The Muthers

starstarstarhalf
“Jolly rogered.”

This is a strange cross-breed between a blaxploitation flick, a pirate movie and a women-in-prison film. Then again, a lot of the seventies films coming out of the Philippines tended to be at least somewhat bizarre, and this is likely no exception. The titular gang are pirates, led by Kelly (Bell) and Anggie (Katon), who roam what appears to be the Caribbean, going by the mention of Santo Domingo, but is actually in the Eastern hemisphere, boarding and robbing unsuspecting vessels, and fighting with a rival band of brigands using their kung-fu skills. However, Kelly’s sister goes missing, and is tracked down to a coffee farm belonging to the evil Monteiro (Carreon), which he runs in the manner of a pre-Civil War Southern plantation. Our heroines go undercover, only to discover getting out will be tougher than getting in.

It starts off in fine form, coming over as a modern, urban version of a sixties swashbuckler, and it’s a shame it didn’t stick to this premise, which would have offered something rather innovative. Instead, from the time Kelly and Anggie – yes, there is apparently an extra “g” in there – show up on the farm, it goes down too well-worn a path, with sadistic guards, fellow inmates who cozy up to their captors, and showers. Lots of showers. After the expected breakout attempts, recaptures and punishments, things eventually end in an equally expected riot, enlivened somewhat by the unexpected return appearance of the rival pirates, as allies of Monteiro,

muthersBoth Bell and Katon had worked with Santiago before, in T.N.T. Jackson and Ebony, Ivory & Jade respectively, and make a decent impression here. I’ve read a few other reviews that rip into this for poor-quality action, yet I can’t say I hated that aspect too much. Sure, there are times, particularly for any acrobatic moments, where the doubling is not exactly well-concealed. But there are other times where they’re putting in their fair share of effort, and should be appreciated for that. It is, if not quite tame, rather less sleazy than some on Santiago’s offerings. At first, I thought this was because I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies (yes, a refreshingly broad definition of “classic”!), but turns out to be fairly mild. Mind you, Bell’s ultra skin-tight top doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination there!

On the whole though, I’d have preferred if it had stuck with the pirate theme present at the beginning, which was a good deal fresher than the rote WiP fodder served up in the middle. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I did lose a bet with the wife: on seeing a guard tower overlooking the workers’ huts, I predicted it would later explode in a giant fireball, as a guard falls from it. I am disappointed to report that this simple pleasure was with-held from me. Sheesh, what is the world coming to, when a film from the golden age of Phillsploitation can’t even deliver on this expectation?

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy

Cutthroat Island: 20 years on

cutthroat05While there have been box-office bombs in the genre since – Tank Girl, Barb Wire, Catwoman – the epic scale of Cutthroat Island‘s failure surpasses them all. It cost $115 million to make, a sizable amount even now, yet didn’t even crack the top ten in the United States on its opening weekend, finishing behind Dracula: Dead and Loving It. The film barely grossed $10 million in North America, and still regularly appears on lists of the biggest cinematic financial flops, sometimes right at the top. With December marking the 20th anniversary of is release,  let’s take a look back at what is perhaps the most infamous action heroine film of all time.

cutthroat02Its origins are tied to another ill-fated, woman pirate venture from around that time. Columbia’s equally big-budget saga, Mistress of the Seasm which foundered in the summer of 1993, after director Paul Verhoeven left the project. One of the reported replacements for Verhoeven was Finnish director Renny Harlin, although after he was dumped, and Verhoeven returned, the film’s intended star then jumped ship. That star was Harlin’s then fiancee, Geena Davis, apparently miffed at her other half being courted then rejected by the studio. A source said ”From what I understand, she’s decided she wants to make a movie with her future hubby.” Mario Kassar, the chief of rival studio Carolco, seized the chance to woo both Harlin and Davis for his rival project, which already had Michael Douglas signed on as the male lead and love interest. [Mistress never got made; in the light of subsequent events, that was likely a win for Columbia]

But Carolco were already in financial trouble, having fallen far from smash-hits such as Terminator 2 and Total Recall. They had restructured in 1992, and sold off shares in 1993, yet were still in such dire cash-flow straits that they could only afford one big-budget production. The studio decided to shelve another historical epic, Crusade, after its budget reached nine figures [this had been another Verhoeven project; he must really hate Harlin and Davis!], and concentrate purely on Island. This was, in effect, a last throw of the dice for the beleaguered company and they financed the production, with its expected $60 million budget, largely by pre-selling distribution rights to overseas investors.

However, trouble was brewing, as Harlin apparently kept beefing up Davis’s role, at the expense of Michael Douglas’s. Said the actor, “I just was not comfortable with the part. The combination of not seeing it on the page and not knowing where it would go. I was feeling uncomfortable, and I wanted out… Ultimately, comes one day, and the director says, ‘I’m happy with the direction the script is going.’ And I said: ‘God bless you. I’m not.’ ” No-one at Carolco either saw fit or was able to override Harlin, so Douglas left the project. Both Harlin and Davis expected it to fold entirely due to his departure, but Carolco  had no way back from the financial abyss into which they had flung themselves, and had to go forward, holding both director and star to their contracts.

