Monthly Archives: May 2011

On the Enjoyment of Pirate Movies

Borneo pirates charge across a jungly table top

I am a devotee of pirate movies. In my lifetime I have spent far too much time glued to small and large screens in search of worthwhile piratical entertainment. Alas, most of the titles I can recall proved to be disappointing in the event, although the expectation always was (and is) that the next will be one of the greats. As the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” film opens tomorrow, I offer some reflections on the highs and lows of the Pirate Movie oeuvre.

Greats? “Captain Blood” (Errol Flynn – need one say more?), “The Sea Hawk” (E. Flynn again), “The Crimson Pirate” (a young Burt Lancaster), “A High Wind in Jamaica” (the only superior drama in the long history of pirate films, with a sympathetic Anthony Quinn and sidekick James Coburn); “The Black Swan” (Tyrone Power at his peak); “The Princess Bride” (not so much a pirate movie as a funny, shtick-filled anti-historic romp, but an equal mix of improbable excitement, quirky romance, slapstick chicanery and downright silliness, with a script by the great William Goldman – based on his novel – and impeccable direction by Rob Reiner. Most famous line, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my grandfather. Prepare to die.”)

The downright failures: most of the rest of the scores of hackneyed, derivative, low-rent pirate adventures ever made. The greatest disappointment for me was “Swashbuckler.” Even the late, great Robert Shaw, star of TV’s “The Buccanneer” couldn’t save that one; Disappointing, although not surprisingly so, were the second and third “Pirates of the Caribbean” installments, which show that no matter how much money you throw at a project, without a script it’s nothin’; “Cutthroat Island”  – one more nail in the  coffin for pirate movies, and the virtual end of a career for then-hot-on-the-trail-of-superstardom Geena Davis. Almost everything about this movie reeked, from the fights to the effects, from the props to the cinematography, and ESPECIALLY the script. Wikipedia on this 1995 film: “The abject disaster of Cutthroat Island is also credited with significantly reducing the bankability and Hollywood production of pirate-themed films, which only recovered with the production of Disney’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ in 2003.”

My other favorites, even if they’re not classics: “The Pirates of Tripoli”, though I can’t really say why it’s a favorite, as it is a standard, cheesy, stock-footage-filled 1950’s B picture starring an over-the-hill Paul Henreid and “North African Princess” Patricia Medina, and the pirates’ main tavern diversion is to play quoits with the leg of a tavern wench as the target???); the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film (mostly due to Johhny Depp’s spectacular performance), “The Black Pirate” (a silent romp with the greatest of them all,  Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. – and in technicolor!), “Treasure Island” (a dissolute Robert Newton at his best, in the defining performance of Long John Silver – this led to a one season TV series called “The Adventures of Long John Silver,” in which Newton perfected his arrghhh); “Pirates of Dark Water” (a 21-show animated adventure which was silly, but which I watched over and over again with both of my then-toddlers. I even managed to find the tie-in figures and pirate ship, so I was able to introduce my kids to toy soldiers through their passion for the series.)

I always welcome your opinions, but on this subject, especially so, as the pirate and the toy soldier share a long intertwined history.

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When fighting giant snakes

Rangers vs snakes. Clockwise, from lower left, Auda Abu Tayi (back to camera), Rio, Sun Tzu, Colonel Chiba, James Brooke (with flag), Jacques Buffault.

Harold’s Rangers generally face off against human opponents. In our adventures we tend to steer clear of monsters, supernatural creatures and magic-casting villains. But occasionally we encounter super-sized creatures. This is totally due to happenstance, such as when one of our gaming group visits a toy store where giant snakes, over sized elephants, monstrous squids and such are found in plain sight on a shelf or counter top. The temptation is too much. Although the new creature may be kept in a dark closet by its owner, it will eventually be placed upon the gaming table to threaten bodily harm against our characters. Sure, there are always complaints against the use of such death dealers, but usually (not always) the battle is fought and the survivors celebrate their victory.

There are times, of course, when caution prevails. In one game we played, I, acting as dungeon master, lured a group of heroes near a cave in the American Wilderness with promises of untold riches within. Then I growled once or twice to warn them that something other than gold awaited them. They politely refused to enter and walked away. The risk was not worth the payoff to them. Thus was born a new philosophy: don’t give your friends an option. Just throw them into the action and let them take care of themselves.

And so it was, on an adventure we played in 2005 against a cartel of Borneo pirates, that the encounter with a pair of giant snakes occurred. We had been fighting battles on land (more on that in a subsequent post) and at sea (ditto) when the opportunity of capturing the lead villain was offered.

A group of 6 heroes crept aboard the pirate flagship: Rio (Marlon Brando from”One Eyed Jacks”), James Brooke (the White Rajah of Sarawak. pirate hunter extraordinaire), Sun Tzu (the famed Chinese philosopher, author of “The Art of War,” and the only one of our heroes capable of catching an arrow in his teeth), Jacques Buffault (French mountaineer), Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn from “Lawrence of Arabia”) and Colonel Chiba (Japanese officer, played by Juzu Itami in “55 Days at Peking.”) First the Rangers cleared the gun deck, which was lightly guarded. Then they went below in search of the pirate chieftain. Outside his cabin, however, they stumbled upon his pet snakes, each 25 feet long and sleeping across his doorway.

Three of the Rangers faced off against each snake. Dice were rolled. Auda went down with a bite to the arm. Swords flashed in the candle light. The snakes struck out with fang and swinging tails. But 5 swords bit deep and they were vanquished. The pirate lord attempted an escape but was captured. Snake stew served many Rangers that night.