I like big boats and I cannot lie, and for that reason, flimsy as it is, we are today looking at some of the saltiest seamen, and seawomen committed to film as we examine piracy through the ages, and through the genres. We have stuffed this episode to the gunwales, which is defined here as seven films, during which we shall leave no timber unshivered, no hatch unbattened, and no deck unpooped. Tune in for our coverage of Captain Blood, Anne of the Indies, Roman Polanski’s Pirates, Muppets Treasure Island, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!, Captain Phillips, and Harlock: Space Pirate.
I suppose we could have filled up most of this episode with Errol Flynn movies, he having swashbuckled more than most. This 1935 film was his first major Hollywood outing.
His Doctor Peter Blood had put his swashbuckling days behind him, but is nonetheless unjustly swept up with rest of the traitors to the crown of King James II after having the temerity to treat one of them, and is shipped off to the West Indies, for a life in slavery.
In Port Royal, Jamaica, he catches the eye of Olivia de Havilland’s Arabella, daughter of the Lionel Atwill’s Colonel Bishop. She manoeuvres a position for Blood as physician to the colony’s governor, which affords him more freedom than other slaves but nothing like enough not to make a plan for complete freedom for him and his fellow slaves, and a life of piracy, soon enacted in the chaos of a Spanish attack.
After a successful career of brigandry, it’s an entanglement with Arabella that brings Blood back to the waters of Port Royal, and the changing political climate makes for some interesting opportunities for Blood and his crew.
I’m in a slightly unusual position with Captain Blood, oo-er, missus, in as much as despite watching this less than a week ago I can’t remember much in the way of details about it. I know I liked it well enough, but I don’t know if I can give you much in the way of a rationale for that, but here goes. Flynn is a charming lead and his chemistry with de Havilland would go on to be the backbone of a bunch of films. It’s an interesting story, and Michael Curtiz, later of Casablanca fame, keeps things moving along well enough despite this being one of the longer films on today’s roster.
I suppose in the context of this particular podcast I could take issue with it rather downplaying the whole “piracy” aspect of this pirate, taking I suppose an understandable focus on the “revenge against an unjust King and his lickspittles” angle that’s a less complex moral selling point, and one sure to please Glasgow Rangers fans the world over.
In short, an enjoyable start to proceedings.
Anne of the Indies
Anne Bonny, born in Ireland and raised in London and North Carolina, was one of the few female pirates sailing the high seas in the early 18th century. The little that is known of her story is interesting: stabbing a girl as a wild teenager; marrying young and being disowned by her father; meeting and falling in love with a pirate, who offered, more or less, to buy her from her husband. Then there’s initially being part of a crew disguised as a man; a giveaway pregnancy; stealing a ship; more piracy; being sentenced to death and that sentence being commuted because she was again pregnant. It’s good material for a film.
Sadly, 20th Century Fox, and writers Arthur Caesar and Philip Dunne, had the thought “lady pirate” and were more or less done. Bonny, here named Anne Providence, played by Jean Peters, is first encountered murdering captured opponents (using the traditional walking the plank execution method), though this is apparently OK because of some hand-waving “the British killed my brother” nonsense. One of the would-be murder victims, though, is far too pretty to kill, so he’s offered a place on the crew instead.
This pretty boy is Louis Jourdan’s Pierre François La Rochelle, formerly a captain in the French Navy, and until moments ago a prisoner of the British. Except that it’s all some unlikely ruse to get him on board Anne’s ship and betray her to the Royal Navy, who are holding his own ship hostage. Despite warnings from her crew and her mentor, Blackbeard (they were active at the same time, so they must have been in partnership, goes the film’s logic), that he is not to be trusted, she will not hear a word against him. Indeed, the only thing she wants against him is herself, maybe in that frilly, notably feminine and non-piratey dress that was flagged up early in the proceedings. And then very much not in it.
Anne finally discovers La Rochelle’s deceit, and worse, the fact that he has a wife. So she snaffles the wife, and takes her to be sold in a slave market in Venezuela, though one accountably run by Arabs. The innocent wife is saved from slavery, however, because she is already married, and that would be wrong. This idea of women as property of one kind or another, balanced against Captain Providence making her own destiny, could make for some compelling themes, but it’s clearly not something the film is interested in, and, anyway, Anne is driven throughout simply by lust for La Rochelle. And having been spurned and unable to sell his wife for profit, she maroons the couple to die on a sandbar, before having a change of heart so she can be killed off as a hero. Somehow.