Harlin later recounted: “At that point I was left there with my then-wife, Geena Davis and myself, and a company that was already belly-up. We begged to be let go. We begged that we didn’t have to make this movie. We begged that we not be put in this position.” Davis concurs: “I, of course, assumed the whole project would be canceled. It was all based on Michael Douglas’s being in it. To my horror, I learned not only would they not cancel, but that I had a legal obligation to go ahead, unlike Michael. I tried desperately to get out of this movie.”  Instead, Douglas was replaced by the considerably lower profile (and far cheaper) Matthew Modine. Yet even he was unhappy, complaining, “They didn’t give me the [new] script. They gave me the script that Michael had said yes to… It was about a guy and a girl, but when I arrived in Malta, it [had become] about a girl and her journey.”

Ah, yes. Malta. The film was to be shot there and in Thailand, and pre-production had to go on, despite no leading man, and with the script a work in progress. But why let that interfere? In a memo, Harlin wrote, “When the casting concerns have been resolved and I arrive in Malta, I want to see the most spectacular and eye-popping sets, the most interesting and unusual props, and especially weapons and special effects that leave the audience gasping in awe and stunts that no one thought possible before. No sequence or setting that you’ve seen in movies before is good enough. Any idea that has been previously used has to be reinvented and cranked up 10 times.” Seems a strange kind of message from someone  supposedly desperate to get off the project, unless he was trying to push costs to a level where even Carolco would have to cry “Enough!” This theory might help explain stories like Harlin allegedly spending $15,000 to expedite getting his dog through Maltese quarantine.

cutthroat13There, the design team had to build its sets on spec, only to incur the extra costs of rebuilding them after Harlin finally arrived in Malta. Chief camera operator Nicola Pecorini quit, and two dozen crew members left in sympathy. A director of photography broke his leg in an accident. Raw sewage leaked into one of the tanks where actors were supposed to swim. While no-one questions the efforts of either Harlin or Davis, costs continued to escalate as the shoot moved to the Far East, where an inexperienced team struggled with the logistics of filming a largely water-bound production. The total cost of producing, distributing and marketing the film ended up at $121 million. Considering only four films released in 1995 took even $110 million at the US box-office, the chances of Island saving Carolco’s bacon were slim indeed. Indeed, it was already too late. If triggering a financial meltdown was Harlin’s aim, he succeeded; the company didn’t survive long enough to see Island in cinemas, declaring bankruptcy six weeks before its release in December 1995.

The film, to be honest, never really had a chance. Originally intended as a summer release, the production problems led to it being pushed back, and for some inexplicable reason it was sent to cinemas the weekend before Christmas, which was then hardly a tent-pole date for action blockbusters. Critical reaction was mixed, though hardly disastrous: it’s rated 37% fresh on RottenTomatoes.com, but Roger Ebert gave it three stars out of four, saying, “Cutthroat Island is everything a movie named Cutthroat Island should be, and no more.” The audience, however, ignored it entirely. It opened at #11, taking in less than $2.4 million its opening weekend, and finishing below the likes of other openers such as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Sudden Death or entirely forgotten family adventure Tom and Huck.

cutthroat15Those involved generally seem to look back on the results with fondness, though Modine expressed some bitterness at the time: “It’s the first movie I’ve worked on where the director never really spoke to me. It was frustrating and Renny spent a lot of his time just finding new ways to blow things up. He likes to blow things up.” His opinion seems to have mellowed, and he now says, “I’m still very pleased with the movie. I think that the movie was terribly harshly criticized. It’s a pirate movie! And it was attacked as though we tried to remake Gone With the Wind or something. It’s a really fun movie.” Davis agrees, saying, “The fact is, Renny and I are really proud of the movie,” and Harlin thinks, “It’s not Pirates of the Caribbean, but I think it’s a totally fine sort of family and young people’s pirate adventure. And I think that people just ganged [up] against it because it failed at the box office.”

Are people right to do so? Well, I’ll largely refer you over to our original review, though I did watch it again for the purposes of this piece. This time around, it seemed a film which should be more entertaining than it is, despite Harlin’s fondness for explosions – Modine was dead right there, with the director apparently oblivious to the fact that cannonballs were not rocket-propelled grenades that create giant fireballs on impact. Plausibility is utterly out the window, from the giant island with its sea-cliffs, hundreds of feet high, inexplicably missing from maps, through to the multiple zip-lines with which pirate vessels were apparently equipped. The dialogue certainly feels like it was made up on the fly, from virtually the heroine’s first line (“I took your balls”) to her last (“Bad Dawg!”). However, it doesn’t drag, and the main cast go at the material with sufficient energy to make for an entertaining two hours. I’ve seen far worse, much more successful films – hello, National Treasure.

One final, semi-ironic point. At the time, it was considered possible Hollywood would rein in the excess. as a result of the film’s failure. The following April, Daniel Jeffreys of The Independent wrote, “The films that have topped the box office list in the US since Cutthroat Island sank have had budgets well below $50m. Movies like Dead Man Walking, The Birdcage, Sense and Sensibility, 12 Monkeys and Mr Holland’s Opus have all cleared their modest costs with ease making three times as much money between them as Cutthroat Island lost. Next time Hollywood goes looking for buried treasure it might remember that and leave the lavish special effects at home.” But 20 years later, the top hits this year are Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out and Furious 7, whose production budgets alone – without distribution or marketing costs – average north of $190 million, making Island look positively restrained by comparison. Perhaps Renny and Geena were just ahead of their time, after all.

