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The best pirate movies. May 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Concluding our pirate week theme here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, I’d like to share some of my all-time favorite pirate movies with you all. I love pirate movies—they’re fun, they’re swashbuckling, they’re lighthearted, and they’re predictable: the pirate of the title is always a bad boy with a heart of gold; the authorities are always villains; the pirate always wins; the pirate always gets the girl; and there are always a lot of unforgettable characters, colorful costumes and settings, and adventures. The ultimate mindless, entertaining, feel-good movies, the Jimmy Buffett of the movie genre. What more could anyone ask as summer kicks off?! So let’s look at a few that you simply have to see. And if I’ve left out any of your faves, please let me know: I want to see them, too!

Swashbuckler. This ’70s pirate romp stars four of my faves, Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones, Geoffrey Holder, and Beau Bridges, along with Genevieve Bujold as the love interest. It’s a bridge between the Errol Flynn/Tyrone Power pirate classics and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Robert Shaw is irresistible as “Red Ned” Lynch, and his cohorts give knockout performances as they battle the corrupt governer of Jamaica. My favorite pirate movie.

The Buccaneers. I should mention that Robert Shaw first played a dashing pirate, Captain Dan Tempest, on a TV series, “The Buccaneers.” Well worth the price of admission, especially if you get it as part of a super-cheap DVD collection called “The Swashbucklers.”

The Buccaneer. Let’s not confuse Robert Shaw’s pirate series with another great and often-overlooked film starring Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte. Lafitte teams up with Andrew Jackson (played by Charlton Heston) to save New Orleans from the British in this 1958 classic. Lafitte nobly acts in the interests of the youthful America during the Battle of New Orleans in the war of 1812, even though it seems that a British victory is inevitable. Claire Bloom plays Lafitte’s love interest, and for you trivia buffs, Lorne Green of Bonanza fame has a role as well. Brynner is great as the dashing pirate Lafitte, and the haunting bagpipes of the British army, sounding through a thick fog, make one of the most unforgettable moments in my entire film experience.

Captain Blood. This 1935 classic defined the pirate-movie genre. Based on the Rafael Sabatini novel, it presents the incredibly handsome pirate captain—played by the feature-by-feature-perfect Errol Flynn in his first starring film role—and his reluctant love interest, played by the lovely Olivia DeHavilland, also in her first starring role. The marvellous Basil Rathbone is Flynn’s nemesis, Captain Levasseur, and the setting, as for many later pirate films, including “Pirates of the Caribbean,” is Port Royal, Jamaica. All the elements are there—the noble pirate (in this case, an honorable doctor wrongly imprisoned and sold into slavery), the evil authorities, a lot of swashbuckling and swordfighting, and the good-hearted pirate ultimately triumphing, Robin Hood-like, over the black-hearted officials in power.   

The Black Swan. Tyrone Power is the dashing pirate, Captain Jamie Waring, and Maureen O’Hara his fiesty love interest in this 1942 classic. Supported by a splendid cast including George Sanders as the villainous Leach, Anthony Quinn as his brutish sidekick, and Laird Cregar as—of all people!—Captain Morgan, now Governor of Jamaica, this one has it all: swashbuckling, humor, romance, treachery, and triumph. It’s not quite “Captain Blood,” but “The Black Swan” is an entertaining pirate romp nonetheless.   

Live and Let Die. Okay, this is a James Bond movie, not a pirate movie per se. But I’m including it here because I love the Caribbean island setting, and if Geoffrey Holder’s performance as Baron Samadi isn’t as good as any pirate’s, I don’t know what is. “Live and Let Die,” “The Man with the Golden Gun,” “Goldfinger,” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” are my four favorite Bond movies. This one is a riotous romp with Roger Moore in his first Bond turn, injecting humor into a too-serious-for-words role, and Jane Seymour in her first film role. Another ’70s classic!  

