Pirates (1986)


(director/writer: Roman Polanski; screenwriters: Gerard Brach/John Brownjohn; cinematographer: Witold Sobocinski; editors: Herve de Luze/William Reynolds; music: Philippe Sarde; cast: Walter Matthau(Capt Thomas Bartholomew Red), Damien Thomas (Don Alfonso), Charlotte Lewis (Maria-Dolores), Cris Campion (The Frog), Olu Jacobs (Boumako), Richard Pearson (Padre), David Kelly (Surgeon), Ferdy Mayne (Capt. Linares). Anthony Peck (Spanish Officer), Bill Fraser (Governor); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Tarak Ben Ammar; Cannon; 1986-France/Tunisia-in English)

“An entertaining hokum adventure film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A major box office disappointment (it cost 30 million dollars and made less than a million) but, nevertheless, an entertaining hokum adventure film that had Tunisian backers when Hollywood wouldn’t bite on it. Not one of the better ones in the oeuvre of Roman Polanski (“Knife in the Water”/”Repulsive”/”Chinatown”), but the controversial director still brings something to the table in the form of quirky humor via calculated jabs at his critics and a sort of Monty Python comedy to the action scenes. Polanski co-writes with Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn.

The production values were grand. The full-scale replica of a Spanish galleon built just for the film and cost a king’s ransom. The ship was made in Malta, while the location of the shoot was in the Seychelles.

In the 17th century, while adrift at sea on a raft because of a shipwreck, the Hollywood cockney-accented black bearded, peg-legged buccaneer, Capt Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau), and the younger handsome French sailor Frog (Cris Campion) climb aboard a Spanish galleon, in the middle of a mutiny that’s being put down by Don Alfonso (Damien Thomas) and his evil officers. The castaways are placed in the brig and join another prisoner (Olu Jacobs). He tells Red that a priceless gold Aztec throne is being transported to the governor (Bill Fraser). While Red thinks of ways to steal the throne, Frog thinks of ways to romance the governor’s attractive 15-year-old niece, Dolores (Charlotte Lewis), who is aboard the ship.

Polanski’s hero is the greedy, perverse and piggish Matthau. The great character actor is at the top of his game, giving a colorful performance. Though paced too slow, the fight scenes are eye-popping and the spectacle is first-class. If you have a thing for the old-time Errol Flynn swashbucklers, this film might spoof them but it also makes you fondly remember them. An under-valued film, one that received a lot of hate from critics, but it has much you can enjoy about it–even if it couldn’t get Jack Nicholson for the lead as originally intended.