Tiger of the Seven Seas

starstarstar

“Good, for the (Spanish) Main part”

tigerofthesevenseasAnother in the flurry of Italian female pirate flicks of the sixties, this stars Canale as Consuelo, the daughter of a pirate captain. After he retires from the buccaneering business, she defeats her lover, William (Steel) in a duel to decide who takes command. Her father is killed with William’s knife a short while after, but they are attacked by the Spanish forces of Governor Inigo de Cordoba (Calindri) before her boyfriend can be hung for the crime. In the ensuing confusion, William escapes, and makes off with the ship. Consuelo and her followers, hijack another vessel and give chase. But is William the real culprit, or is this part of a plan cooked up by the Governor’s scheming wife, Anna (Spina), who seeks to get her hands on the horde of treasure which was buried in a secret location by Consuelo’s father, before his death?

The action is a bit disappointing here, with most of the sword-fights consisting of not much more than the two participants standing at arm’s-length from each other, waving their weapons. The story is also rather predictable, with few if any of the developments being unexpected. We just know William is going to be proven innocent, even if he looks like a young, piratical version of Lou Reed. ]Maybe that’s just me?] What do work, are the characters, who are an enjoyable bunch to spend time with – even the villainous Anna, who is clearly the brains of the marriage. She’s an excellent foil for Consuelo, who is equally smart and brave; she certainly makes a strong first impression, hurling a knife at William, and embedding it in the trunk of a tree by his face.

The spectacle side of things is well-integrated, though I have an idea some of the footage may have been lifted from other pirate pictures, as it doesn’t quite seem to match; it was certainly not Capuano’s sole foray into the genre. Everything builds nicely to the standard adventure film cliche, #37: the masked ball, which Consuelo infiltrates in the cunning guise of…a pirate, to rescue William, after he made an ill-advised attempt to storm the fortress and abduct the traitor. This leads to an all-out battle, perhaps most remarkable for the “raining cannons” sequence, but despite what I said about the plot having no twists, I must admit, the final conclusion is not one I saw coming, with the villainess getting off surprisingly easily, compared to other potential fates. She actually gets the treasure, though at the cost of letting Consuelo and William go. I like to imagine the sequel has them heading back to reclaim her father’s loot, and I certainly wouldn’t have minded seeing more of their adventures, and it’s a shame no such follow-up ever emerged.

Dir: Luigi Capuano
Star: Gianna Maria Canale, Anthony Steel, Maria Grazia Spina, Ernesto Calindri

The Pirate Vortex, by Deborah Cannon

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2

pirate vortex“Calico Jack” Rackham, a Caribbean pirate hanged soon after his capture in 1720, his lover and fellow pirate Anne Bonny (b. ca. 1700) and a few other characters in this series-opening novel were real-life people, who left behind an historical record in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), by one Capt. Charles Johnson. (Johnson is otherwise unknown; many scholars surmise, as Cannon assumes in her novel, that this was a pen name used by Daniel Defoe.) That book forms our main historical source for piracy in that era, and Cannon’s portrayal here seems to be basically very faithful to the historical data as far as it goes, including the fact that we know nothing of Bonny’s ultimate fate (so we’re free to speculate about any descendants she may have had…) –but that data is very embellished here, with time-traveling SF elements.

The author and I are Goodreads friends, but I checked a copy of the book out from the library where I work (so, it wasn’t a review copy). My rating correctly indicates that I liked the read. For me personally, a few factors kept it from a higher rating; but it’s quite possible that other readers wouldn’t weigh those as much, and would rate it higher. (In fact, several already have!)

Our heroine, Elizabeth Latimer, is an 18-year-old college student at the Univ. of Victoria near Vancouver in British Columbia, Cannon’s own stamping grounds. We’re not told her exact age until a few chapters in, and many American readers wouldn’t know there’s a Victoria, Canada; I confused it with the Australian state of Victoria for the first couple of chapters. Liz’s mom, Tess Rackham kept her maiden name and formerly taught an Archaeology of Piracy class at the university; but when her husband John Latimer was lost at sea in a sailing accident four years earlier, she quit that job and went into marine salvage with her business partner, Cal Sorensen. Though her dad taught her to sail proficiently, Liz hasn’t since that day.

She has some issues from her dad’s death and her mother’s not very hands-on parenting of herself and her 14-year-old sister, and mixed feelings about her parents’ obsession with pirate history: she aspires to go into business and make a prosaic career on dry land –but she’s the self-styled “queen” of her school’s competitive fencing program, and taking the same class her mother once taught. Then on a spring morning, two things happen: she meets mystery youth Daniel Corker, and learns that her mom is presumed lost at sea, in the Bermuda Triangle area. This sets us up for a time-traveling adventure.

Cannon handles language capably, without the poor grammar and diction that bedevil so many self-published authors; she’s also written novels before, so this is no freshman effort. Her prose style isn’t of a sort that calls attention to itself; it’s straightforward, with a focus on the story. The pace is fast, and the plot exciting and eventful, with an emphasis on events, action, and snappy dialogue. Young Adult readers affluent enough to be tech-savvy are the main target audience, and there’s a fair amount of tech-talk, texting jargon, and pop culture references that this group would be more at home with than some other demographics; but older readers wouldn’t be lost with these either, since the context usually furnishes clues for any meaning that’s essential to get, and the same goes for nautical terms, though there’s aren’t a lot of those.

Bonney,_Anne_(1697-1720)Liz herself is a well-drawn, likeable but not perfect character, with some depth and complexity to her. As an action heroine, her fencing skills don’t match those of seasoned pirates, she’s not a good shot, and she’s an inexperienced horsewoman; and more often than not, she needs male rescue when in jeopardy. (Considering the situations here, the violence in the book is restrained, and almost never lethal.) Given her background and situation, though, this is only realistic. She’s also got enough guts to fight when necessary, thinks quickly and resourcefully, and is a strong swimmer. Other characters, like Lu, Stevie, Cal and Jerrit Wang, are also quite lifelike.