An Awfully Big Adventure. Despite the title, this one isn’t really a pirate movie, either. (The title is taken from a quote from the inventor of Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Sir James Barrie.) But who could pass up an opportunity to see both Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant—two of my all-time faves—portray Captain Hook in the same film?!! Filmed before “Four Weddings and a Funeral” made Hugh Grant a leading man and fossilized him as a stammering, blinking, endearing love interest, in “An Awfully Big Adventure” he plays a corrupt, drunken, gay theater director, and his acting is nothing less than amazing. (Huh, you mean Hugh Grant can actually act, not just blink?! Why yes, Virginia, there really is a wonderful actor in there somewhere. Sadly not to appear again until he sends up Simon Cowell in “American Starz.”) Rickman is superb as always. To see these two play against type—Rickman as the romantic lead, Grant as the villain—would be delicious enough. But the real highlight is to watch their (very deliberately contrasted) performances as Hook. Marvelous!!! Alan Cox in a supporting role is every bit as good as he was playing the whining prep-school Watson in another all-time favorite, “Young Sherlock Holmes.” But be warned: Unlike every other movie in this list, this is not a feel-good film. Let the full Barrie quote, “To die will be an awfully big adventure,” serve as your warning.    

Pirates of the Caribbean series. Johnny Depp creates an unforgettable role in these films as Captain Jack Sparrow. His performance alone earns them star status in the pirate-film pantheon, but he also has a great backup crew in the form of the always great Geoffrey Rush as the rival Captain Barbossa, Bill Nighy as the awesome Davy Jones, and Naomi Harris as the wonderful voodoo priestess, Tia Dalma. The ludicrous pirate duo, Pintel and Ragetti, add the requisite dim-witted humor, aided by Captain Barbossa’s rather ominous monkey, Jack. The sometimes-cowardly Royal Governor of Jamaica, Governor Swann, is sympathetic, as is the rival suitor for the love interest’s hand, Captain James Norrington. And the villains, Lord Cutler Beckett, head of the East India Trading Company, and his assistant Mercer, are sufficiently loathesome. The real weakness of this series is the lovers, played by Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann. In the typical pirate movie, the dashing pirate captain is also the lover. With Johnny Depp stealing the films’ fire as Jack Sparrow, it leaves Orlando Bloom, with his classic Errol Flynn looks, with nothing to do. And though Keira does her best to be a spitfire, her anorexic appearance is distracting. I appreciate her acting, but when watching her, always find myself wondering if there isn’t some way to persuade her to eat.  

           ‘Til next time,





1. Cinj - May 24, 2008

I didn’t know James Earl Jones was in a pirate movie. I’ve never yet come across a bad movie that he was in.

I also love the Pirates of the Carribean series (although I have yet to see the last installment). Will doesn’t really add all that much in my opinion, although I know he was important in a couple of instances… I haven’t seen any of the others. My parents showed us all Disney or Sci Fi movies growing up.

James Earl Jones is great! As for Orlando Bloom’s character, I have to wonder if he wasn’t supposed to actually be the star of the “PotC” movies—before, of course, Johnny Depp did his Captain Jack thing…

2. walk2write - May 24, 2008

Have you seen Swiss Family Robinson? It features some fierce-looking pirates who invade the family’s island and get thwarted by some good old-fashioned Swiss ingenuity. Certain aspects of the movie do seem a bit (Swiss) cheesy, but it’s a good one to watch with the kids or grandkids. They’ll like the action, and you’ll like the positive portrayal of self-reliant kids and family unity.

Ha! That does sound like a good one. Thanks!

3. Rosie - September 8, 2008

With Johnny Depp stealing the films’ fire as Jack Sparrow, it leaves Orlando Bloom, with his classic Errol Flynn looks, with nothing to do.

Orlando Bloom had a lot to do. He had to play straight man for Depp, giving the movies a sense of balance. Which is a lot more difficult than portraying the more flamboyant Jack Sparrow.

You’re right, Rosie, it is a lot less rewarding—and surely a lot less fun!—to play the straight man to somebody else’s scene-stealing performance.

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