Sabers and Hatchets

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean will undoubtedly endure as a popular franchise in spite of the sometimes painful flaws that make the contrived trilogy a journey that begins with promise, hits a high note in the mid-section, and withers into a brackish puddle of nonsense.

Pirates I, The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), ran anywhere from 20-45 mins. too long and just kept dragging characters into unending conflicts before the end credits finally rolled and wrapped up a 143 min. running time. In spite of its egotistical length and a bombastic score that borrowed from every Media Ventures sample library and bludgeoned audiences with thematic material all-too reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s action scores for Jerry Bruckheimer’s prior excesses, it still managed to be, well, fun, which is surprising, given the film’s roots stem from an amusement park ride.

Pirates II, Dead Man’s Chest (2006), was all-action, pitting the heroes and heroine in streams of deadly situations that were solved by crazy physical feats or strokes of extreme luck. Like an episode from an old serial, there was no beginning or end – it just motored ahead at full speed, and terminated with a cliffhanger that seemed almost impossible to solve. Fans either found the film loud, incoherent, and bloated with action-comedy set-pieces, or welcomed its fast tempo that managed to offset the 150 min. running time. The new characters were an amazing collection of humans and CGI enhancements, and the score managed to exploit the dynamic violin twitter, and distance itself from the prior avalanche of bombast.

Pirates III, At World’s End (2007), began with a song-enhanced public execution, and had us eager to see how Jack Sparrow managed to escape from the massive sea monster’s bowels… only to have us pondering what felt like a deleted nightmare montage from Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, left unfilmed because a brig stuck in the desert and crabs resembling rocks and multiple characters talking to each other was maybe deemed incoherent, if not immaterial to the plot.

And that’s about where the film’s true colours came through: talky with pseudo-myth explanations of what the second film’s mysterious legends all meant; scaled-down action scenes which themselves had little point beyond interrupting dull blatherings of pirates meeting, arguing, back-stabbing, meeting, cussing, and back-stabbing; and a revolving set of scenes that had characters playing pirate chess – moving from prisoner to freeman to hostage to barter victim to hero to prisoner through an endless, pointless series of looped sequences that failed to propel whatever story the writers had concocted to justify a third film, running almost 3 hours.

It made no sense, it ran too long, it wasn’t funny, the action was a pale and cheapened imitation of the kinetic battle scenes of Pirates II, and it was all waste of time, with a considerable talent pool (read: Chow Yun-Fat) left un-mined.

If the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy illustrated how the swashbuckling genre could be vivified after some relatively recent colossal failures – Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995) – it also demonstrated how one could kill it through excess.

The genre enjoyed a steady run during the forties with entries like The Black Swan (1942) taking over from the more serious epics – Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940) - headlined by Errol Flynn, although humour always played a role in balancing danger with saccharine romance.

When Burt Lancaster moved into the genre via The Crimson Pirate (1952), through his own grinning, gymnastic personality and Roland Kibbee’s giddy screenplay, formal conventions were spoofed – but without ridiculing some of their silliest aspects. Pirate chess still formed the backbone of the film – lured by treasure, captured by rebels, escape, encounter with buxom babe, capture by snotty royal army, some swordplay on deck and in the captain’s quarters, a big final battle, and maybe some singing – but the key genre changes refined the sidekick formula – two overt goofballs either creating mischief in unison, poking at each other’s sanity, or competing for the hot babe – and humour through choreographed action that tested the wit of the characters by placing them in impossibly absurd situations.

Lancaster and Nick Cravat established a formula that is amazingly contemporary because it’s been copied into other genres, and partly inspired Roman Polanski to make his own pirate movie, decades later.

Alongside the epic spectacle of sword and sandal films, pirates kind of popped up through a series of both serious films – High Wind in Jamaica (1965) – and fluff, and the most intriguing among the latter camp had Errol Flynn’s son Sean make his feature film debut in Son of Captain Blood (1962).

Recently released in France on DVD, Son of Captain Blood is not a good movie; the direction is bland and distanced, the music grating, the pacing a mess, and the finale’s borrowing from The Hurricane (1937) just plain preposterous. But it’s a definite curio, and while an example of how to make a limp swashbuckling epic on a shoestring, it’s also fascinating to see how the filmmakers tried to introduce Sean Flynn as a potential action hero by sliding him into the role of Peter Blood’s son, Robert.

His mom sees the sparkle and rebelliousness of his father in the boy, and lets Robert chance the sea on a merchant vessel, and for the first scenes of Flynn on the boat, it’s as though he was either coaxed or felt the need to grin and maintain a boyish comportment to evoke the spirit of father Errol, while the writers and director had voyaging women (mostly teens and youths) ogling and giggling from the sidelines in scenes repeated as if to reassure us that with patience, Sean and the film will deliver the romance and action and excitement redolent of dad’s classic films.

Like the sword and sandal epics, swashbuckling films ran out of steam, and sort of morphed into more exploitive and violent hybrids like Light at the Edge of the World (1971) before running dry, which is perhaps why Polanski may have felt it was time to return with a version that bridged the humour found in The Crimson Pirate with clichés audiences had come to enjoy, after watching the classics on TV and home video.

Pirates (1986) was a prestige production that disappeared very fast from theatres. I remember seeing it billed at Fairview Mall for maybe a week, and then kicking myself for not catching on the big screen; I had doubts about it being good, but it was a ‘scope pirate movie with Walter Matthau chewing the scenery, plus a music score by one of France’s top composers, Philippe Sarde.

Years later it popped up on an ugly panned and scanned VHS tape, and it was, when viewed back in 2002, a dud. A disaster. A mess.

Then came the Jack Sparrow trilogy, with Pirates III reeking of the worst excess hammered into the hull of an epic movie, and in revisiting Polanski’s dud, recently released in Spain in ‘scope transfer, it didn’t seem as indulgent. It’s not a good film, but one does catch glimpses of what Polanski was trying to achieve by crafting his own spin on the genre, and it had a plot; same old same old pirate chess, but it did make its way towards a finale that closed the film at just under 2 hours.

One also could see elements borrowed from Crimson Pirate and in particular, Richard Lester’s land-bound swashbuckling diptych, The Three Musketeers + The Four Musketeers, and appreciate some of the jabs at royal snobbery and religion. That isn’t to say Pirates is deep, but it has aged far better in the intervening years (6) since Disney’s franchise exhausted its good luck by failing to create a meaningful conclusion to its series.

In any event, instead of reviewing the over-reviewed Jack Sparrow films (though you could argue that was done 1000 words ago), we have reviews of The Crimson Pirate (1952), Son of Captain Blood (1962), and Pirates (1986) as examples of genre benders and fumbles that cost a pretty penny, or a smidge more than a ham sandwich.

Also of note this week as we catch-up & wrap up what’s left on the docket is Adam Green’s Hatchet (2006), a sometimes clever effort to rekindle the beloved elements of classic slasher films when latex and buckets of blood ruled before CGI turned murder & mayhem into outtakes from videogames. The unrated director’s cut includes more elastic trauma in the DVD from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment.

Also of note is Bluebeard, Edward Dmytryk’s extremely odd and uneven attempt to upgrade the famous tale of a wife-killer to a fascist, murky Germanic locale. Richard Burton’s accent drifts across a few cultural borders, but his beard is in fact blue, and the women deemed annoying and dispatched to the castle’s cooler are played by several gorgeous actresses, some best-known for their naughty exploitation work. The DVD from Maple / Lionsgate brings back into print one of Anchor’s Bay’s earliest DVD releases, in a clean albeit non-anamorphic transfer.


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