Time-travel writers divide over the question of how they handle time paradoxes. Some take the position that you can’t change the past – whatever you did there, you’ve already done. Cannon and others treat the past as malleable – you can change it, and you’d better not, or you might erase yourself and your whole bloodline! Personally, I prefer the former approach; but it wasn’t a problem to accept the latter as a literary conceit. I did have some issues with the plotting. In several cases, IMO, characters make decisions that aren’t well explained, or that it doesn’t seem like they would have made in real life, although they’re necessary to move the plot the way the author wants; and some difficult operations/problems are solved too easily or coincidentally. At one point, we’re apparently barely off shore from Nassau, traveling by sail –but are in very short order in swimming distance of Jamaica on the far side of Cuba, a journey that would take days at least.

Liz has unexplained telepathic connections with animals, and sometimes with people: we’re told at one point that she can tell if someone is lying, and Tess can psychically tell if Liz is in danger. In a plot that already demands some suspension of disbelief, this for me was an element that stretched credibility a bit too much. And while CJ the parrot is cute, he and the horse Fancy display a lot more intelligence than parrots and horses really have. (Parrots imitate the sounds of human speech, but in real life they don’t know what they’re saying.)

Romance isn’t really a stressed theme; Liz has always been too focused on her studies and her fencing to have much time for boys and dating (her sister Lu, at 14, is the more boy-crazy of the two). That said, she is a healthy 18-year old who’s aware of attractive unattached males and appreciates their awareness of her, and who wants to someday be married. There’s a triangle of speculative interest here, and there will be a kiss before the book ends; so very romance-phobic readers will want to avoid it. This novel completes its story arc, but it leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the sequel(s). Readers who liked this first book will probably want to continue the series; and I definitely plan to set sail with The Jade Pirate myself sometime!

Note: There are a couple of instances of implied sex here, but nothing explicit. There’s some use of d- and h-word language and vulgarisms, but no obscenity and little profanity.

Author: Deborah Cannon
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Anne of the Indies

starstarstarstar

“Timbers well and truly shivered.”

anne of the indiesStrikingly 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

The Queen of the Pirates

starstarstarhalf

“Court in the act.”

queenofthepiratesSandra (Canale)  and her father fall foul of the local tyrannical Duke (Muller) after they refuse to pay his excise duty. Arrested, the arrival of the poor but noble Count of Santa Croce, Cesare (Serato), saves them from death – or a fate worse than in Sandra’s case, as the Duke has a profitable sideline, shipping local girls off to the Middle East. After escaping, they join up with a local pirate band, who agree to help target the Duke after Sandra bests their leader in sword-play. To gain the hand of the duke’s daughter, Isabella (Gabel), Cesare agrees to hunt down the “Queen of the Pirates” who has brought trade to a standstill, not knowing that his target is the same woman he helped save, and since then has had a secret longing.

Its storyline is more than slightly similar to the other Italian piratess movie we also covered here, Queen of the Seas, from the following year. This is slightly weaker, mostly because Sandra ends up taking a back seat to the heroic Cesare in the second half, though it benefits from a solid supporting performance by Gabel, who brings a genuine nastiness to her role as the spoiled heiress, who is perfectly happy to endorse Daddy’s white slavery operation, as long as it keeps her in jewels and pretty dresses. The shift in focus from Sandra is disappointing, not least because she can handle a sword pretty well – that’s clear right from the fight against the Duke’s excise-men, and reached its peak during the friendly duel against the pirate king. Really, given the era (1960) and Canale’s provenance as a former runner-up in Miss Italy, it’s genuinely impressive.

queenofthepirates2

From about the midpoint on, it is entirely predictable, and becomes much less interesting as a result, despite some efforts to suggest that Cesare might not really be smitten by the heroine – just pretending to be, in order to lure her in. There’s also some desperately unfunny attempts at comedy, courtesy of his squire, and the English dub appears to have been written by someone practicing for International Talk Like a Pirate Day, spattering every other sentence with gratuitous nautical vernacular. I can’t call it disastrous, and at 75 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome; there’s just too much queening and not enough pirating in this for me.

Dir: Mario Costa
Star: Gianna Maria Canale, Massimo Serato, Paul Muller, Scilla Gabel
a.k.a. La Venere dei Pirati

Le Avventure di Mary Read

mary read

starstarstar

“Graded as a solid sea-plus.”

While best known for notorious horror film, Cannibal Ferox, director Lenzi’s career covered almost the entire gamut of genres, from spaghetti Westerns through Eurospy films and giallo, to war movies. He also did historical adventure films like this, starring Gastoni as Mary Read, a highwaywoman who takes a spot on a corsair ship run by the unfortunately-named Captain Poof (Barnes). After his demise in a sea-battle, Mary takes over the ship, leading daring raids on any and all who cross her path, on sea or land. Given Poof was working with the approval of the British crown, and supposed to be targeting only its enemies, this provokes a reaction, in the shape of Captain Peter Goodwin (Courtland), who is ordered to take care of Poof, unaware he has been replaced by Mary. However, complicating matters, he also knows her personally, having been locked up in prison with her back in England, and had a brief fling with Read at the time. Can he bring his former love to justice?

queen of the seasDespite its age – this was made in 1961 – it has stood the test of time fairly well, except for a romantic ending which is both predictable and unfortunate. This turns the heroine into exactly the subservient woman she spent the first 80 minutes not being. Up until then, it plays well ahead of its time, with Read taking no crap from anyone, and proving to be skilled both with a pistol and a sword, as well as her words. [And perhaps a needle, some of her costumes, particularly the red one, being quite spectacular] The production values are generally pretty impressive, especially in the naval sequences; they clearly had a couple of full-scale boats to work with, rather than miniatures. However, its recreation of what is supposedly “17th-century England” leaves a lot to be desired, unless the landscape and costumes of that era were a lot more, ah, Mediterranean than I was aware! I’m also rather hard pushed to swallow Read’s intermittent efforts to pass as a man: I guess eyesight was not as sharp back in the day.

