The bang-bang summer movie season has its first genuine surprise: Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney’s nautical opus that opened on Wednesday. The surprise is not that Pirates is a decent movie, but that it’s a decent movie about pirates. After a half-century of dreary pirate cinema, news that Johnny Depp would be donning pantaloons and prancing across the foredeck had left viewers with more than a twinge of dread.
Pirate movies have embarrassed directors like Roman Polanski and Steven Spielberg. They have maimed the careers of Orson Welles and Walter Matthau. If they were merely a creative disaster, Hollywood could forgive them—these days, what summer movie isn’t a mess? But pirate movies often result in financial whirlpools, too. CutthroatIsland(1995), the Exxon Valdez of the genre, returned around $11 million on a $120 million investment, making it one of the biggest flops in the history of the movies. This year’s Pirates came in over budget and behind schedule, and now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of grubbing for dollars in the Terminator’s wake.
Why the obsession with pirates? Since the end of the golden age of Caribbean buccaneering, pirates have lurked on the margins of popular culture, providing grist for artists in need of hit. Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie indulged; so did Lord Byron, whose poem “The Corsair” sold out its initial run of 10,000 copies in a single day. The first tries at pirate cinema plucked the same melodramatic notes: Errol Flynn mugging while Claude Rains delivers one-liners from the wings. None of these early movies—Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Treasure Island(1950), among them—hold up as jewels of cinematic art. But at least they give you a kick, which is more than you can say for the pirate movies that would come next
Consider Treasure Island(1972), with Orson Welles as Long John Silver. Welles had played Silver years before on a Mercury Theater radio program, but by the early ‘70s age had bloated him out of his pantaloons: He couldn’t even bend at the knee to suggest Silver’s missing leg. Thus, Welles is shot in extreme close-up, and he speaks in a mumble thicker than the aged Charles Foster Kane’s. For more actorly humiliation, see Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986). Polanski is surely the only person on Earth to look at Walter Matthau and see an action hero—in this case, the loathsome pirate named Captain Red. Poor Matthau has to waddle on a peg leg and, in a rather sad Cockney, toss off lines like, ” ‘Twas good sport, by thunder. ‘Twas indeed.”
Welles and Matthau deserve credit, at least, for daring to play their pirates as louses. As the historian David Cordingly has pointed out, most screen pirates are unusually noble men, murdering and robbing only with great hesitation. Swashbuckler (1976) stars Robert Shaw and James Earl Jones as two such piratic saints; they even have the courtesy to aim cannonballs a few feet above the heads of enemy soldiers. In Nate and Hayes (1983), Tommy Lee Jones plays Bully, a sea captain who turns to piracy to avenge a kidnapping. “I never cheated an honest man,” he declares. “I never pillaged and I never raped.” He’s the Alan Alda of the West Indies.
When straight action fails, directors often turn to pirates for laughs. Unfortunately, pirates haven’t proved particularly funny, either. Members of the Monty Python troop teamed up with Cheech and Chong to make the insipid Yellowbeard (1983). More ambitious was The Pirate Movie (1982), a restaging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance with a rock soundtrack and unending stream of sight gags. In the hands of Mel Brooks, The Pirate Movie might have made for a fine spoof. But the director, Ken Annakin, has peculiar sense of comedy: He seems too tickled by the idea that a pirate might be black (“Hang five, honky”) or gay.
Children should make up the pirate movie’s core audience, but swashbucklers aimed at kids haven’t fared much better. Muppet Treasure Island (1996) features Tim Curry as Long John Silver *. Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002), the Robert Louis Stevenson story moved into the future, crashed at the box office. Then there’s the little-seen 1973 animated feature Treasure Island, with the most bizarre pirate yet: Richard Dawson, late of Family Feud.
Yet these are minor failures compared to the two films that should have sunk the genre for good: Spielberg’s Hook (1991) and CutthroatIsland. Both were pure vanity projects. Spielberg’s pricey set became a tour stop for A-list celebrities and movie executives, who stopped by to pay obeisance. CutthroatIslandwas conceived by director Renny Harlin as a showcase for his wife, Geena Davis. (They later split; no word on whether piracy was listed in the divorce papers.) Besides helping put the studio Carolco out of business, CutthroatIsland endures only because it ushered pirates into the era of mega-blockbusters. Just before the Davis character turns the evil pirate, Dog, into cannon fodder, she shrieks: “Bad Dog!”
There’s one great pirate film among all the rotten timber: a 1990 made-for-TV Treasure Island, this time with Charlton Heston playing Silver. (A young Christian Bale is Jim Hawkins.) Heston resists the impulse to play Silver as a cackling, one-legged creep. He’s genteel and avuncular, a tempting stand-in for Hawkins’ dead father. It’s the best pirate performance on film—even better than Robert Newton’s much-lauded Long John in the 1950 Treasure Island. It also helps matters that Heston could bend at the knee.
To defeat the sorry legacy of pirate cinema, the makers of the new Pirates of the Caribbean tried a new tactic: fewer pirates. The filmhas all the trappings of a pirate movie, but it’s really a ghost story: The zombified buccaneers have flesh that melts when touched by moonlight. Clever notion, boys, but also a sad admission. It seems the only way to make a successful pirate movie these days is to make something that isn’t really a pirate movie at all.
Correction, July 11, 2003: The original version of this piece asserted that Muppet Treasure Island was the last feature film the Muppets starred in. In fact, it was their second-to-last feature. [Return to corrected sentence.]