps the most memorable of these is the hilarious Muppet Treasure Island, featuring Tim Curry (Frank N. Furter of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame) as Long John Silver and The Muppets in other key roles.

Of course, the only pirate movies made in the Silent Era were not adaptations of Treasure Island. With swashbucklers very much in vogue during the Twenties (in a large part due to Douglas Fairbanks' films), there were several other pirate movies made at that time. Perhaps the most famous was The Black Pirate, released in 1926 and featuring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The story was pure Fairbanks, in which a young man joins the pirate band who killed his father in order to avenge his father's death. Two years before the first screen adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's classic Captain Blood was released with J. Warren Kerrigan as Peter Blood. In 1924 there was also the first adaptation of another classic Rafael Sabitini novel, The Sea Hawk.

The cycle towards swashbucklers ran its course during the Twenties and as a result there would be some time before pirate movies would become fashionable again. The success of the 1934 version of treasure Island brought attention to the genre again, although it would be actor Errol Flynn who was responsible for reviving the pirate movie in the era of talkies. In 1935 Flynn received his first starring role in the first sound version of Captain Blood. Its plot is classic Flynn--after being sentenced to bondage in the Caribbean, Dr. Peter Blood became a pirate in order to wreak vengeance on those who wronged him. Captain Blood was a smash hit and Flynn would follow up his success with The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk. Released in 1940, Flynn's version of The Sea Hawk was not an adaptation of Sabitini's novel, but rather a tale of an English privateer in the age of Elizabeth I.

The success of The Sea Hawk and Flynn's other films would spark a new cycle towards swashbucklers that would last into the Forties. As might be expected, some of those swashbucklers were pirate movies. Indeed, in 1942 one of the three greatest pirate movies of all time was released. The Black Swan featured Tyrone Power as pirate Jamie Waring, who goes to the aid of former pirate Henry Morgan in ridding the Caribbean of pirates when Morgan becomes governor of Jamaica. This movie has nearly everything one could want from a pirate movie: ship to ship battles, fantastic sword play, a beautiful love interest (Maureen O'Hara), and a dastardly villain (George Sanders at his best). While it departs from history (as most pirate movies do), it still great fun. Not nearly as good as The Black Swan, but still enjoyable, is Captain Kidd (1945). Charles Laughton played Kidd in this movie that dispenses with history for a plot in which Kidd schemes to rob a treasure ship. While Captain Kidd is fun but historically inaccurate, The Spanish Main from the first year is just plain bad. Paul Henried (Victor Laszlo from Casablanca is unconvincing as pirate Captain Laurent Van Horn and the plot is largely forgettable. That having been said, it does boast some impressive sword play. Of course, by 1948 the genre was ripe for parody. Released that year, The Pirate featured Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in a delightful send up of the swashbuckler genre.

While the cycle towards swashbucklers in the late Thirties and early Forties would eventually wind down, there would be renewed interest in the genre in the early Fifties. Indeed, one could say that there was actually a cycle towards pirate movies in the early Fifties, starting in 1950 and lasting until 1956. More pirate movies were released during this period than any other time in the history of Hollywood. The the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island was largely responsible for beginning the cycle. What is more, it is not the only classic pirate movie to come out at this time. Besides The Black Swan and Disney's Treasure Island, the greatest pirate movie of all time is perhaps The Crimson Pirate. It is also like no other pirate movie made before or since. Burt Lancaster played the title role and put his skill in acrobatics to good use in a plot in which Capt. Vallo (AKA the Crimson Pirate) become involved in a revolution on a small island. Not only does the film feature ship to ship battles and some incredible fight scenes, but it also incorporates technology that is rather advanced for the 18th century (high explosives, submarines, and so on)! The Crimson Pirate is an example of what I call genre melange--a work which mixes more than one genre (in this case, science fiction and pirate movies--the TV show The Wild Wild West is an other example of genre melange). Another classic pirate movie from the era was Errol Flynn's Against All Flags. Flynn played Brian Hawke, who takes up piracy off the coast of Madagascar. OF course, the success of
Treasure Island
resulted in a couple of unofficial sequels (they weren't released by Disney). Robert Newton reprised his role as Silver in 1954's Long John Silver. Unfortunately, the film is fun, but fairly unremarkable. It is at least better than Return to Treasure Island, released the same year. It was just plain bad.

Sadly, pirate movies have proven few and far between since the Fifties. Beyond a few B movies, the Sixties saw almost no films in the genre. Nineteen seventy six saw the release of Swashbuckler, a film that is not bad, but hardly remarkable either. In 1980 a very successful stage revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance very nearly saw a revival of the genre. In 1982 The Pirate Movie attempted to capitalise on the success of this new version Pirates of Penzance. Unfortunately, the film is fairly atrocious, with a forgettable cast and fairly bad songs. An adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance itself, released a year later, was much better, even though the filmmakers saw fit to play fast and loose with the source material. Although it is still roundly panned by critics to this day, the comedy Yellowbeard, released in 1983, is better than either of these films. Written by Graham Chapman and Peter Cook and featuring a cast of veteran British comic actors, I have always thought Yellowbeard was very funny myself. True, many of the bits fall flat, but for every bit that does so there are two or three that are very funny. Released in 1986, Pirates was the last of the Eighties pirate movies. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring by Walter Matthau, Pirates was attacked by critics much as Yellowbeard was. I'll admit that it has its lapses in logic and it does run a bit long, but overall it is simply a fun romp that any pirate fan will enjoy. Sadly, Yellowbeard and Pirates failed at the box office. A new cycle towards pirate movies was not in the offing.

Indeed, since the Eighties there have been only three(and come tomorrow, three, with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) major motion pictures that have dealt with pirates. The first was 1995's Cutthroat Island. Sadly, Cutthroat Island is a pirate movie done as an overblown Nineties action movie. There are more explosions than real excitement. What is worse, Geena Davis is totally miscast in the role of lady pirate Morgan Adams. Only a few good sequences and Frank Langella as the villainous Dawg Brown make it worthwhile. If the poor quality of many previous pirate movies hadn't killed the genre, it would have. Muppet Treasure Island, released a year later, was much better, but did poorly at the box office.

Fortunately, the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would redeem the genre. Against many's expectations ("it's based on a theme park ride," it's a pirate movie), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl became a bona fide hit. What is more, it is a genuinely good movie that actually stands up beside other classic films in the genre. Like The Crimson Pirate, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an example of genre melange. It is not just a pirate movie. It is also a ghost story, a horror movie, and a comedy. It also features the most memorable pirate in a movie since Robert Newton played Long John Silver. As Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp gave the best performance of his career.

It remains to be seen if Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest will be hit. And if it is a hit, it remains to be seen if it will start a new cycle towards pirate movies. As one who has always enjoyed watching swordfights aboard ships and the firing of cannons, I can only hope it does. There are very few film genres I enjoy as much as good pirate movies.

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

Great stuff .. I love that Muppet "Treasure Island" flick more than any grown man reasonably should .. it's just so much silly fun