Clocking in at a brisk 85 minutes, there’s not much chance to pause for breath. This helps paper over holes in the plot, such as the Governor of Florida apparently not bothering to mention to anyone, that his party was raided by a woman pirate. But I like the way Read is portrayed as smart, for example, out-thinking Goodwin and getting him to fire on a supporting ship – she wants to destroy his reputation as much as anything else. However, this makes the final resolution all the more implausible, and I’d far rather have seen her sail off into the sunset, perhaps with Ivan (Longo), the crew-mate who seems to carry a torch for her. I guess this wasn’t quite far enough ahead in its thinking.

Dir: Umberto Lenzi
Star: Lisa Gastoni, Jerome Courtland, Walter Barnes, Germano Longo
a.k.a. Queen of the Seas

Nautical But Not-So Nice: Women pirates through history

pirate2“I couldn’t love a man who commands me – any more than I could love one who lets himself be commanded by me.”
— Jacquotte Delahaye

For the purposes of this article, we are defining “women pirates” somewhat loosely. You don’t necessarily have to be wielding the cutlass yourself, though such a hands-on approach is certainly appreciated. Staying safely on shore and commanding a bunch of scurvy swabs [am I doing this Piratespeak right?] is perfectly fine. However, we do draw the line at plausible deniability. For instance, in the era of Queen Elizabeth I, piracy was barely discouraged if the victims were Spanish, with “privateers” like John Hawkins operating with the more or less tacit approval of the crown. But, at least nominally, it was still a hanging offense.

Among the earliest examples of piratically-inclined ladies was Queen Teuta of Illyria, known as the Terror of the Adriatic, though she was more a commander of pirates than one herself. She inherited the throne of the area which would become 20th-century Yugoslavia, around 230 B.C. after her husband died, and gave local buccaneers the green light to go raiding in her name, up and down the Adriatic. However, these predations eventually brought her to the attention of the Roman Empire, who dropped the hammer on Teuta in no uncertain fashion, sending a 20,000 strong army over for a cup of tea and a chat. She ended up stripped of most of her territories, though was at least allowed to keep her life and, nominally, her title.

pirate1Alfhild

The 12th-century work by Danish author Saxo Grammaticus called the Gesta Danorum, was also a source when we  covered Viking warrior women a few months back – and, of course, the line between “piracy” and “extremely enthusiastic foraging” is a thin one. But Grammaticus also mentions, mostly in passing, others such as Wigbiorg, Hetha. Wisna and Princess Sela. The last-name was sister to the King of Norway, Koller, and Saxo calls her, “a skilled warrior and experienced in roving.” [She was killed by Horwendil, the father of Hamlet]

The most interesting is perhaps Alfhild [various spellings of her name exist, e.g. Alvid, Awilda], from Volume VII. According to the chronicler, she was such a babe, her father, a King of the Goths called Siward, kept her locked up, protected by snakes – and further decreed that if any suitor tried to reach her and failed, his head would be forfeit. Understandably, this limited her teenage dating exploits. Eventually, one brave warrior, Alf, succeeded. However, Siward still gave his daughter freedom of choice in the matter – and Alfhild promptly spurned his advances, spurred on by her mother:

Alfhild was led to despise the young Dane; whereupon she exchanged woman’s for man’s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover. Enrolling in her service many maidens who were of the same mind, she happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the death of their captain, who had been lost in war; they made her their rover captain for her beauty, and she did deeds beyond the valour of woman.

But Alf eventually got his girl, though it took “many toilsome voyages” – proving that the term “playing hard to get”, takes on a whole new level of meaning when your fiancee is a Scandinavian pirate queen.

Jeanne de Clisson

Alfhild’s historical existence is uncertain, with Grammaticus writing a long time after her supposed exploits. That isn’t the case for our next seafaring lady, with contemporary French documentation offering supporting evidence. Jeanne was born in 1300, and first married at the age of 12, as was not uncommon for the era. After her husband died, she married again, but to little better end, as this second spouse was executed in 1343, on suspicion of collaborating with the English, against whom France was at war. Jeanne swore revenge on King Philip VI, sold her estates and began attacking his forces across Brittany. When the heat in France got too much, she relocated to England, and with help from King Edward III, created the Black Fleet.