It seems that over the years people have tried to read a lot into Jacque Tourneur’s Anne of the Indies, seeking deep meaning and commentary, but it’s not there. It’s a competently-enough produced action film, and Jean Peters is at least mildly engaging in the title role, but like its main character it’s very shallow, and there’s little reason to recommend it, especially not the actual bear-wrestling, which is unpleasant to watch, or the laughably bad treasure map used by La Rochelle to entice Anne and lure her to destruction. If there’s a stand-out it’s Herbert Marshall as the ship’s doctor, whose conscience, drowned under decades of grog, finally begins to assert itself, and attempts to give Providence some moral guidance, but the whole film swashes insufficient buckles, and it’s not worth bothering with.
Roman Polanski’s Pirates
There is of course, one thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Roman Polanski, and it’s certainly not “pirates”. Unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor aside, and whether you want to put that to one side is a decision I shall leave up to you, is it worth the moral headache to view Pirates?
But seeing as we’re a film review podcast I suppose we’d as well review it. Set in 1659, we are introduced to Walter Matthau’s notorious pirate Captain Red and his loyal sidekick, Cris Campion’s Jean-Baptiste, or “Frog”, adrift on a raft and contemplating cannibalism. Before that line is crossed they are rescued by a homeward bound Spanish treasure galleon, the Neptune, and thrown immediately in the brig.
There Red starts to plot to force a mutiny on the Neptune, and claim their prize treasure, an Aztec throne of gold for himself. On the other side of the ship are Damien Thomas’ Don Alfonso de la Torré, taking over as Captain after the death of the original one, who’s trying to seduce a passenger, Charlotte Lewis’ Maria-Dolores, the niece of Maracaibo’s governor, who Frog has also taken quite a shine to.
And, well, so it goes, with mutinies and counter-mutinies, ransoming and a single minded pursuit of shiny furniture that will ultimately lead to Red’s undoing.
If we’re being positive, it’s nice to see pirates being, well, unscrupulous brigands, not the more Robin Hood-esque freedom fighters that they’re often massaged into in films looking for more sympathy. This, being a nominal comedy, is happy to make Red the butt of the joke.
It’s a shame the jokes aren’t actually funny in any way, especially the ill-advised slapstick routines that are just embarrassing. Walter Matthau gives it his all, with some enthusiastic delivery of lines that don’t really deserve a lot of enthusiasm.
It’s not all bad, for example, the production design is entirely impeccable, from the costuming to the full sized replica galleon built for the film at tremendous cost, which does look great. However, that aside, I don’t think I’ve a great deal positive to say about this film. It’s aiming at a younger crowd, I suppose, but it seems that the way they interpreted that aim is to make it all of the jokes a bit too silly for a film that’s threatening to rape characters this often. A bit of a clash of styles and a bit of a mess.
Quite the disappointment. Don’t bother with this one.
Muppets Treasure Island
To the southwest, pirate galleons! To the southeast, multi-armed Zanzibanian shark women and their exploding wigs of death! To the northwest, dirty dishes! (How does she do that?)
And to the northeast, then (?), an irreverent Muppet take on probably the most famous pirate story of all, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. For those unfamiliar with the story, or who need a quick refresher, an old pirate called Billy Bones is staying at an inn when he is delivered “the black spot”, a signal of coming reckoning by his pirate-y former chums. This more or less frightens him to death, but not before he passes his treasure map, marked with a X, on to young Jim Hawkins. Young master Hawkins takes the map to a rich man named Trelawney, who agrees to make a voyage to find the treasure on its distant island, hiring Captain Smollett to command his ship, the Hispaniola, and, because Trelawney is, um, shall we say, gullible, also hiring an entire crew of pirates, amongst whom is a cook by the name of Long John Silver… It’ll be a pirate ship before you can say “pieces of eight”.
