Way back in the mid-eighties, Cannon Films was in the midst of a huge push to court internationally respected directors and give them carte blanche to make a film. Any film, it often seemed. The industry trades were filled with Cannon's hugely optimistic and boastful ads and proclamations, yet as several of these completed projects reached theatre screens, critics savaged the films, and they kind of disappeared… maybe popping up on badly panned & scanned VHS tapes and TV airings, but pale venues to see the films close to their theatrical exhibition. The longer European cut of Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, for example, did enjoy a widescreen laserdisc release, but Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear and Roman Polanski's Pirates were trapped in lousy full frame transfers.
Cannon's Go-Go boys were naïve in believing the rebellious Godard would bring money into the company's coffers and some prestige, but their decision to offer Hooper and Polanski film deals wasn't reckless; the former was just coming off the massive popularity of Poltergeist, and the latter had been idling after making his critically acclaimed Tess (1979).
In short, Polanski seemed set for a return after a long hiatus from film directing, but instead of a stately historical drama, noir thriller, or straight genre entry, Polanski opted to make a comedy, and like his sex comedy What? (1972) and the vampire spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), his film divided fans and critics, and seems to be regarded as either a misunderstood mini-masterpiece, or a bloated, unfunny mess by a writer/director who should've learned a decade earlier that broad comedy is not his forte.
What's surprising about Pirates is how it's aged better over the past years, and that may be due not to the success of Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Disney's self-conscious action/comedy franchise, but how less of an indulgent, unfocused mess Pirates clearly is, given the Disney films started out big, got bigger, and then ran out of story to justify almost 9 hours of pirate chess – that ridiculous convention involving characters constantly shifting alliances, and being in a constant state of rebellion or arrest.
Polanski and co-writer Gerard Brach tried to evoke the silliness of Richard Lester's Musketeers diptych – even casting a key member of Lester's stock company, lovable Roy Kinnear, as a bean-counting pirate bemoaning the recent downturn in hostage payments – and while their efforts lacked Lester's perfect timing for knocks, grunts, tumbles, and winsome grimaces capping acts of tumbling buffoonery, Pirates has its share of low jabs at religious piety and aristocratic snobbery, and Polanski gave Walter Matthau several meters to create his own broad version of a wisened pirate with a drive for acquiring a manageable stash of golden treasure.
To match Matthau's giddy performance, there's Damien Thomas, best-known for playing a loathsome Spanish priest in the mega-TV miniseries Shogun (1980). With his refined diction and pompous costumes and pouffant wig, Thomas is the perfect foe everyone tries to beat, and his characterization bears great similarities to Rochefort (played by Christopher Lee), the equally slimy but more blue-collar villain in Lester's Musketeers films who always managed to avoid embarrassment and incarceration throughout his ongoing efforts to torment and grind into dust the titular heroes.
Lester also didn't shy away from violence in the Musketeers' duels, but Polanski goes a bit farther in trying to balance nuanced buffoonery with people seen stabbed, garroted, and axed; there's no gore, but ax-wielding is one of those elements that raises a film's main aim towards entertaining adults, whereas Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy stuck to a more neutral PG realm.
Polanski also pays homage – or rather steals a gag – from Burt Lancaster's Crimson Pirate (1952), arguable a pioneering genre spoof that established a buddy formula using action and humour. The director borrows a one-time gag of a peg-legged pirate getting stuck in the grating of a hatch cover, and applies it several times when Matthau attempts to climb from a life raft onto the Spanish brig, and later during two battle scenes on the ship.
Is Pirates a misunderstood masterpiece? Heck no, but it seems far more contemporary than when it first debuted, distinguished by its own band of better-defined characters and plotting; even at just under two hours, there's less pirate chess going on, and its filmmakers seemed more concerned in creating an epic comedy instead of an action blockbuster, as Renny Harlin tried with his dull revisionist actioner Cutthroat Island (1995).
Charlotte Lewis has nothing to do beyond sing and look mildly upset in her few scenes, and she's the weakest character among the lot. Just as grating is Philippe Sarde, who beats his main theme over our heads, though his love theme is lyrical and quite exquisite.
Polanski's use of rear projection is something that either came from budget and production issues as the film went through a long film schedule (Charlotte Lewis' aging is evident in some shots), or was a deliberate evocation of old conventions, including some lighting schemes that has a beachfront pirate enclave lit up by a carbon arc moon, positioned just above a blue night cyclorama.
Released on DVD throughout Europe , this Spanish DVD sports an anamorphic widescreen transfer, with optional English and Spanish dub tracks in Dolby 2.0. (The Spanish track is actually quite scratchy, and lacks the cleaner definition of the English track.) Spanish subtitles pop up with the English audio, but flipping back to the audio menu and selecting ‘no subtitles' knocks them out.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan