Peglegs and parrots, cutlasses and corsairs, yarrrrs and yardarms, pieces of eight and bottles of rum: They’re all part of a good solid pirate story, a tradition that’s been around pretty much as long as pirates themselves have. Sea raiders have been causes for fear and sources of storytelling inspiration for thousands of years, of course, from the plundering Vikings to the ancient Greek adventurers Jason and the Argonauts — and they haunt the seas in real life even today.
But when we think of the quintessential pirate, the image that springs to mind is the 18th-century buccaneer: People like Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Jean Lafitte and William Kidd all thrived in the Caribbean waters in the early days of America, and inspired a wealth of literature and film in the decades that followed.
In the early days of moviemaking through (roughly) the 1950s, pirate movies were reliably common — not as ubiquitous as the western, but the scurvy sea dogs held their own. Even after the genre fell out of favor, directors repeatedly tried to hoist the skull-and-crossbones flag again, but the results were usually leaky vessels and even disastrous shipwrecks like “Cutthroat Island” and “Treasure Planet.”
That’s one reason why few people expected “Pirates of the Caribbean” to be a hit, let alone the record-breaking smash that it is. But one reason that the trilogy has been successful is the way it embraces the best trappings of the genre while jettisoning the worst. The creators of the series clearly know their pirate-movie history, and it’s worth taking the time to check out some of the films that inspired them. So let’s set a course for adventure: Here are 12 pirate films worth their sea salt.
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“Treasure Island” (1950)
Just as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” created the modern concept of a vampire, no fictional work was more influential on our idea of what a pirate is than Robert Louis Stevenson’s quintessential 1850 novel “Treasure Island.” When the Walt Disney animation company decided it was time to move into live-action movies, they chose Stevenson’s story to start with, and the results were superb. Robert Newton in particular is terrific as Long John Silver, the one-legged pirate villain with a parrot perched on his shoulder, who schemes and outsmarts everyone around his to gets his hands on a chest of buried treasure. He chews the scenery something fierce, grinning maniacally and dripping pirate lingo from every sentence — even ending a prayer with “Arrrrrr-men” — and it’s tremendous fun.
Slideshow: Johnny Depp For an example of what happens when your lead pirate lacks Newton’s charisma, just check out Disney’s 1954 movie version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne’s tale of a high-tech pirate of the seas, which is a total snoozefest thanks to James Mason’s prissy turn as Captain Nemo. Newton later returned for a sequel and a TV series, but the original is the one to see.
“Peter Pan” (1953)
Disney’s next foray into the pirate world was this animated adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic novel. On the plus side, it’s full of rousing action and captures the spirit of Barrie’s original story pretty well, making points about the divide between childhood and adulthood without getting ham-handed about it, though its simple story might be most appealing to kids. On the minus side, “Pan” has aged very badly in places and makes frequent use of racial stereotyping, especially in the cringe-worthy musical number “What Makes The Red Man Red?” But Captain Hook remains one of Disney’s greatest villains — a foppish, comical boob who is just as much fun to hiss at as to laugh at.
“Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World” (2003)
“Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951)
Pirates? Well, technically no. But both these movies are set during the right time period, with plenty of bold nautical warfare and swashbuckling, and it doesn’t hurt at all that they’re based on the two most celebrated series of seafaring novels of the last century — Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin tales and C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books, respectively. “Master and Commander” finds Russell Crowe’s brash, boisterous Captain Jack Aubrey chasing a French privateer across the Pacific, while in “Hornblower,” Gregory Peck’s stern, stiff-backed title hero gets into a tangle in Latin America to help put the kibosh on Boney.
“Captain Blood” (1935)
“The Sea Hawk” (1940)
Director Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn supposedly hated each other’s guts, but they knew a good creative partnership when they saw it, making a dozen movies together. Flynn literally came out of nowhere to become a star in “Captain Blood,” in a role originally intended for another actor who didn’t show up when filming began. His loss, our gain: Flynn was a born action hero, and became one of the most popular actors of his time for playing roguish adventurers with hearts of gold. Flynn plays a reluctant pirate in “Captain Blood.” Despite the fearsome name, Peter Blood is actually a doctor who is arrested for opposing the tyrannous king of England and is sent to a Jamaican prison colony. There he stages a rebellion, steals a ship and turns rogue not for plunder, but because it’s more moral than working for the corrupt king’s governor.
Five years later, he joined Curtiz again for his finest film, “The Sea Hawk,” in which he plays a patriotic Englishman who turns pirate to fight for his country against the Spanish — a not-so-subtle attempt by the filmmakers to drum up American support for England against the Nazis, who were conquering Europe as the movie was being shot.
“The Black Pirate” (1926)
Silent-movie star Douglas Fairbanks co-wrote and produced this groundbreaking movie, one of the first to be shot in Technicolor. Playing the lead role as the mysterious Black Pirate, Fairbanks cuts a dashing figure, although the fact that his costume consists of a puffy black shirt and knee-length battle shorts looks a little ridiculous to modern eyes. But the real draw here is the stunt work, much of which was just as dangerous to film as it looks on screen. Fairbanks closes the movie with a terrific sword fighting scene, but watch out for the moment that seemingly every subsequent pirate movie has paid homage to since then, when he jumps from the top of a mast and slows his fall by cutting through a sail with his knife.
“Captain Kidd” (1945)
Some pirates are handsome, debonair and heroic — and some are scoundrels. Charles Laughton plays Captain Kidd as a scheming, treacherous social climber possibly more dangerous for his silver tongue as for his steel rapier. “I detest violence,” he tells one of his blackguard companions in a rare moment of candor, “but people have such an awkward habit of getting in my way.” Hoping to use a fortune in buried treasure to buy himself a lordship, Laughton kills off the pirates who know the treasure’s location one by one, taking pleasure in delivering acidulous mock eulogies for them in which he talks about how horrible they were and how much he despised them. Laughton clearly relishes his role, and rightfully so — as good as his performance is, it’s nearly the only thing that buoying up this low-budgeted, talky C-lister, which doesn’t have a sustained action scene until 20 minutes before the end. Still, Laughton is terrific, and he liked the role enough to return in the spoof “Abbott And Costello Meet Captain Kidd.”
“The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958)
Kerwin Mathews stars as the sailor of Arabic legend, who’s sent on a quest by an evil wizard after his beloved princess is bewitched and shrunk to doll size, and must fight giant birds, Cyclops and a magically animated skeleton. Though definitely a lesser film in terms of acting and script, “Sinbad” has two not-so-secret weapons that make it crackle with life: First, Bernard Hermann’s musical score, but most of all the special effects of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, who has one of his finest turns here, second perhaps only to 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts.” Though it might seem artificial in comparison with modern CGI, Harryhausen’s painstaking work was the gold standard for years, lending his creations genuine personality (which is more than can be said for some of the human actors here).
“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” (1983)
Originally intended as just a short sketch to be used in “Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life,” Terry Gilliam’s whimsically Kafkaesque, allegorical pirate tale “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” took on a life of its own, growing into a full-fledged short film as Gilliam was creating it. (Not the last time a Gilliam movie would go overboard during production, but in this case the resulting film was well worth it.) A group of elderly accountants suffering at the hands of their arrogant corporate bosses decide to rebel, and convert their office equipment into cutlasses and cannons and the building itself into a marauding vessel that raids larger, richer buildings.
It’s a funnier and more well-made movie than the other Python-related pirate film of 1983, the intermittently amusing but ultimately pointless parody “Yellowbeard,” which starred Graham Chapman alongside fellow Pythons Eric Idle and John Cleese; Mel Brooks veterans Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn; British comedy vets Peter Cook and Spike Milligan; and stoner poster boys Cheech and Chong. With all that talent involved, the failure of “Yellowbeard” is only more disappointing, but it’s still a must-see for Python diehards.
“Captain Hareblower” (1954)
A lot of people complained that the plotline in the second “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie was too complex and had too many characters to follow. Here’s the perfect antidote. Bugs Bunny is on a ship, right? And then the ship gets attacked by Yosemite Sam, who’s playing a pirate in this particular cartoon, right? And then Bugs and Sam spend the rest of the cartoon firing cannons at each other. What more does anyone need?
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