There’s more to pirate movies than Johnny Depp poncing about in a bandana. James Oliver dons his eye-patch to celebrate the very best films about pirates.
Q. Why are pirates called "pirates"?
A. Because they arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre.
Anyway, they’ve made another of those Pirates of the Caribbean films, which may or not strike you as a good thing. It does, however bring with it at least one inestimable benefit: it gives us the opportunity to cast an eye over the movies that inspired it and prove that there’s much more to movie piracy than Johnny Depp poncing about in a bandana.
Pirates seem to bring out the best in filmmakers; the results are invariably well crafted, pacy adventures that can seem damn near perfect on a wet Sunday afternoon. Here we cast a reflective eye over the genre, with ten reasons to be glad you never grew up...
Let’s cast off with the film that bought Errol Flynn, one of the quintessential pirate performers, to the attention of the world. These days, he’s better remembered for his rumbustious private life than his films—he was as badly behaved as any buccaneer—but that’s a shame because he really was one of the great movie stars.
He’s ideal here as doctor-turned-pirate Captain Thomas Blood (long story: crimes he didn’t commit etc.), swashing his buckle against all and sundry. Scholars of piracy will want to track down Flynn’s later Against All Flags because it’s ace. Everyone else should start with this movie and see just how fantastic Flynn was before those wicked, wicked ways took their toll.
The Spanish Main
Image via Alchetron
As Errol Flynn proved, not every pirate has to be ‘orrible and beardy. Some of them are charming and handsome, like the one who calls himself The Barracuda and snipes at Spanish shipping. He’s played by Paul Henreid and, once again, he was driven to piracy not by simple greed but by external injustice.
Specifically, he was driven to piracy by the villain of the piece, Don Alvarado. As portrayed by Walter Slezak, he's the main reason to see the film: it’s a glorious panto-villain sized bit of acting from one of Hollywood’s most reliable second bananas. And it goes to show what every pirate fan knows, that villainy is much more fun than virtue.
Proving that, actually, you can’t have too much of a good thing, Walter Slezak shows up again here in very nearly the same role (although his character is called Don Pedro in this film). This time, though, he has a bit more competition for the spotlight since the leads are Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.
Despite the title, there isn’t actually a tremendous amount of piracy here: Kelly is a travelling player who merely pretends to be a notorious cutthroat to woo the pirate-besotted Garland, with the real buccaneer only showing up late in the day. Still, it's more than boisterous enough to pass muster, with a musical number that can only be described as "toe-tapping" and dance routines that—well, see for yourself:
Image via Medium
Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic yarn is the most famous tale of pirates, and this is surely the definitive adaptation. It’s all in the casting: there's never been an anti-hero like Robert Newton as Long John Silver. Barnstorming Bob is on top form here as the cook-turned-mutineer, a performance that launched a thousand impersonations and influenced just about every cinematic pirate thereafter. So next time International Talk Like A Pirate Day rolls around, you know who to thank.
Anne of the Indies
Nautical naughtiness isn’t just for the boys! One of the most notorious of pirates was a woman, Anne Bonny by name, and this film is a fictionalised version of her exploits. Don’t go mistaking this film for an early depiction of gender equality though: it's as sceptical of girls being pirates as any 11-year-old boy whose younger sister wants to join in his game.
For all Captain Providence (as Mistress Bonny is here rechristened) might play at being tough, it turns out that she’s as susceptible to soppy stuff as any other lass: her judgement is clouded when she gets the hots for handsome captive Louis Jourdan and she gets positively murderous when she discovers he’s already spoken for.
If you can get beyond this—embrace your inner 11-year-old boy, as it were—there is much fun to be had with the breezy action and clever plotting. If you can’t, best give it a miss.
The Crimson Pirate
Image via Moviezine
Believe it or not, there are some people—warped, damaged souls—who don’t like pirate films! I know! It’s scarcely credible, isn’t it! How should one react if one should meet one of these unfortunates?
The obvious solution is to show them The Crimson Pirate. Burt Lancaster is the rouge rogue of the title and it’s a tad more lighthearted than most pirate films, gently mocking the customs and traditions of the form without ever stinting on the action and acrobatics. It should be sufficiently stirring to convert even the doughtiest pirate-sceptic, so if it doesn’t convert ‘em some sort of medical intervention is obviously called for.
A bit of a cheat, this, since it concerns an ex-pirate: a pirate no longer on active service. Peter Cushing plays the eponymous Clegg, who has retired from the high seas to work incognito as a parish priest on the Kent coast, keeping his hand in with a spot of light Brandy smuggling (it being the 18th century; they didn’t have duty free then).
It was made by the venerable Hammer films, one of a number of very fine swashbucklers that the studio churned out in their prime. These have been somewhat overshadowed by their more famous monster movies but were, as Captain Clegg demonstrates to fine effect, the studio’s most consistent, and enjoyable, achievements.
The Devil-Ship Pirates
So good were Hammer’s swashbucklers that it’s worth including another. Here the pirate ship (captained by Sir Christopher Lee) is a damaged survivor of the Spanish Armada, which lands on the English coast for repairs. The crew convince the evidently gullible villagers they meet that the Armada was a whopping success, actually, and they’re, like, the masters now. But can they escape before the locals twig that they’re lying through their dodgy, piratical teeth?
If you want more Hammer piracy (and chances are you will after watching The Devil-Ship Pirates), you are urged towards the very-nearly-as-splendid The Pirates of Blood River, not least because Sir Christopher does just about the worst French accent you ever did hear.
Image via Secrets of the city
Piracy is a worldwide phenomenon, and one not restricted to distant history either: we would be remiss if our selection failed to recognise this.
By rights, that means the next title should be Captain Phillips, which addresses the topical issue of Somali pirates. Unfortunately, Captain Phillips is really dull—Tom Hanks gets captured by some pirates, then bobs about in a life raft for an hour and a half. Even worse, the Somali pirates have no sense of style—there’s nary an eye patch or peg leg to be seen. Come on, chaps! Put some effort into it! Your piracy can only be improved by modelling yourselves on Robert Newton.
So let us nod to global piracy by venturing from the West Indies in the 17th century to the South China sea in the late 19th, for this superior Jackie Chan film. Our hero plays coast guard ‘Dragon’ Ma, charged with sorting out the pirate problem that blights Hong Kong. It owes more to Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton than Errol Flynn but no pirate fan can feel short-changed by the high-wire hijinks on display here: if only Captain Phillips had closed with hilarious outtakes of its star sustaining life-threatening injuries playing under the end credits.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
If ever there was a case of diminishing returns, it is the Pirates of the Caribbean series, in which initial goodwill was quickly squandered on films that became repetitive and ever lazier. That, though, should not blind us to how good the original was, a film that introduced new generations to the boundless delights of piracy.
It’s true that many of its best gags were plundered from earlier movies (most especially The Crimson Pirate), but they’re delivered with such panache that it’s hard to object, especially when it stirs Johnny Depp’s addled Cap’n Jack Sparrow into the mix; even if he’s been subsequently overexposed, it’s hard not to fall for him here. It's as entertaining as any film on this list, and not even the awful follow-ups can take away from that.
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