“Timbers well and truly shivered.”
Strikingly ahead of its time, this 1951 film looks for a while like it will meander down a well-trod path – woman pirate falls for handsome hero – but ends up going in a completely different direction, and is all the better for it. Captain Providence is the scourge of the seas, the most notorious pirate out there, infamous for a ruthless approach to any British captives. While the latest batch of victims are being made to walk the plank, Frenchman Pierre François La Rochelle (Jourdan), found in chains below decks is spared: he’s startled to discover Providence is actually a woman, Anne (Peters), and accepts her offer to join the crew. He tells her of buried treasure, pointing to which he has half a map; the other half is owned by a resident in the British stronghold of Port Royal, and he’s set ashore to go negotiate for it, while Anne’s ship, Sheba Queen, waits off-shore. Except, it has all been a massive ruse, with La Rochelle actually working for the British, after they captured his vessel. Hell hath no fury like a woman pirate scorned: Anne kidnaps Pierre’s wife, with the intent of selling her into white slavery. Can he get her back?
What’s particularly effective here is the second part of the film, after Anne realizes she has been duped. Conventional plotting would have her abandoning her own career and continuing to chase after Pierre. Not here: her response is basically, “No, fuck you“, doubling down with the intent of extracting personal vengeance, by kidnapping his wife and selling her into slavery. Though as one review points out, “The fact that there were not many – indeed, probably not any – Arabs wandering around what is now Venezuela in the 1710s trading in fallen European women isn’t allowed to get in the way of this storyline.” This Anne, who lets her quest for revenge consume her over the latter half, is a fascinating character, even if, naturally, morality has to win out in the end. Her conscience, personified throughout by the ship’s doctor (Marshall), must awaken, allowing for a finale offering redemption through heroic sacrifice. But considering when this was made, it’s arguably even more transgressive for its time than the ending of Thelma & Louise.
The other outstanding feature is Peters, who handles herself particularly well, giving the impression of knowing what she’s doing. This is particularly the case in a (semi-)friendly bit of swordplay between Anne and her piratical mentor, Blackbeard (Gomez). You’re not expecting much, since the former is a heroine in a 1950’s movie and the latter looks to have the range and mobility of a sofa. But it’s really good: it might have been undercranked, but it still looks lightning-fast and genuinely skilled, doing a good job of establishing Anne’s credentials as someone to be feared and respected. Director Tourneur is best know for his classic RKO horrors, such as the original Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, but shows that his talents were not limited to black and white chills, and work just as well on these wide open, Technicolor seascapes. The quality here is virtually across the board, with the exception of James Robertson Justice’s highly-dubious Scottish accent, and has certainly stood the test of time.
Dir: Jacques Tourneur
Star: Jean Peters, Louis Jourdan, Herbert Marshall, Thomas Gomez