Pirate films have existed since the very early years of the 20th Century, from the silent film classic, The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks, to the rousing epic Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn, yet modern audiences are mostly familiar with the genre’s re-emergence in the early years of the 21st Century with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Today, we will look back at a film that did its best to destroy the genre, and that film would be Roman Polanski’s Pirates.
The movie opens with infamous English pirate Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau) and his ship’s teenage cabin boy Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion), nicknamed Frog, lost at sea on a cobbled-together raft. Now when one thinks of “movie pirates,” the names Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, and even Burt Lancaster – and now Johnny Depp – readily leap to mind, so the casting of Walter Matthau was certainly an interesting choice on the part of Polanski (Note: Polanski wanted Jack Nicholson for the part but the actor demanded too much money and later Michael Caine also declined), and Matthau does give us a performance that can certainly be credited as being very piratical, as he is gruff and unlikable as one would believe many a pirate to be, but if your lead actor is playing a rather disgusting human being, his co-star better be able to provide a character for the audience to root for. Sadly this was not the case. Actor Cris Campion was not quite up to the challenge and makes Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl seem scintillatingly charismatic by comparison.
To be fair this was Campion’s first movie, so one should not be too hard on him, and the script certainly did him no favors, but when you have two lead characters that vary between obnoxious and boring, your movie is going to have to contain some great action and good comedy to make up for the crippling lack of likability for the leads. This is a pirate movie, so we can at least look forward to some great swashbuckling action with dazzling sword play and cool sea battles, right? *sigh* Back in the thirties, Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone set the standard for cinematic swordplay in Captain Blood – director Michael Curtiz was a master of putting together thrilling action sequences, and the sea battles in Captain Blood are second to none – such is not the case with Polanski’s pirate movie — the fight scenes look like a haphazard mess of random extras flailing around at each other (maybe accidentally hitting one another) and aside from one broadside of canon fire at a bunch of longboats, we don’t even get a decent sea battle.
Question: Do you find rape jokes funny? Comedian Ricky Gervais has rightly stated that anything can be funny depending on the context, and apparently Polanski didn’t get that memo as this film has not one but two attempted rape scenes – with the second one being an attempt at slapstick comedy – and neither of them are funny in or out of any frame of context. Of course, pirates did a lot of raping and pillaging – this is a historical fact which cannot be disputed – but if you are making an adventure/comedy, that might be an aspect you should shy away from. You can certainly hint at that element of the pirate life, but its best to refrain from scenes where women are tossed over a bed with their dresses raised over their heads. That young Jean-Baptiste steps into save the honor of María-Dolores (Charlotte Lewis), a beautiful Spanish girl who finds herself in the pirate’s clutches, does not help the film’s case as it then tries to brook a romance between the two simply based on his not wanting to see her raped or rape her himself. I’m betting the list of romantic comedies that have a “meet cute” during a rape scene is rather small.
For those of you not in the know, the production of Pirates was delayed for years because Polanski was forced to flee the United States when he was charged with the drugging and raping of a 13 year old girl, and then in 2010, actress Charlotte Lewis came forward accusing Polanski of “predatory sexual conduct,” claiming that Polanski insisted that she sleep with him in return for casting her in Pirates. Now I know Polanski has given us some classic movies over the years, but seriously, how is he still getting work?
Horrible and distasteful aspects of the film’s production aside, the movie itself is also terrible on pretty much every other level – excepting the amazing costuming and set designs – but at the heart of the film’s problems is what, at a glance, seems to be an unfinished script that lacks focus and peters off towards the end, and the audience is left with no actual conclusion.
After Captain Red and Frog are rescued and locked in irons by a passing Spanish galleon, the two incite a mutiny – which they fail at – and they are sentenced to death. And how do they escape being hanged from the yardarm for such an act? Why they incite another mutiny, of course.
Onboard the galleon is also a golden throne belonging to an Aztec king – this is basically the film’s MacGuffin as it is quickly stolen and lost by Captain Red throughout the film – retrieved by the villainous Don Alfonso de la Torré (Damien Thomas), but then through trickery and torture (and the threatened rape of the girl), Red and Frog get the golden throne back only to lose it again when they get hung up on the harbor chain.
The movie ends with Captain Red leading his murderous pirates on a nighttime raid of the Spanish galleon – that starts out clever with the pirates following the galleon in a small sloop while dragging behind weighted barrels to lure the Spanish into thinking the ship is too slow to catch them – but at night, they cut the barrels loose and sneak up on the Spanish ship. Then things become completely idiotic when Captain Red fires one of his own deck guns into the hull of his own ship to help motivate his men into attacking the Spanish. Sure sinking your own ship will prevent your men from retreating – Cortez famously burned his ships to motivate his men – but firing off a canon will also alert the people on the ship that you were supposedly trying to sneak up on. Then to add insult to injury, we get Captain Red ordering Frog to help him – with the golden throne – instead of freeing the girl from the clutches of Don Alfonso and her forced marriage to some old Spanish dude. And the kid abandons the girl to her fate so he can help the pirate. What the hell?
Not only does the film end with our two leads sailing off alone on a small boat with their prize – having abandoned their own men on the burning and sinking Spanish Galleon – but the love interest of our “hero” is also left behind with the bad guys.
The only positive thing I can say about this movie is that The Neptune – a full scale fully functional replica of a Spanish galleon made for the film – looked simply spectacular, and it’s not at all surprising to learn that a quarter of the picture’s $40 million budget went into its construction. So just how well did Polanski’s Pirates do at the box office? Well it managed to make $1.64 million in the U.S. with a total of $6.3 million worldwide – which would have barely covered the cost of marketing the film – so Pirates was indeed a colossal bomb of epic proportions. This also makes Polanksi’s film one of the bigger nails in the coffin of the pirate movie genre – a coffin that would have its lid at least temporarily slammed shut after the release of Renny Harlin’s epic failure with Cutthroat Island in 1995 – only to be resurrected again in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.
Roman Polanski’s Pirates is a bad movie – and not the sole reason for the pirate movie vanishing for years – but it is in my opinion one of the most egregious examples of the genre, and is a film that is best forgotten other than as a cautionary footnote to future filmmakers. Since Disney has now driven their Pirate franchise into the shallows with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, we could find ourselves waiting another ten years for a good pirate movie.