Nether Regions 05.31.11: Roman Polanski's Pirates
Posted by Chad Webb on 05.31.2011
From one end of the pirate spectrum to the other, this week I set sail with Roman Polanski's big-budget flop from 1986 starring Walter Matthau. Check out how this adventure has aged after more than two decades...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
ROMAN POLANSKI'S PIRATES
Starring: Walter Matthau, Cris Campion, and Damien Thomas Directed By: Roman Polanski Written By: Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach, and John Brownjohn Running Time: 117 minutes Release Date: July 18, 1986 Missing Since: 1998 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Very Rare
Recently the Criterion Collection announced Roman Polanski's 1966 feature Cul-de-Sac would be added to their library. His debut Knife in the Water, also Repulsion, along with his short films are already available through Criterion. And of course Chinatown has its own special edition release. One Polanski title that will never receive the royal treatment on DVD, if it ever sees the light of day at all, is the 1986 disaster Pirates. It is as much a failure in quality as it was financially.
Walter Matthau and Roman Polanski on the set of Pirates
Originally Polanski started writing it after Chinatown became a major success. It was intended to be an homage to the Errol Flynn swashbuckling epics that he fondly remembered as a child. Initially he was eyeing Jack Nicholson for the role of Captain Red and himself as the sidekick, but Nicholson wanted too much money so that fell through. He went on to direct Tess after his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family, but it would seven years until he tackled another project, which turned out to be Pirates.
By the way, I called the movie "Roman Polanski's Pirates" above because if you attempt to search for it using simply "Pirates," Polanski's film will likely be the last title that pops up. If you search via his name or by year you should not have any trouble.
The bumbling picture begins with Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red (Matthau) and his first mate Frog, also known as Jean-Baptiste, (Cris Campion) drifting at sea on a raft. Both have not had any sustenance for a long time, and Red is about to crack by trying to munch on Frog. He consumes a small fish Frog catches, hook and all. O….k? Just then a ship is spotted, and it turns out to be a Spanish Galleon. Once aboard, they are captured and forced into slavery. Red almost immediately tries to instigate a mutiny after he learns that the ship is carrying a valuable Aztec gold throne. It also contains María-Dolores de la Jenya de la Calde (Charlotte Lewis), whom Frog falls in love with. She is the daughter of the governor of a Spanish colony. And so it goes that Captain Red and the Spanish crew steal the throne back and forth, each hoping to own the riches.
Pirates had an estimated budget of $40 million, and it grossed approximately $1.65 million in the US. With that happening in 1986, and then Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island going down as the biggest box office flop of all-time in 1995, one can understand why the pirate genre was struggling to stay afloat for a couple decades before Disney and Johnny Depp saved it from extinction. Nevertheless, Pirates was nominated for an Oscar, Best Costumes by Anthony Powell, which I suppose was deserved. Some of the outfits are gorgeous, although Walter Matthau drowns in his heavy garb, but I digress.
Charlotte Lewis stars as aristocrat Maria-Dolores
There are two parties responsible for how atrocious Pirates is: Walter Matthau and Roman Polanski. How Polanski and company went from wanting Nicholson to agreeing on Matthau is one of cinema's greatest mysteries. Unleashing one of the worst and most inconsistent accents these ears have ever heard, Matthau is severely miscast as Captain Red, and almost unrecognizable under the beard and scraggly hair. His "grizzled" qualities were intentional, but Matthau is hardly believable as a notorious pirate and seems lost. He has a wooden leg and shouts all the stereotypical slogans, but it is impossible to comprehend his deranged utterances at times. Matthau has been superb in serious thrillers (Charley Varrick , Hopscotch), and of course his reputation in the realm of comedy is iconic, but combining the two was a horrible idea. Matthau is given the task of being a convincing action star and a spot-on funny man, and when Polanski mixes them for this unruly romp, both collapse under the weight of the sogginess.
Cris Campion is meant to be the dashing hero as Frog, but his primary line of dialogue is obeying Captain Red, hence he is extremely underdeveloped. Compare it to Philip and Syrena in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, whose relationship was meant to add the romantic elements to the picture, but since their screen time is usually brief and the characters are regarded as secondary to Matthau's ridiculous antics, we care little about their outcome or fate. Red and Frog are nowhere close to the side-splitting duo Polanski is aiming for. In one scene, they are ordered to eat a rat, which was the cause of the mutiny. Like every other gag in Pirates, this one falls flat. It's neither disgusting enough nor amusing enough to induce a reaction, so we sit with a dead stare.
