And speaking of pirates, I have to confess that I, like Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing, am looking forward to Pirates of the Carribean. It’s vaguely disconcerting that movies are now being based on circa-1967 Disneyworld rides (although I suppose it can’t be worse than The Country Bears. It’s more disturbing that the movie will be a product of Jerry Bruckenheimer, a man who seems to have legally changed his first name to "schlockmeister". But I can’t help it; I’m a sucker for pirate movies, and I doubt there will ever be that many new ones. But why? What could be more cinematic than a tale of good, evil, and swashbuckling on the high seas? My extremely unofficial count gives one real pirate movie in last few years (Cutthroat Island, directed by Renny Harlin, for whom "schlockmeister" would be a compliment) and three exceedingly marginal possibilities (Steven Spielberg’s wretched Hook, and Muppet Treasure Island and Treasure Planet, both of which avoid my scorn here since I have not seen them). I probably missed some. But why haven’t there been more? As Tampa Bay and Oakland (and Pittsburgh) all know, pirates are iconic. When you see a guy in a parrot suit at a sporting even, you know that you’re playing the Pirates or the Buccaneers, who knows, the Corsairs or the Privateers or the Swashbuckling Errol Flynns.
Shooting films on water is expensive. The Sea Hawk required the use of what was then the largest sound stage in Hollywood. But Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, and we all know how that notorious bomb turned out. Maybe Renny Harlin killed the pirate movie for a decade along with Gina Davis’ career. But there seems to be a perennial interest in movies about merry men or knights. Alan Moore, who has cheerfully been pillaging centuries of pulp fiction for his and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, turns up such relatively obscure piratic types as Captain Clegg (who appeared, played by The Prisoner‘s Patrick McGoohan, in a 1962 Disney film) and Captain Slaughterboard, a children’s book character created by Mervyn Peake. Of course, Captain Blood and Long John Silver make an appearance a dizzying montage Moore wrote that incorporates basically every aquatic-based fictional character not owned by a lawsuit-friendly corporation. You couldn’t leave them out; Blood was the star of perhaps the best swashbuckler ever made (Douglas Fairbanks may disagree), and Long John is literature’s definitive pirate. The illustrations from Treasure Island did so much to shape the popular imagination; every pirate needs a peg-leg!
But perhaps Treasure Island has been pigeonholed as a children’s movie. Perhaps Captain Blood is a bit hokey for modern audiences. What about a real pirate? Captain Morgan sacked Panama, but nobody will want to watch a movie about the political struggles of a man who sold out his followers to become lieutenant governor of Jamaica, even if they did name premium spiced rum after him. Sir Francis Drake would be better served by a movie about his defeat of the Armada. The burning matches in his hair would give Edward Teach some fabulous visuals, but people might confuse Blackbeard with Bluebeard.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read (along with poor Calico Jack Rackham, whose career just doesn’t get the same slavish attention as Bonny and Read) would make for an excellent movie. It’s got everything! Two cross-dressing girls, two burly pirates, shocking gender revelations, suggestions of lesbianism, deadly sword fights, thrilling naval battles, a dramatic trial and one of history’s snappiest recorded exit lines: "If you had fought like a man, they wouldn’t be hanging you like a dog." If it weren’t duly attested by courtroom documents and contemporary sources, nobody would believe it. Rackham was hanged and Read died in prison, but Bonny disappeared out of the history books. Did her wealthy family buy her freedom? Did she catch the fever that killed Read? Did she reform? We may never have evidence, but the failures of eighteenth century recordkeeping mean that Jerry Bruckheimer can give it a happy ending.