When one thinks of pirates today the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movies readily leap to mind, and that swashbuckling viewpoint on piracy is certainly nothing new; from Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow Hollywood has glamorized the pirate life, and today we will look back at a film that took light-hearted pirate antics to a whole new level with Disney’s Blackbeard’s Ghost.
Edward Teach aka Blackbeard was a notorious pirate who struck terror into the hearts of many a sailor, and he certainly sent more than his fair share of them to Davy Jones’s locker, but he was not the most bloodthirsty of pirates, he was actually known for not harming hostages, it was his combat visage of a black beard braided with lit cannon fuses that surely made some men think of a career change the moment they spotted his ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. So basically not a character one would expect to see in a family-friendly Disney movie. In 1965 American artist, illustrator and author Ben Stahl penned the novel Blackbeard’s Ghost which dealt with two young boys who accidentally conjure up the ghost of Blackbeard. If I had a dollar for every time that happened to me…
In Stahl’s book, Blackbeard was killed after failing to go legit, he got a pardon from the local Governor by offering to collect tolls from any ship trying to make port but when his toll collecting turned into basic pirating, and after much of his loot went into building his own tavern he named Boar’s Head Inn, he was cut down in a massive battle with the navy. The Governor awarded the tavern to the man responsible for Blackbeard’s defeat and it was passed down through the family over the years until it was about to be torn down to make way for a new gas station. Two friends sneak into the ruins of Boar’s Head Inn and find a secret room that contains a spellbook that unleashes the spirit of Blackbeard on the sleepy town of Godolphin. The boys didn’t use quite the right ingredients when they performed the spell and thus only they can see the ghost. The boys split their time hiding from the terrifying spectre and trying to stop him from murdering the descendants of Blackbeard’s enemies. None of this is in the Disney movie. The book reads like a Hardy Boys ghost story, with some nice historical context, while the movie it is “based” on is more of a series of wacky antics with the name Blackbeard attached.
Actor Dean Jones became a Disney staple with such classic films as That Darn Cat and The Love Bug and his appearance as the hero of Blackbeard’s Ghost is another of his roles where he plays that reasonable man caught up in some very unreasonable events. The movie follows Steve Walker (Dean Jones) as he arrives in the seaside town of Godolphin to take up the position of track coach for the college’s incredible inept track team; he meets the lovely Godolphin professor Jo Anne Baker (Suzanne Pleshette), who is manning the kissing booth for a charity bazaar to raise money to save Blackbeard’s Inn, and he ends up winning at auction an antique bed warmer that has the spell to resurrect Blackbeard hidden in its handle.
We learn that Blackbeard’s then-wife Aldetha was a witch, and for his philandering, she cursed him to an existence in limbo unless he can perform a good deed. This is very different from the book where Aldetha Stowecroft was a local witch but she was not Blackbeard’s wife, she had just befriended Blackbeard and his pirate crew while everyone else in the town shunned her. She simply ran the local inn and her spell was not with evil intent but with the hope that someday Blackbeard would return. So here we have Disney defaming witches again, it will be years before Disney tries to show them in a good light in such films as Maleficent. So the movie has your standard evil witch but then it also has your avuncular fun pirate in the form of Peter Ustinov’s Blackbeard.
What’s interesting is that Steve learned from the legend that Blackbeard (Peter Ustinov) had his wife burned at the stake but Blackbeard denies it, “I never put a taper to her, never! On a dull day, I may have keelhauled a wife or two or else walked one off the edge of the plank, but I never did it for spite. I might have done out of jest, to keep the spirit of my shipmates up.” Only someone with the acting calibre of Peter Ustinov could spout off such things and still manage to come across as goofily charming, and Dean Jones makes a great straight man. So the basic structure of the movie is that of a buddy comedy with Blackbeard trying to perform a good deed so as to escape limbo while Steve tries to get his track team ready for the big meet. It’s no surprise that the two goals will collide.
The movie’s plot does have two conflicts; first is the fact that Steve doesn’t want Blackbeard’s help as that would be cheating, and secondly, is the Daughters of the Buccaneers, elderly descendants of the pirate’s crew led by the great Elsa Lanchester, are trying to raise enough money to pay off the Inn’s mortgage and prevent local crime boss, Silky Seymour (Joby Baker), from building a casino where Blackbeard’s Inn stands. These plot threads meet when Blackbeard secretly takes the money earned at the charity auction and places it on a bet for the Godolphin track team to win the meet. Steve at first tries to prevent Blackbeard from “assisting” the team but his ethics get sidelined when he realizes that a “greater good” is at stake here. They win the meet, much to a surprised crowd, but Silky isn’t too keen to pay upon the wager.
Blackbeard’s Ghost is your standard Disney family fare with a wonderful collection of talented character actors in service of a script that if a little silly is at least a lot of fun. Much of the entertainment hinges on the chemistry between Dean Jones and Peter Ustinov and they do work of each other beautifully, and the love interest between Jones and Suzanne Pleshette is treated more like an annoyance to the plot than as something anybody really cares about.
We get great comic moments with Blackbeard trying to drive a car and gleefully interfering in the track meet, and Dean Jones makes for a perfect foil to such antics. There is nothing groundbreaking in this movie, but that isn’t surprising because at the time Disney Studios had a formula for their live-action comedies that they rarely strayed from. This is a movie I can easily recommend for people of all ages, though the special effects may be considered rather quaint by modern standards, and I do hope that someday Hollywood decides to remake this one and base it closer to the source material. With the popularity of films like Super 8 and the Netflix series Stranger Things a new Blackbeard’s Ghost adaptation, with kids in the starring roles, could do rather well.
Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968)
Disney’s go to director Robert Stevenson puts forth a harmless pirate tale that both parents and kids should enjoy. Peter Ustinov and Dean Jones both do stellar comic work here.