As with The Muppet Christmas Carol a few years before this, the story is pretty close to the source material, just with certain felt favourites in major roles – Captain Smollett is a familiar shade of green, Squire Trelawney notably ursine, the ship’s figurehead have a complaining sort of quality, and Ben Gunn is now Benjamina Gunn, and she’s not someone you’d want to anger – and with added songs and lots of fourth-wall breaking meta comments. I’ve never cared for most of the rather schmaltzy songs Kermit gets lumbered with in most of the Muppets’ big screen outings, but that’s about it for negatives for me, and here it’s more than balanced out by the likes of Shiver My Timbers and Cabin Fever.
Like The Muppet Christmas Carol, it’s great, and simply a whole lot of fun. Really, is there anything else you need to know? It’s funny, silly, and the few humans involved – Billy Connolly, Kevin Bishop, Jennifer Saunders and, especially, a great Tim Curry – are clearly having a good time, too, which just keeps everything really enjoyable. Boom-Sha-Kal-a-Kal! Boom-Sha-Kal-a-Kal!
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!
I very much approve of this title, which gives a very accurate description of the contents of the film, so much so that no further review is required. Five stars, says Paul Ross.
Oh, alright. This Aardman Animations outing, also known by the vastly inferior title of The Pirates! Band of Misfits, based on a series of kids books that I am unfamiliar with, introduces us to Hugh Grant’s the Pirate Captain and his band of ham-loving piracy enthusiasts, who seem like nice people but awful pirates. Hence their almost complete lack of plunderbooty, meaning Pirate Captain will once again not achieve his dream of being named pirate of the year and gaining the approval of Brian Blessed’s Pirate King.
A pep talk from the ship’s number two, voiced by Tim from the The Office, sees Pirate Captain resolve to redouble their efforts, and it seems like their luck might turn around from another failure when they board David Tennant’s young Charles Darwin’s ship, who recognises that the Pirate Captain’s beloved “parrot” is in fact a Dodo, perhaps the last in the world. He says they could achieve great fame and prizes if only they could go back to London to present Polly at the Royal Society.
The only downside, of course, would be heading into, well, London, where Imelda Staunton’s Queen Victoria sits, festering in her legendary hatred of pirates. Will the Pirates’ disguise as Scientists hold up? Does Queen Victoria have ulterior culinary motives for the dodo? Will there be wild adventures involving baking soda and vinegar? The answers can only be found by watching this film. Or reading the Wikipedia recap, I suppose, but I’d recommend that you watch the film instead, because it is really quite good indeed.
The most important thing to say about this, I suppose, is that it’s very funny, and consistently entertaining. I roundly applaud the script and performances. I should also add that it looks wonderful too. As what we done said with Chicken Run a few weeks ago, it’s clearly recognisable as an Aardman production, but at the same time has a markedly different feel to their other work just as much as Chicken Run felt distinct from Wallace & Gromit. I think it’s mainly static pictures that emphasise the visual similarities.
And I suppose with that full throated recommendation already given there’s not much more that I need to say about The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!, at least until the invention of a time machine that will allow me to go back and shout at people, myself particularly, for not watching this enough back on its release, an oversight which has doomed us to a world where no sequels were made. A great shame, as I would have loved to see The Pirates! in an Adventure with Communists. Such is life.
Real-life pirates again, here, and the only contemporary ones we’ll encounter in this episode, with this film based on the true story (the usual assumed provisos here) of the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama and the taking hostage of its captain, Richard Phillips, by Somali pirates in 2009.
Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, the film begins with Captain Phillips saying goodbye to his wife and setting off for his next trip as a merchant marine in command of a container ship on a route around the Horn of Africa, and then his preparations aboard ship for its departure, particularly the anti-piracy defences. Meanwhile, a group of Somalis working for a warlord assemble a crew to attempt to hijack a ship.
Naturally, these two things soon collide, and after initially having been fought off, the pirates return and board the ship, where Phillips’ well-drilled crew ensure things don’t go to plan for the Somalis, and they leave with wounds, a little cash and, unfortunately for him, Captain Phillips, who must hope that the US Navy can rescue him.
I thought when I last watched this film, back in the long-ago before times of 2014, that the pirates were given short shrift as far as backstory goes, but I felt that less this time, though I would certainly have liked the hints that are given about a degree of lack of choice in their career to have been expounded upon: beyond any wider-ranging, deeper causes such as globalisation, colonialism and income inequality, knowing whether the pirates are pirates because they are violent thieves or because they’ll be killed if they don’t do it hugely changes the dynamics and the way the audience feels about them, but they’re at least not one-dimensional villains here.