For the next thirteen years, these boats, painted black and with red sails, hunted French ships in the English Channel, killing their crews, but leaving a few alive to spread the legend of “The Lioness of Brittany”, as de Clisson became known. Her reign outlasted Philip, who died in 1350, but Jeanne was clearly having too much fun, and continued her assault. Legend has it she especially enjoyed capturing French noblemen, and would personally behead them with an axe. She eventually married for a third time, and retired from the seas. [Note: she should not be confused with another medieval bad-ass, Jeanne de Montfort, though both operated around the same time, and supported the English in their war against France]

pirate3Sayyida al Hurra

Moving into the Middle Ages and the 16th century, we see the likes of Irish sea-queen Gráinne Ní Mháille, about whom we wrote previously. But equally notable was this Islamic pirate, whose full name we will only give once, for reasons which will soon be obvious: Sayyida al-Hurra ibn Banu Rashid al-Mandri al-Wattasi Hakima Tatwan. “Sayyida al Hurra” is actually an honorific title, apparently meanimg “the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” She operated particularly around the Straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, after the last Moorish outpost in Spain fell in 1492. She and her husband relocated to northern Morocco, and ruled over the city of Tétouan, which they had helped rebuild.

Following the death of her husband in 1513, the widow took over the reins, but also used the proceeds from trading to begin assembling her forces.  Her fleet set sail in 1520, attacking any Portuguese ships with the misfortune to meet them, and not just looting them, but taking hostages who could be ransomed for even more plunder – much of the evidence for Sayyida comes in the form of documents concerning these negotiations. But, as far as she was concerned, these attacks were as much an act of political rebellion as financial acquisition, harassing the Christians who had driven her and her family out of Granada. Such was her success that she was able to form an alliance with an even more well-known name, Barbarossa, carving up the Mediterranean so that each had their own territory. Her fleet operated for two decades, Spanish papers from 1540 recording a raid on Gibraltar, in which “they took much booty and many prisoners.” She was eventually deposed by her son-in-law two years later, and vanished from the historical record.

Jacquotte Delahaye and Anne Dieu-le-Veut

As we move in to the 17th century, pirate location changes. Previously, it had been based around the centres of civilization – in the apocryphal words of bank robber Willie Sutton, “because that’s where the money is.” But as the era of exploration blossomed, focus shifted toward the arena that would become most linked with pirates in popular culture: the Caribbean, as trade to/from the New World flourished.

These two operated there, and Delahaye was perhaps the first “true” pirate of the modern era, who has become a figure of legend. She was reportedly (let’s just take that word as read in this section!) the daughter of a French father and Haitian mother: the latter died in childbirth, and the former’s murder led to Delahaye’s entry into the world of piracy. She apparently faked her own death to escape those who pursued her, but her subsequent return to the fray earned this redhead the nickname of “Back from the Dead Red”. She is said to have led 100 pirates, and took over an island in 1656, turning it into a “freebooter’s republic”, a mini-Tortuga – she was killed defending it from the Spanish several years later.

Anne Dieu-le-Veut (Anne “God wills it”) appears to have a thing for pirates, marrying three of them. The story goes, she won the heart of the third, Laurens de Graaf, by challenging him to a duel to avenge the death of husband #2. When he accepted, and she wouldn’t back down, he proposed to her, in admiration of her courage. The two operated as equals in the piratical exploits, and attacked English-held Jamaica in 1693, but a couple of years later, Anne and their children were captured by English forces at  Port-de-Paix in Haiti. They were held hostage for three years before being released [presumably ransomed] and Anne largely disappeared from the historical record thereafter.

Anne Bonney and Mary Read headline the golden age of piracy

“Had you fought like a man, you need not be hanged like a dog.” — Anne Bonny

Bonney,_Anne_(1697-1720)It was not long after the turn of the 18th century that piracy in the Caribbean reached its peak, with the period from 1716 to 1726 considered the apex. as  multiple colonial powers – Dutch, British, Spanish and French – jostled for position. But with resources also required for conflicts back in Europe, local representatives were largely reliant on their own recruitment efforts, and were typically none too fussy about where ships or sailors came from, or exactly how they operated. It was in this environment that two of the most famous female pirates of all time are found. While they were initially independent and separate, they ended their careers fighting alongside each other as part of the crew of another renowned name, John Rackham, a.k.a. Calico Jack.

Anne was the daughter of a Irish lawyer who emigrated to America when she was young. She reportedly demonstrated a fiery temper, stabbing a servant at age 13, then married minor pirate James Bonney, and moved with him to Nassau, a sanctuary for pirates supporting the English crown. There, she met Rackham, became his lover and eventually abandoned her husband – according to lore, disgusted by James having turned informant. She never saw the need to disguise her sex, but was apparently among the first to realize that new shipmate “Mark Read” was not exactly all he claimed to be. For Mark was actually Mary Read, though she had been brought up as a boy since she was very young, part of a plot to fleece money out of her grandfather. Read, however, continued the deception after leaving home, and served in the British military before eventually marrying another soldier. When he died, she set sail for the West Indies, but the ship was captured by pirates, and “Mark” was pressed into service, reverting to the illusion of manhood.

Some time later, she ended up becoming part of Calico Jack’s crew, and things became murky. Some say Bonney took a fancy to the young “man”, or that Jack grew jealous of their relationship, before matters were settled peacefully, and both allowed to remain part of the crew. This didn’t last long though: in October 1720, the ship of pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet attacked Rackham’s vessel. Whether through drink or cowardice, most pirates failed to put up a fight, leaving Bonney and Read to lead the defense. According to Daniel Defoe, the creator of Robinson Crusoe, who also wrote a book called The General History of the Pyrates, “none kept the Deck except Mary Read and Anne Bonny, and one more; upon which, she, Mary Read, called to those under Deck, to come up and fight like Men, and finding they did not stir, fired her Arms down the Hold amongst them, killing one, and wounding others.”  However, they were overpowered and, along with Rackham, taken to Jamaica. There, they were tried, convicted and sentenced to death – leading to the quote above, reputedly Bonny’s last words to her man. The two women both claimed to be pregnant, allowing them a stay of execution. For Read, it was a temporary escape as she died of a fever in prison. Bonney? History has no record of either her execution or her release. Make up your own ending.

