Published at: Feb. 6, 2003, 3:24 p.m. CST by staff
Harry here and I don't have any new information about the shooting of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, but I do have a ton of pics that I haven't seen. I have also been asked by quite a few readers to address the genre of Pirate films and in Talkbacks amid the insults I've seen people ponder loudly why anyone would give a shit about a Pirate movie.
If all you know about pirates you picked up from THE PRINCESS BRIDE, GOONIES and ICE PIRATES... and you know you hate pirate movies because you saw CUTTHROAT ISLAND and HOOK... well, I'm here to give you a bit more to consider.
The world of Black & White Film is where for many of the older crowd, the pirates ruled the silver screen. In many black buccaneer hearts Douglas Fairbanks is the pirate that cut the cloth and pattern that everyone else followed with THE BLACK PIRATE. This silent film is something rather odd, because... it is a Silent Film, but it is also in gorgeous 2-strip Technicolor, though for years the only way to see it was Black & White. The film is non-stop action and spectacle. Most of the dynamics that are hallmarks of Flynn were birthed by Fairbanks, the innovation that Flynn brought was... well I'll get to that in a bit. There is a spirit of derring do that Fairbanks has that is just thrilling. The hidden trampolines to give him that extra leap to his leaps - pre-wire fu, but a bit of the same magic. That feeling that Fairbanks was a god, able to do that which no mere mortal could hope to do. THE BLACK PIRATE is not only a wonderful pirate movie, but exemplary of the spectacle and majesty of the Silent film era. You owe yourself the joy this film will bring.
There were other silent Pirate films, but unfortunately most have gone the way of Nitrate... flames and dust... There's an incomplete copy of the original silent CAPTAIN BLOOD from 1924 in the Library of Congress, but I've never had a chance to see what there is to see.
For me, the next significant Pirate film was the 1934 TREASURE ISLAND with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver - a role he should have owned had Robert Newton not been genetically engineered for the part by Walt Disney in the fifties. This edition of TREASURE ISLAND is the best directed version of the story ever told, though not the most endearing. Wallace Beery is an actor that has been lost to most modern eyes, but his Silver and his Pancho Villa and his Champ... they're parts that will live forever in my memory. The direction by Victor Fleming is spot on and the score by Herbert Stothart... well, it just didn't lift your heart the way a good pirate score should. Check this film out, it might be your favorite TREASURE ISLAND, as it is for many.
Next came the age of Errol Flynn. With CAPTAIN BLOOD in 1935 several things happened to come together all at once to make a film of such startling majesty that Flynn instantly and for all time took the mantle of the swashbuckling god. As wonderful as Douglas Fairbanks was, Flynn changed ADVENTURE forever with CAPTAIN BLOOD. First, Flynn anchored his films with a sense of righteous indignation that set him far apart from the other heroes at the time. He was a scoundrel in all the loving ways that Han Solo said the word. When you love Harrison Ford in STAR WARS or EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - you're loving a slight reflection of Errol Flynn. His Peter Blood could be hurt, could suffer, could hold a grudge for all time. His Captain Blood understood the need for mutiny as a righteous and just act. His Pirate understood that when the system that puts men in chains and declares unjust wars and taxes, it is the time for men such as he to raise the skull and bones and take it back and live as free men upon the seven seas. His pirate had a code. He operated outside the prescribed system of rules and regulations, but he had an internal code of right and wrong that made him... Well righter than they were.
As easy as it can be to put all of CAPTAIN BLOOD upon Flynn's shoulders, there was more to the magic of that film than just Flynn. While this was far from Michael Curtiz's first film, he'd made 106 titles by that time, it was his first gigantic step forward. The cast he assembled was perfection. Putting Olivia de Havilland as the aristocratic femme that is at once repulsed and powerfully attracted to the rogue that was Flynn was brilliant. For you STAR WARS fans - this is where Lucas lifted Solo/Leia. The verbal quips between these two are classic. This is the exact type that spells perfection of romance in the Pirate film. The morally questionable handsome scoundrel that knows it'll be sweeter when it comes rather than when it is taken and the good girl that wants it bad, but knows she shouldn't. The sexual tension of the pirate films is a must. Absolutely necessary. Not in a cheesy way, not in a camp way, but in a smoldering way. In a sweaty we ain't got nothing better to do sheer animal lust and attraction sort of way.
The last major piece to the pirate puzzle is the pirate that is even worse than our bad guy. The pirate that doesn't have an internal set of morals. Basil Rathbone's Levasseur is the perfection of that. He is a Pirate, and to be a pirate means that nothing is sacred. Women are to be taken. Beer and wine are to be drunk. And lives are to be thrown away and treasure is to be stolen. A pirate is to be judged by his appetites and his conquests and Rathbone's 3 feet of steel means the world is his shucked oyster.
Then the icing. That bit that was put onto the film that made it lift into the hearts of men and women forever. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's arranging of Franz Liszt "Mazeppa" and "Berg-Symphonie"... well it became the music that sells this line of Flynn's, "Up the riggings, you monkeys! Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that's carrying us all to freedom!" The keys to a successful pirate film all lie in CAPTAIN BLOOD... it is the prototype. The perfect concoction that all other great pirate films flow from. These archetypes, these emotions, dynamics and swells of horns and strings... these are the feelings that put salt in the nostrils of theater patrons and the wind in their hair.