Charlotte Lewis makes her debut and is the sole female presence as Maria-Dolores. She serves little purpose other than as a love interest for Frog and the occasional voice of reason. She famously made accusations that Polanski raped her when she was 16 years-old, prior to the filming of Pirates. She also admitted to being Polanski's girlfriend after the film. She would go on to star alongside Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child, but this flop could not have boosted the careers of her or Campion as they preferred. Damien Thomas is an ordinary villain as Don Alfonso, but he and the rest of the Spanish officers look and dress exactly the same, so he is far from distinctive or indelible. We are asked to laugh at him and take him seriously, and neither occurs because Thomas's portrayal isn't very forceful and the character is not adequately fleshed out. Olu Jacobs is handed some of the goofier slapstick moments as the cook Boomako, who was punished for allegedly poisoning the former Captain. He is dressed as a nun one minute and is wrestling with a snake the next. It's hard not to feel sorry for him. Roy Kinnear is somewhat comical as an innkeeper who owes money to Captain Red, and their exchange over doubloons would have been better had it not been poorly shot in the dark.
The real star of Pirates is the glorious Neptune ship, which apparently assumed half of the film's aforementioned budget. It is detailed and marvelous to admire, but Polanski never truly accentuates its splendor like he could have, relegating the plot to the humorless personalities rather than stepping back and concentrating on a more epically scaled approach. Before I ever saw this film, my wife and I went on a cruise in the Mediterranean Sea for our honeymoon. One of the stops was Genoa, Italy, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Low and behold, there on the docks, lay the Neptune, available for tours for only 5 Euro. As a movie buff, this excited me, so I can assure you the ship is quite the sight to behold, and my tour of it was ten times as interesting as the film it was featured in.
The Neptune ship's current home in Genoa, Italy
Polanski has fared better with comedy in The Fearless Vampire Killers, one of his most underrated efforts, but by casting himself and mixing the laughs with a horror premise, it was not as daunting to achieve the blend. Plus, that was dabbed with wit, whereas the viewer is bludgeoned with it for this journey. Some have described Pirates as a bloated version of his early short, Two Men and a Wardrobe, which was terrific, but then again, did not strive to crosscut genres. In Pirates, we're never positive if Polanski is saluting old swashbucklers, mocking them, or creating a different beast entirely. The jokes have a Monty Python attitude towards them (minus the sharp timing), but that's not really the style for Matthau in this situation. Furthermore, the broad slapstick is not effective because Polanski integrates the majority of it with action and it ends up being a bothersome interruption. Matthau constantly gets his wooden leg stuck. Har har. Pirates love to get drunk on rum. Yay. The physical shtick that is not combined with swordplay, gunfire, or chases is just idiotic in nature. To punish the Spanish in one segment, Captain Red makes them do the Dead Man's Nag, which has two officers putting two others on their shoulders and fighting while onlookers giggle.
Pirates took so long to finally get off the ground because no one signed on as Producer until a rich Tunisian man (Tarak Ben Ammar) entered the fray. After waiting so many years to stand at the helm of a film, it seems Polanski was just rusty…in a big way. The obscure Pirates ranks with the worst on his resume, including The Tenant and The Ninth Gate. Witold Sobocinski's cinematography has some exquisite sequences, as they filmed this in the picturesque Malta and Tunisia (two more locations I visited on my trip), but the shots are mediocre overall, and Philippe Sarde's score would have been more fulfilling as rousing music with superior acting and battle choreography.
The aggravating talky areas of the film seem pointless since much of the conversation is not funny, hard to decipher, or fluff since the desire to keep the throne is the main plot point. The action could have been forgivable had the transitional scenes between those set pieces not been undeniably weak and tiring. There is also a lot of rape-based humor, which, knowing the crimes Polanski committed is uncomfortable to say the least. As a comedic exploration of the pirate mythos, an exuberant adventure on the high-seas, or a tribute to the classic buccaneer tales that came before it, Pirates bombs in every conceivable manner. I'm not sure there will be a spike in interest for a future DVD release of Pirates, but I can't say as I will lose any sleep over it to be honest. I would only recommend it if you have seen every other Polanski film and are a completist at heart. Otherwise, stay away unless you're strolling through Genoa, Italy.