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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4 responses to “On the Enjoyment of Pirate Movies

  1. Absolutely gorgeous pictures on this blog. Truly shows how wargaming in 54mm blows away any possible visual you could get with the smaller scales. The colors and pageantry here are absolutely stunning and I love that you’re willing to do it on a grand scale.

    More please!

    P.S. As an idea for a future post, would love to see the wargames rules you use (if they’re homegrown) made available on the blog.

  2. Jamie, I couldn´t agree more on this posting. It´s like reading my own thoughts! I can´t even tell you how many times I watched The Crimson Pirate, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood when I was a kid. I can´t remember seeing A High Wind in Jamaica (maybe it wasn´t available in Sweden??), but I can´t wait to get my hands on it now! I think you need to have a film blog too! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I just can´t help myself – so excited by the subject matter! (oops, there goes another one…)

  3. Anthony j Civitano

    I agree only one true pirate of the Cinema Errol Flynn the rest are are held up to his standards. As you may or may not know he love the sea.
    Thank you

  4. I would respectfully submit TNT’s 1990 made-for-television Treasure Island, starring the incomparable Charlton Heston as Long John, directed by Heston’s son Fraser, and backed up by a great cast of talented character actors. By my reckoning this version is the most faithful to the book and the most historically accurate. It may well be the ultimate film version of Stevenson’s classic. The only drawback is it might be hard to find (not yet on DVD). I’m still relying on the version my mother tapped years ago.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100813/

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