As you can probably tell, I love CAPTAIN BLOOD. But equally I love SEA HAWK and a film called THE BLACK SWAN. The SEA HAWK many that know CAPTAIN BLOOD and Errol Flynn know. In many ways it is a superior film. Curtiz had perfected his action beats, become more familiar with the cinematic prowess of both Flynn and Korngold and he did indeed weave a tale of majesty, derring and cool. However, THE BLACK SWAN brought something to the world of cinematic Pirates that has never truly been equaled. 3-Strip Technicolor. To watch THE BLACK SWAN on a giant stretched screen, is to see the colors of backlit ribbon candy move and delight. Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara are so great as to be miraculous. His swordsmanship is great, though lacking the careless flair and wonder of Flynn, there is an exactitude to his movements... a deadly purposefulness that makes his fighting more ruthless and less "fun" as Flynn's. With Flynn, he understood the danger and loved it, with Tyrone Power... he saw only the danger and the need to end it. You should also see this film for Anthony Quinn's wonderful Wogan. The BRUTE pirate. A key archetype that was needed for the genre. You should also see from this period Fredric March's amazing Jean Lafitte in THE BUCCANEER. For the best pirate comedy ever done, check out THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATE with Bob Hope... that's a great film!
At this point - the pirate film never again got better. Ever since this period we haven't struck the perfect film balances of the Flynn pirates or Tyrone Power's Jamie-Boy. That isn't to say there aren't worthwhile pirate movies after this period... Quite the contrary... they just weren't PERFECT! I love CAPTAIN KIDD with Charles Laughton, but it is a more dramatic undertaking, less adventurous. For PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN to succeed greatly, it needs to cast Orlando Bloom or Johnny Depp as an Adventure God. I'm a bit worried that they may have divided their Flynn or their Tyrone Power into TWO characters instead of keeping them as one... But we'll see.
When Walt Disney wanted to make his first dramatic live-action film, he decided to dust off TREASURE ISLAND and make it his first conquest. When he found Robert Newton to play Long John Silver, he found the greatest pirate of all time. Lovably dependably cutthroat. You would never get Long John Silver to reform, though you may think ya had. Robert Newton brought eye-rolling and all new syllables to "ARRRRRR" that became music to the ears that longed for the lapping sound of waves upon a beach. With Newton's Silver you knew he would kill everyone if given half a chance. He was a fair weather pirate, whose innate sense to always know from which direction the wind blew, assured him of coming out on top. Newton was so loved, that a sequel was made starring LONG JOHN SILVER - and I like that film too. And then Raoul Walsh cast Robert Newton as BLACKBEARD, THE PIRATE to great use. But this was where the pirate film became pitched as a child's adventure story. This is where it changed. Never mind that this film has a child killing someone, a scene that we'd never see today. Or the sheer wanton bloodthirsty nature of the pirates. Walt understood that these were the aspects that made us all love pirates. It was their AMORAL nature, that we all KNEW to be wrong. The problem today is that we all presume our kids haven't a clue about right or wrong so we better have the films constantly reassuring righteousness, or else they may become pirates... rather than just PLAYING PIRATES.
There's another pirate movie that came about in the Fifties that I dearly love called THE CRIMSON PIRATE which is a pirate action comedy starring Burt Lancaster and his trapeze partner Nick Cravat. This film is propelled by Burt Lancaster's dynamic physicality and charm. He's just so thrilled to do everything. So happy to fight, to leap, to jump, to do derring-do. This is a film that follows quite a few of the CAPTAIN BLOOD rules, only Eva Bartok's Consuelo never matches the delicious despicable loveable nature of Burt in the film. And while I love Torin Thatcher like a god I pay tribute to, he's never as threatening to Lancaster as he needed to be. You never doubt the outcome.
Then there's the pirate film, I wish I could go back in time and add $400,000 to the budget. THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER. Here's a film with a great cast of scoundrels... Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed and Kerwin Matthews... But there's no pirate ships, it is the novel approach of an entirely land-based Pirate Film. No planks to walk, no sails to fill. Yet even with those hallmarks of the genre taken away, the performers and the ruthless nature of Hammer Films still makes for a good film. The best pirate film of the HAMMER era for me is NIGHT CREATURES with Peter Cushing and Oliver reed, but again... it just doesn't quite have the scale it needed.
For my money the last straight good pirate film was SWASHBUCKLER - a film I'm convinced Leonard Maltin has never really seen, and that I would love to see on a big screen again. I love Robert Shaw and James Earl Jones and Peter Boyle in this film. The swordplay is wonderful and... it's got Quint as a Pirate! What the blue blazes do ya want in a film?
There are other pirate films, but these are the jewels. The ones that I'm hoping PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN joins. By adding the supernatural aspect to the film, they've added a twist that hasn't really been explored. There's been cursed pirate treasure, but we've never really seen the curse played through. The best pirate films have all been accessible to all ages, but that's because "Bloody" is the curse word of choice with "Scalawag" coming a close second for any pirate worth his salt.
These images give me hope that we have a genuine good pirate film on the way. Vincent Price never played a pirate (so far as my memory can conjure) so Geoffrey Rush will have to deliver in his place. And both Depp and Bloom.. they have the capability for derring-do. Watching Johnny in DON JUAN DEMARCO, well it certainly clues you in to the possibilities of his swashbuckling. All the key iconography of the pirate genre seems to be here... If Gore Verbinski can unsheathe this sucker and make it bleed and breath on the big screen, then I'm there. I have high hopes for this film. I truly do.