Ching Shih

Ching_ShihBut it’s the other side of the globe which saw perhaps the most successful female pirate of them all. Some estimates have her in command of up to 1,800 ships and 80,000 crew, her territory covering much of the China Sea in the early years of the 19th century. It’s one hell of a character arc. She was originally a prostitute in the City of Canton, but was captured by pirates, and married one, Zheng Yi, in 1801. He came from a long line of buccaneers, and forged a coalition of rivals into one entity, the Red Flag fleet. Zheng died in 1807, but his widow used her own phenomenal negotiating and political skills, not just to hold the fleet together, in the face of circling rivals seeking to take advantage, but to increase its strength even further. She bedded her husband’s adoptive nephew, Chang Pao – who, some say, was also his lover.

She is particularly remember for a rigorous pirate code, which punished disobedience harshly, and helped forge a force which basically ruled the waves. The Chinese navy couldn’t defeat her. Even the colonial superpowers in the area, the British and Portuguese, were unable to restrain Ching’s fleet. In the end, the Chinese government basically said, “Look, just stop, and we’ll give you amnesty for everything you’ve done.” There was some friction over the authorities’ demand that the pirates kneel to them – something Ching Shih refused to do. But a compromise was reached whereby a government official would act as witness at her wedding to Chang Pao, so could be acknowledged without loss of face. She lived up to her end of the bargain, becoming one of the very few ever to retire from piracy with both life and loot intact. Ching opened a gambling house back in Canton, where she lived for more than three decades, before dying at the ripe old age for a pirate, of 69. Well played, madam.

 

Women pirates in the movies

There have been a number of attempts to depict women pirates over the years, in . Some are fully reviewed elsewhere on the site, as listed at the end. But there are others worth at least a mention in passing.

buccaneers girl

  • The Spanish Main (1945) – Binnie Barnes takes on the role of Anne Bonny.
  • Buccaneer’s Girl (1950) – Yvonne de Carlo stars as a New Orleans singer who becomes involved with a pirate.
  • Against All Flags (1951) – Errol Flynn falls in love with pirate captain “Spitfire” Stevens (Maureen O’Hara), even as he is on an undercover mission to take down her organization.
  • The Golden Hawk (1952) – French sea captain Kit Gerardo (Sterling Hayden) seeks the pirate responsible for killing his mother, and meets female buccaneer Captain Rouge (Rhonda Fleming).
  • The King’s Pirate (1967) – A remake of Against All Flags, with Doug McClure and Jill St. John playing the two leads.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) – Likely inspired by Ching Shih, the third entry included Mistress Ching (Takayo Fischer), a pirate queen who retired to enjoy her incredible wealth.
  • Black Sails (2014) – Anne Bonny is portrayed in the Starz series by Clara Paget.

One worth mentioning never got off the ground. In the early 1990’s Paul Verhoeven was working on a film called Anne Bonny: Mistress of the Seas, based on John Carlova’s book. It had a stellar cast, with Geena Davis attached, plus Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as Calico Jack and Mary Read. However, Pfeiffer soon lost interest, saying, “I had two meetings with Paul Verhoeven… Both conversations were about how much skin I would show.” She may have had a point, one studio exec describing Verhoven’s concept as ”a sex film that, oh, by the way, had a couple of ships in it.” Pressed to take it mainstream, the director left in July 1993, citing “creative differences”, and the studio turned to Davis’s beau Renny Harlin instead. However, Verhoeven agreed to return, only for Davis to bail, allegedly due to the studio ditching her man. She and Harlin went on to make Cutthroat Island, a megaflop which basically killed the entire pirate genre for a decade. Verhoeven was left without a star, and eventually, a film, sniping, “The studio didn’t dare to make a movie about a woman.”

There’s another project which was announced a year ago, but of which little has been heard since. In February 2014, news broke of a “limited series” biopic from Steven Jensen’s Independent Television Group, about Ching Shih called Red Flag, starring Nikita‘s Maggie Q as the Chinese pirate. Said Q, “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to share Ching Shih’s real-life story with audiences that are both familiar and unfamiliar with her prominent history.” But since then? Nothing since March, when it was announced that Francois Arnaud would be the male lead. The silence may not be terminal at this point, and the project is still listed as “in development” on IMDb, but I’d have though something further would have happened by now…

See also

Grace O’Malley: Scourge of the Sea

The daughter of Owen “Dubhdarra” (black oak) O’Malley, famous Irish sea captain, is somebody whose life could easily be made into a film. Known as Gráinne Ní Mháille in her native tongue, I suspect the English version, Grace O’Malley, would be a little more manageable for cinemagoers, and so, that’s the form we’ll use here. She was born in 16th-century Ireland, which at the time was largely allowed to operate independently of England. However, during her lifetime, that gradually changed, and it’s this which was behind many of the turning points in her life.

Her family were great seafarers, and there are tales that say Grace went to sea with her father while still a child, and decided that a life of adventure was for her. In one story, she cut her hair – either to disguise herself as a boy, to sneak aboard, or because she was told it would get caught in the rigging – this led to her nickname “Grainne Mhaol”, or “Bald Grace”. In another tale, her father tells her to get below when their ship is attacked, but she disobeys him. Climbing the rigging to watch the fight, Grace noticed one of the attackers was about to stab her father in the back. Screaming in fury, she swung down from the rigging and attacked him from behind. While folklore-esque exaggeration is likely, there may be an element of truth involved – at the very least, it sounds like a pretty good movie scene to me.

