A brief history of pirate movies
By Devin D. O’Leary
For decades, pop critics, both professional and casual, have debated the relative merits of pirates versus ninjas. Both have their strengths. But until Hollywood gets on the ball and makes a blockbuster ninja movie (no, Beverly Hills Ninja doesn’t count), I’m afraid pirates must come out on top of the “who’s coolest” quarrel.
With Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest hitting theaters this weekend, now seems like a fine time to examine the long and (occasionally) proud history of freebooters in film, corsairs in cinema and buccaneers at the box office.
1908—Famed film pioneer D.W. Griffith (still seven years away from making Birth of a Nation) directs what seems to be the world’s first pirate movie, “The Pirate’s Gold.” This 16-minute silent film, which may now be lost to the sands of time, features future director/producer/King of Comedy Mack Sennett as “a pirate.”
1912—The very first version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is attempted as a short. Future versions appear in 1918, 1920, 1934, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1985, 1990, 1994, 1997 and 1999.
1913—Blanche Sweet (who starred in 162 films between 1909 and 1930) plays the lead in the 17-minute “Pirate Gold.” Scotsman William Kidd becomes the first real-life pirate to be immortalized in film, thanks to the adventure short “Captain Kidd” starring David Hartford, who also appears in “The Buccaneers” and “Under the Black Flag” (as Captain Morgan) the same year. All four shorts are believed to be lost.
1918—The Sea Panther, which appears to be a feature, features William Desmond as a gentleman pirate rescued from mutineers by his lady love. No prints have survived.
1920—George B. Seitz directs and stars in the 10-part adventure comedy serial Pirate Gold. The plot seems to concern a plucky young girl and a treasure map, but the film appears to be lost.
1922—Captain Kidd becomes a 15-episode serial starring stuntman-turned-actor Eddie Polo. Although complete prints are lost, several episodes do survive in the Library of Congress.
1924—Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckling novels The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood are turned into feature films. Both will soon be remade with Errol Flynn in the lead roles. Also, we get the very first adaptation of Peter Pan with longtime screen villain Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook.
1926—Matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks adds “pirate” to his swashbuckling résumé alongside Zorro, Robin Hood and D’Artagnan with The Black Pirate.
1932—Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper and Lionel Barrymore star in what most consider the definitive version of Treasure Island.
1934—The Our Gang short “Mama’s Little Pirate” is released. Decades later, much of it is recycled in The Goonies.
1934—Bit player Errol Flynn replaces star Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) in a Warner Brothers remake of Captain Blood. A superstar is born.
1938—Epic filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille recruits his usual “cast of thousands” for The Buccaneer, the first version of Jean Lafitte’s Revolutionary adventures.
1940—Errol Flynn returns in The Sea Hawk. Some sequences are in Sepiatone, making this the first (sort of) color pirate film.
1942—Raphael Sabatini, king of the pirate novel, gets another adaptation with The Black Swan. Hulking Laird Cregar plays Captain Henry Morgan, who’s now governor of Jamaica and battling nasty pirates (oh, irony!). Filmed in Technicolor.
1944—RKO makes the comedy adventure The Princess and the Pirate, featuring Virgina Mayo as the princess and Bob Hope as the pirate (sort of).
1945—Charles Laughton, no stranger to the sea after Mutiny on the Bounty and Jamaica Inn, stars in a third version of Captain Kidd.
1948—Vincente Minelli directs wife Judy Garland and dancer Fred Astaire in the musical adventure The Pirate, which—for better or worse—introduces singing pirates to the silver screen.
1949—The Mutineers, Pirates of Capri and The Barbary Pirate make it another banner year for buccaneers.
1950—Treasure Island starring Robert Newton becomes the first live-action Disney movie. It is broadcast on the “Disneyland” television show in two parts.
1952—While The Golden Hawk, The Crimson Pirate and Blackbeard the Pirate battle it out for color-coordinated supremacy on the high seas, Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd.
1953—Disney releases its beloved animated version of Peter Pan with Hans Conried as the voice of Captain Hook.
1954—Disney solidifes its committment to pirates by bringing back hammy Robert Newton for Long John Silver (aka Return to Treasure Island), a sequel to the 1950 film.
1958—Yul Brynner stars in a remake of the 1938 film The Buccaneer. While not terribly well-regarded, it is fun to see Charlton Heston full of patriotic fervor as Gen. Andrew Jackson.
1961—Mr. Universe 1950 Steve Reeves, who spent his entire career in Italy playing Hercules and other assorted European musclemen, flexes his pecs in Morgan the Pirate. Although it’s set in the Caribbean, everybody around Reeves is suspiciously Italian-looking.
1962—Ricardo Montalban and Vincent Price try to over-act one another in the Italian-made Rage of the Buccaneers.
1968—Disney releases the supernatural comedy Blackbeard’s Ghost. Pirates are now the exclusive property of kiddie flicks and cheesy Italian movies.
1971—You can add porno to the list. Grade-Z sexploitation king Barry Mahon (The Beast That Killed Women, Nudes on Tiger Reef, The Diary of Knockers McCalla) directs Love Pirate.
1980—Peter Benchley’s gory novel, The Island, becomes a thriller starring Michael Caine. Caine, a reporter, has his kid stolen by degenerate cannibal pirates living in the Bermuda Triangle. Unintentionally hilarious and a huge flop.
1982—Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance is transformed into the notoriously dated musical The Pirate Movie starring Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol. Endless shots of Atkins’ shirtless torso make this an enduring cult hit at gay discotheques.
1983—Piracy continues its sad slide when Cheech and Chong make the ridiculous period farce Yellowbeard, which also manages to waste the comedic talents of Peter Cook, Marty Feldman, Madeline Khan and most of Monty Python.
1985—For about a week in June, The Goonies makes pirates cool for kids. Maybe you still have the Godfather’s Pizza glasses.
1986—The budget of Roman Polanski’s notorious Pirates (a Tunisian/French coproduction) balloons to $40 million. It grosses $1,641,825, instituting the “Pirate Curse,” which states that pirate movies are box-office poison.
1991—Steven Spielberg’s Hook reimagines Peter Pan for a new generation. Dustin Hoffman does play Captain Hook, but the sight of a middle-aged Robin Williams in green tights is enough to frighten off audiences.
1995—Red-hot director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) tries to break the pirate curse with his epic Cutthroat Island. He dumps $92 million into the production. It makes $10 million. The film bankrupts its producer Carolco and gets listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest loss of money for a film company ever.
1996—Disney buys out the Muppet franchise and produces Muppet Treasure Island, the umpteenth version of Stevenson’s classic tale.
2002—Disney next tries a sci-fi version of the tale in Treasure Planet. The animated film loses an estimated $100 millon for the company.
2003—Undaunted, Disney releases Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, based on its popular theme park ride. The film goes on to gross more than $400 million worldwide, making it the most popular pirate film ever made.
2005—Pirates, reportedly the most expensive porn movie ever shot, wins 29 adult film awards. It proves so popular that the film’s producers re-edit the feature, removing the hardcore sex and making it the first adult film to receive an R rating from the MPAA.
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