An Unscientific but Comprehensive Rant about Pirate Movies

Recently I wrote the following in an email to a friend:

I love bad pirate movies.  Like Swashbuckler, this insane pirate-esque film from the 70s which was one of Anjelica Huston's very first film credits in which she plays "Woman of Dark Visage" and though she appears quite frequently, inexplicably seductive or menacing or just there in vaguely period outfits looking beautiful, she has NO LINES AT ALL and the movie is fucking terrible but awesome.  Damn, pirate movies.  Anjelica also appeared, not many years later, in The Ice Pirates which takes the cheesy insanity of Swashbuckler, adds space and spaceships, and ups the ridiculous factor by about twenty-seven.  She has lines in it even though none of them, as per the plot mandates, make any sense.  But she does get to wield a sword and pilot a space-pirate-craft while wearing outfits that look like they were constructed out of wire hangers and leather straps.  The pirates steal ice, you see, (hence the title) because the universe has a water shortage and there's this eunuch assembly line dick-removal sequence and some kind of stuck-in-a-time-loop rapid-aging thing and Bruce Vilanch I think and also actual space herpes that run around the ship.  I am not making any of that up.  If you want to feel high without actually BEING high, find a copy of The Ice Pirates and hold onto your ass.”

It got me thinking about Hollywood’s incredibly spotty history with pirates.  Overall I tend to believe the only good pirate movie is a bad pirate movie and it’s difficult to find evidence to counter that belief.  Let’s look a highly unscientific and haphazardly-selected sampling of pirate movies made in the last few decades by way of example, shall we?

Here’s a fun fact: between the years of 1908 and 1920 Hollywood made three versions of Treasure Island and three films with the words ‘Pirate Gold’ in the title.  And we say remakes are out of control in modern times.  Let’s start the list with the 1934 version of Treasure Island which, for those counting at home, would be the fourth version since 1908.

First, know that I skipped dozens upon dozens of titles.  I tried only to pick the most obviously noteworthy of titles to draw attention to.

Second, between the years of 1908 and 2012 Hollywood made eleven versions of Treasure Island.  I’ll cut that number down to an even ten because of The Muppet Necessity Clause but even then that means there are ten non-animated versions of Treasure Island in existence in the annals of Hollywood and it’s too many.  If any studio executive says aloud “Hey, you know what we should remake? Treasure Island!” I pray to whatever Olympian gods rule entertainment and debauchery for the swift smiting of said executive because no land anywhere needs a dozen versions of the same damn film for any reason at all.

Third, there will be five Pirates of the Caribbean movies in the new millennium and I think I speak for everyone on the planet when I say “Johnny Depp, stop. Just please, please stop.”

Look at that highly unscientific and haphazardly-selected list again, I implore you.  In the 70s and early 80s the pirate films were of the calibre of Swashbuckler and The Ice Pirates.  They’re terrible films.  But they’re enjoyably, laughably, greatly terrible.  They’re like cult films.  So bad they’re good.  So awful they’re a joy.  Before and after that period of extreme cheesiness, pirate movies enjoyed the virtue of some big name talents.  Yul Brynner.  Peter Ustinov.  Orson Welles.  Martin Landau.  Robin Wright.  Charlton Heston.  Julia Roberts.  Pirate movies had a good run, no?  And they can’t all have been bad.  I can say with extremely prejudiced authority that The Princess Bride is one of the finest movies ever made, pirate or otherwise, and will be a classic forever.  And Hook was a fantastically entertaining film.  Hook gave us Rufio, people!  And clapping to save Tinkerbell.  Come on.  

But then came 1995 and Cutthroat Island.

Cutthroat Island is the film widely lauded as having been the death knell of the bankable pirate film in Hollywood.  For long while it held a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest box office flop of all time.  It bankrupted Carolco Pictures.  It quashed Geena Davis‘ fledgling action career and a goodly portion of her dramatic future as well.  It holds the dubious honor of being the film Oliver Reed was fired from after he got drunk in a bar and threatened to expose himself to Geena Davis.  Renny Harlin, the film’s director and then-husband of Davis, was nominated for the Golden Raspberry for Worst Director for Cutthroat Island.  (In Harlin’s defense, he lost to Paul Verhoeven for Showgirls.)  It’s not entirely accurate to say that Cutthroat Island destroyed Carolco Pictures, to be specific, since there are reports that the studio was troubled before production began but was contractually obligated to make the picture regardless.  It is fair to say that the incredible bomb that Cutthroat Island turned out to be did not stop Carolco’s spiral into bankruptcy.

I will say this: I saw Cutthroat Island in theatres and I didn’t hate it.  I mean it made a hell of a lot more sense narratively-speaking than The Ice Pirates and I thought Geena Davis was pretty enjoyable in it.  Is it a quality film?  Not at all, but half of what Hollywood produces is unadulterated shit so I struggle to understand quite what was so objectionable about Cutthroat Island that isn’t objectionable about every other turd released to massive fanfare in the years since.

At any rate, regardless of your own personal mileage on Cutthroat Island, in its aftermath Hollywood wouldn’t make any kind of major pirate movie until 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean.  And in all fairness to the pirate genre, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise started strong but has been declining in quality with each successive film.  In fact, since 1995’s Cutthroat Island debacle, a grand total of only nineteen pirate films have been made at all and of those one was a Muppet movie (exempted from debate by The Muppet Necessity Clause), three were porn films, and five have been part of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Thus it is not only fair to say that Cutthroat Island (aided and abetted by insistent repeat performances by Johnny Depp) rather tidily killed the pirate genre, but since the glory days of The Princess Bride, the only truly great pirate film is a bad pirate film.

I rest my case, such as it is.  Watch The Ice Pirates.  The greatest legal high you'll ever experience.


- Corinne Simpson