Talking of the pirates, while Paul Greengrass directs established actors aboard the crew of the Alabama, notably Tom Hanks in the title role, he cast amateur Somali actors as the pirates. That’s a strange, often self-congratulatory, thing that happens every now and again that, actually, as Craig observed when we talked about this film back in our theOneliner days, tends to show that anyone can do this job. It can backfire, of course, but for me it largely works here, particularly Barkhad Abdi, who has gone on to parts in Eye in the Sky and Blade Runner 2049 since, as Abduwali Muse, the leader of the pirate group, who brings a nervous energy and caginess to the role that works well with a character who is dangerous but also scared and, in some ways, out of his depth.
Why Tom Hanks persists on trying to do accents (here Massachusetts) when they are very much not a strength of his continues to baffle me, particularly when it’s irrelevant to either the character or setting, at least as portrayed in this fictionalised version of the events, but it’s a great performance from him otherwise, with his final scene being particularly effective, and a huge journey from the competent, stoic mariner of the film’s first half.
Greengrass’s direction gradually builds the tension, with a marked lack of sensationalism in the camera work or the editing, by keeping the audience involved intimately with the characters, allowing the performances, locations and the increasing stakes to increase the pressure, with a lengthy scene in the claustrophobic confines of a lifeboat particularly effective, before a quietly powerful final scene sees Phillips’ ordeal really hit him. It’s a very solid thriller, and definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it before.
Harlock: Space Pirate
We head off to the far future in our final 3D anime adventure, with Harlock: Space Pirate, or those words in different orders depending on the part fo the world you are in. Somehow I’ve saddled myself with trying to recap this, which was an oversight on my part to be honest. I intend to give you more of the broad strokes here, because frankly I’m not all that sure that the film knows its own details, or perhaps just didn’t translate them properly.
In the distant future, mankind has spread across the galaxy but found no aliens of note, which it claims to be a major part of the species’ collective ennui, although in the same sentence it also introduces a race of space elves that might or might not be composed of dark matter, which might or might not be actual magic. Hard science, or understandable, this film is not.
With galaxy-wide resources dwindling, humanity wants to return to the idyllic Mother Earth, however the ruling Gaia Sanction disagrees, declaring Earth a sacred planet forbidden to humanity, from their Space Hammer inspired spire palace. One man seeks to undo this, broadly speaking, that being Space Pirate Captain Harlock and his gang of space pirates, and their almost comically over-sized, skull-laden space super dreadnaught, who have been stealing futurenukes to blow up time. Don’t ask.
Admiral Isora of the Gaia Sanction, unable to stop Harlock through conventional methods instead hatches a plan to embed his younger brother Yama on Harlock’s crew. Despite seeing through this ruse instantly, it seems to make no difference to Harlock, perhaps because he’s too busy muttering about fate and destiny and all that to care, like the massive edgelord that he is.
Telling you much more than that is a bit of a waste of time, because even that little recap thus far is not so much recontextualised as completely ret-conned approximately every ten minutes, with increasingly zany soap opera histrionics ratcheted up, particularly between Isora and Yama, until it reaches an end where I think someone was firing Jupiter at someone else? To be honest, I’d completely given up trying to follow any of this after the first hour, so I’m not 100% sure.
I think the politest thing I can say about Harlock is that it is entirely preposterous, which is why I’m a little surprised to hear myself say that I didn’t entirely hate it, despite its apparent best efforts. That’s the power of completely gratuitous space battles, I suppose.
That aside, and not all that far to a side at that, there’s not a lot to recommend in Harlock, apart perhaps from a couple of cool character designs, namely Harlock and, well, Harlock’s ship, which probably has more personality than the supposed protagonist. The rest of the film’s characters and animation are incredibly inconsistent – there’s some scenes and designs that clearly have a lot of time and effort put into them, like that aforementioned spire palace thing, and then there’s scenes that look like they’re using in-game footage from a Playstation 2 era Final Fantasy game.
What I’m trying to say is that even with me cutting this more slack that I’d care to justify, this is still a baffling experience, but in a bad way that’s very hard to care about. Give it a wide berth. Me hearties.
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