Whatever happened to pirate movies? There was a time when pirate movies were everywhere. From the 20’s to the 50’s, we got gems like The Black Pirate, Captain Blood, The Black Swan and The Sea Hound. Not only have these films been well received, but there was a lot of money, star power and effort put into these films.
You had big name actors like Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Buster Crabb among many other stars of the time associated with these productions, and the public couldn’t get enough of them. They were practically the comic book movies of the early 20th century. But then the 60’s and 70’s rolled around. Pirate movies came out less frequently compared to the preceding decades, they started making less money, and everyone collectively decided to hang up their eyepatches, peg legs and talking parrots and call it a day. The pirate genre has been practically dead for the last couple of decades, sans the occasional miniseries or forgettable film. There have been attempts to revitalize the genre on multiple occasions. The most obvious example is Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, which was a risky financial gambit for Disney that did manage to give the genre a kick in the pants for a short while. But the genre was once again sunk into the seas of mediocrity and irrelevance once the 4th sequel hit, it was once again put on life support. The other attempt at pirate relevancy came out 8 years before Curse of the Black Pearl, and is the movie I’m talking about today, Cutthroat Island. But unlike Pirates of the Caribbean, Cutthroat Island failed spectacularly. It failed to bring pirates back to the forefront of cinema, killed the careers of Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, bombed at the box office and squashed any hope of the pirate movie making money in Hollywood until Disney took a crack at it. It’s not a great movie, is what I’m getting at.
The movie takes place in Jamaica in 1668, and is about a tough pirate lady named Morgan Adams (Geena Davis), who is searching for the lost treasure of Cutthroat Island, which was buried there by her legendary pirate grandfather. The map to the island is spilt into 3 pieces, one of them being tattooed on her dead father’s scalp, and the other 2 are in undisclosed locations. As Morgan searches for the maps and treasure with her pirate crew and latin speaking love interest William Shaw, (Matthew Modine), she is constantly tracked and thwarted by her evil uncle and pirate captain Dawg Morgan (Frank Langella) who is also looking for the treasure (I guess piracy runs in the family). The story from there is a bog standard pirate adventure, with swashbuckling action, romance, pirate bawdiness, a monkey sidekick and a climactic showdown between protagonist and antagonist in the name of fame and fortune. It is a film that offers everything and yet nothing.
Cutthroat Island’s agenda is very clear: To deliver a rip roaring pirate adventure reminiscent of the films from the golden age of cinema. An admirable goal, but not one that can be easily achieved as the film thinks. Everything about the film that makes up the pirate aesthetic feels either half baked or excessive. Take its humor for example. Pirate movies normally have a sly wit mixed with suggestive sexual innuendo in their dialogue. Cutthroat Island certainly has that, but the payoff to most of its jokes feel unfinished or clumsy. The first scene of the movie has Morgan at gunpoint by a soldier who she recently slept with. She coyly responds with “That won’t work. See, I took your balls.” And the musket balls from his gun are given to her by her monkey sidekick King George. The setup for the joke is okay, but the punch line is a bit awkward. Didn’t the monkey technically take his balls? Most of the movie’s jokes and innuendos are like that or even worse, and watching the film get so close to good comedic timing and constantly coming up short is frustrating.
I will admit that the production value for the film is quite lucrative and put to good use. With $98 million attached, it better be. There are some great shots of ships and islands, some pretty decent sets and there was clearly a lot of effort put into the action and stunts. Perhaps too much effort. The stunts feel overly produced and ridiculous on multiple occasions. The film is clearly paying homage to the wonderful stunt work of stars like Errol Flynn by going all out with the special effects and stunts. But Errol Flynn’s stunts are grounded in reality compared to some of the stunts in Cutthroat Island. The two main leads drop through multiple wooden panels from a 3 story building, crash through a series of windows and top it off with a forward somersault onto a moving cart below, get pulled off a balcony with a chain around their neck back first onto a wooden table and fall off a 50 foot cliff into rocky waters. And they always just get up and walk it off, with only a few scratches. Wile E. Coyote would need to sit down and take a breather after some of these stunts! The movie is constantly trying to impress you with how good everything looks and how well produced the stunts are, but all it’s doing is throwing the audiences suspension of disbelief out the window. Why should I worry about these characters and be invested in the action if they can just walk off grievous bodily injury like this? Bullets and swords can clearly pierce their flesh, but I’m surprised that they don’t ricochet off their skin like Superman.
I think one of the biggest disappointments about the movie is how much potential it had, but was ultimately wasted. It was the purest pirate flick we had in years and the opportunity to let loose and have fun with it was ripe. But all of the actors look like they’re showing up for a paycheck. The film had a great concept to play with, namely having a pirate movie with a leading lady as opposed to a man, a rarity in the genre, but nothing is done with it that puts the genre on its head. You could replace Geena Davis’ character with a male and I don’t think you’d have to change any major plot points, outside of some sex jokes and lines between Matthew Modine’s character, whose romantic relationship with Davis consists of the typical lusty snark we’ve all seen before in much better pirate movies. Cuththroat Island is just a below average pirate movie, and given the lavish budget and genre it’s associated with, that’s a real shame. Normally, we would put a movie like this at the back of our minds forever and move on, but the damage it did at the box office is still felt to this day. Adjusted for inflation, it lost about $147 million, eradicated its production company Carolco Pictures and became Exhibit A on why pirate movies are box office poison. I believe that last point to be untrue. I believe every genre has a chance to shine and resurface if given the right push. I love pirate movies, and I think that there is still a potential market for it. Pirates of the Caribbean proved that (for a while anyway). I think the main problem is Hollywood. They blame the audience for shifting public opinion on a genre, but they fail to recognize that perhaps the audience opinions wouldn’t sway if the movies were better. “Nope. Cutthroat Island did terribly, therefore nobody wants to see pirate movies! It couldn’t possibly be the movie’s fault!” Flawless logic. True, Cutthroat Island didn’t do the pirate movie genre any favors, but neither has Hollywood. Will pirate movies ever emerge from the briny depths of Davy Jones’s locker to entertain us like they used to? I hope so. Let’s just nix Johnny Depp and his Keith Richards schtick, okay? That milk carton has long since passed its expiration date.