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Last updated: July 03. 2003 11:41AM

BEN STEELMAN | BEN ON FILM
Swashbuckling is back, but pirate flicks have often led audiences to mutiny
Avast, mateys, hoist the spinnaker and kiss the black spot. At the movies, it be pirate season.

At least three nautical swashbucklers are cruising into a multiplex near you.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney's adaptation of its own theme park ride, opens Wednesday.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, (who's on a roll after his dark-horse horror hit The Ring), the movie seems rather spookier and darker than the Disney World version, with walking skeletons and undead villains. The cast proves surprisingly high caliber for a romp of this sort, including Johnny Depp (possibly the prettiest pirate ever to set sail), Orlando Bloom (minus his elfin Lord of the Rings ears), Keira Knightley from Bend It Like Beckham and Geoffrey Rush (Shine).

This week Wednesday, to be precise DreamWorks brought us Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, an animated reworking of the Arabian Nights swashbuckler, featuring the voices of Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Then, on Nov. 14, comes Master and Commander, a big-screen version of Patrick O'Brian's nautical novels. Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society) directs, with Russell Crowe as the doughty sea dog Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany (A Knight's Tale, A Beautiful Mind) as his best friend, the surgeon-spy Stephen Maturin. OK, this is the British Navy in Napoleon's time, not piracy strictly speaking, but you still have men-'o-war, cutlasses, cannons and ar-de-ar-ars, so it's not much of a stretch.

For fans like me, who have water on the brain, 'tis like finding Blackbeard's treasure chest.

For decades, pirate movies were almost a genre unto themselves, but in the last quarter-century, they've become as scarce as real pieces-of-eight thanks largely to some truly ghastly cinematic shipwrecks.

Robert Shaw should've made a terrific pirate, judged by his turn as the shark-hunter Quint in Jaws. More than his leg proved wooden, alas, in Swashbucker (1976), which was to real swashbucklers as Yugos are to Mustangs.

Swashbuckler tried to be an old-fashioned romp. Mostly, though, it limped, and Peter Boyle's bad guy a corrupt governor with a taste for cross-dressing and bondage seemed more creepy than kinky.

At least it worked better than Pirates (1986), a big-budget flop which proved that A) Roman Polanski, for all his virtues, is not an action director and B) Walter Matthau, even with wig and fake beard, was not meant to be an action hero. The full-sized Spanish galleon, built especially for the Argentine production, got better reviews than its stars.

An even bigger nautical disaster was Cutthroat Island (1995), which tanked so badly that it contributed to the bankruptcy of Carolco. (A year later, the company sold its Wilmington studio to EUE Screen Gems.)

Geena Davis made a plausible-enough lady pirate. (She was married at the time to Cutthroat's director, Finnish-born action specialist Renny Harlin.) Frank Langella was more than adequate as the scurvy villain. On the other hand, Matthew Modine flunked badly as an action hero, and Mr. Harlin found that, while Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger could do fine without plots, pirate movies really need one.

For a long time, it seems, we couldn't even play pirates for laughs.

Yellowbeard (1983), written by Monty Python's Graham Chapman (who also played the title role) and Brit-wit Peter Cook, aimed to do for swashbucklers what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. Besides a few clever bits, alas, it turned out pretty lame. Especially sad were appearances by Marty Feldman, who died during production, and by 74-year-old James Mason, who looked sick and old on camera. (He would die within a year.)

Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991) had one intriguing idea: Dustin Hoffman playing Captain Hook (by his own admission) as William F. Buckley Jr. OK, maybe two intriguing ideas: There's also the pirate baseball game led by Bob Hoskins as Mr. Smee. Otherwise, however, the fantasy seemed bitter and cranky, strongly suggesting that the man who made E.T. and the Indiana Jones movies could no longer find his way back to Never-Never Land.

Maybe the problem is that we've been spoiled spoiled by two terrific stars, Errol Flynn and Robert Newton.

Maybe they weren't great actors. (When Peter O'Toole screamed "I'm not an actor I'm a movie star!" he was impersonating Errol Flynn.) Still, they made their mark.

The Tasmanian-born Flynn put the "swash" in "swashbuckler." (In case you ever wondered, "swash" is the sound a sword makes, clashing against a shield, while a "buckler" is a small shield.) Good looks, devilish charm and athletic build carried him far.

His American debut came in Captain Blood (1935), as a "good" pirate an English doctor, unjustly condemned to slavery in Jamaica, who escapes to sail the Spanish Main and woo the governor's daughter. Notable is his dueling scene with a French pirate, played by Basil Rathbone. (Best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Rathbone was the finest fencer in pre-war Hollywood, and he tutored his pal Errol on his moves.)

In The Sea Hawk (1940), he turned into a patriotic English sea dog, freeing his countrymen from Spanish prison ships and turning a little plunder for Good Queen Bess.

Even when his lifestyle caught up with him, and he developed a paunch and jowls, Mr. Flynn could still turn on the pirate charm, as in 1952's Against All Flags, when he played an English captain opposite Maureen O'Hara's pirate queen.

Robert Newton (1905-1956), was a classic British ham, but his over-the-top performance in Disney's Treasure Island (1950) almost defined the modern pirate stereotype ("Aye, Jimbo ") He was so popular, Disney had to bring him back in a sort-of sequel, Long John Silver (1954). Mr. Newton also played Edward Teach in a talk-heavy Blackbeard the Pirate (1952).

Some other quick pirate raids:

'The Pirates of Penzance' (1983): One of the best film versions of a Gilbert-and-Sullivan operetta, with Kevin Kline's self-obsessed Pirate King, with teeth that sparkle on command.

'The Princess Bride' (1987): With Cary Elwes as the Dread Pirate Roberts, who mostly wins by bluff and intimidation.

'Damn the Defiant' (1962): A solid Royal Navy yarn, with Alec Guinness in one of his better performances as a frigate captain who must quell a mutiny and cope with a rebellious popinjay of a lieutenant (Dirk Bogarde at his nastiest). When a dying Anthony Quayle declares, "No mutineers on this ship, Captain!" even Marine sergeants will weep.

'Hero's Island' (1962): A low-budget curiosity, written and directed by TV action specialist Leslie Stevens, this little feature is notable for two points: 1) It's on the coast of the "Carolina Colony" in the early 1700s, and 2) James Mason shows up as a stranger who turns out to be Major Stede Bonnet, the real-life "gentleman pirate."

As fan David Maxwell of Oak Island points out, the setting has to be the Brunswick County coast (where the real Stede Bonnet was eventually captured), although the film locations are decidedly rocky. (Perhaps it's near the cliffs outside Southport, later featured in I Know What You Did Last Summer.)

The plot is pure Shane: James Mason's character comes to the aid of a family of settlers who are being menaced by local fishermen. The cast is noteworthy, with Rip Torn, Warren Oates, Neville Brand and a young Harry Dean Stanton all appearing.

Ben Steelman: 343-2208
ben.steelman@starnewsonline.com

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