It is known that Grace’s mother did not approve of such things. She employed a tutor to educate her daughter at home and teach her things a well-connected young lady should know, such as Latin. Owen O’Malley was the chieftain of the Barony of Murrisk and controlled a powerful clan and quite a lot of land. At a young age, as was the custom of her people, Grace was married to Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another clan leader. Although it was an arranged marriage it seemed to work well and her new family soon accepted Grace as she got involved in politics, fishing and trading.

Rockfleet Castle, Grace’s home

After a few years she began to overshadow her husband was in charge of the O’Flaherty fleet of ships, an important position and in an age when such jobs were not given to accountants, let alone women. The port city of Galway was refusing to trade with them, so Grace starting seizing ships that passed through her clan’s waters. This is where her reputation as a pirate comes from. It has been recorded that she used to fight with a sword in each hand and the thought of watching her boarding another ship in this manner has a lot of appeal for a scene. She used to let them go on their way once they had paid her off – it’s not like she made anyone walk the plank.

But all good things come to an end. During the 1560’s, there was a power shift in the clan: another leader who had been making trouble for the English, was bought off by being made clan chief. Soon after this, Grace’s husband died in battle and she was left with nothing. Taking her three children, and accompanied by 200 followers, Grace headed back to O’Malley country, determined to make a fresh start. She set up base on Clare Island and rebuilt her fortune by trading and piracy. She did well and soon owned five castles in the area and married the man that owned the sixth; Richard Burke.

Initially, the marriage was on a trial basis, for one year; legend has it, Grace ended the trial – and kept the castle! – but must have relented, as they remained married for many year thereafter. They had a son called Tibbot, who was born aboard a ship while Grace was on a peaceful trading expedition, and what happened a few days later would have to be in the movie. I have speculated a little on the beginning of the story, but left the rest intact.

I see Grace singing a beautiful Irish lullaby to her baby below deck. Suddenly the peace is shattered by the shouts of angry men – their ship is under attack from Moorish pirates. The baby starts to cry and Grace tries to calm him by saying that her crew will take care of the nasty men. She listens intently to the sounds of fighting from above and soon realises that her men are loosing. Muttering that she has to do everything herself, Grace loads her gun and sticks two swords into her belt. After a few soft soothing words to her son; “Don’t fret, darling – Mummy won’t be long. I just have to go and kill the nasty men myself.” Grace bursts on to the deck, in a very bad mood, blasts the first enemy with her gun and then takes to the rest with her swords. The tide of battle now turns and the attack is repulsed.

It is important to realise that this was a period when ships of rival nations frequently attacked each other on the high seas. On his first trading expedition to the Americas, Francis Drake was attacked by Spanish ships, and spent the rest of his life attacking them. The Spanish always regarded him as being a pirate, although to the English he was a privateer, a subtle but significant difference. A privateer is a privately financed ship, that has letters from the government giving permission to attack ships belonging to an enemy power. Their purpose is to capture, rather than sink, such vessels and make a profit for the shareholders who had financed the expedition.

Drake made several trips to the Caribbean, and on his most famous voyage sailed around the world 1577-80. When he returned, the Spanish wanted him executed as a pirate and their treasure returned to them. They had a point: at no time during his voyage were the two countries at war. Elizabeth had been warned by her advisors not to antagonize the Spanish, but as usual, took no notice. She knighted Drake, her favourite adventurer – then, as main financial backer of the expedition, gleefully collected her share of the loot. The Spanish were of course, furious, but their moral indignation is suspect: the gold and silver involved originally belonged to the Incas, a civilization destroyed by the Spanish in the process of ripping them off. Drake’s return to England, where he was greeted as a hero, would make an great scene and would establish Elizabeth as a character.

The English decided that the best way to gain control of Ireland was to buy off the Irish Lords with English titles. Grace was not interested, so the Governor, Richard Bingham, decided to put her out of business; Slowly but surely he started working on this, constricting her operations, and at one time even put her in prison; she escaped execution only when her son-in-law traded himself for her, with the condition Grace gave up her independent ways. The situation was becoming unbearable and all Grace’s appeals to the Governor came to nothing. In desperation she went over his head and sailed for England, determined to ask Elizabeth to intervene on her behalf. This was a courageous thing to do – but she would not have achieved what she had without being a shrewd judge of character. She gambled her life on this ability. Grace started off by writing Elizabeth a series of letters asking for an audience.

Finally the English Queen agreed and Grace came to court to make her pitch (left). She horrified them by addressing the Queen as an equal – Grace’s use of Latin, the language of nobles, would have impressed the Queen. She made a point of saying that they were much alike, both prepared to fight to keep their possessions. Grace referred to the way Elizabeth had joined her army at Tilbury, when the Spanish Armada threatened to invade in 1588. She made a difference too, as her rousing speech did wonders for the moral of her, up till then, pessimistic troops. [It is historical fact that Elizabeth was fond of hunting, and an excellent shot with a crossbow, so it is possible she may well have got involved if the Spanish had landed.] Around the same time, some Spaniards were shipwrecked in Ireland and slaughtered by Grace. A scene of each of these incidents would help illustrate that they did have a lot in common.

The English Queen took to Grace and the two were soon chatting in private, like old friends. They were about the same age and had both led eventful lives. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had her mother, Ann Boleyn, beheaded for treason, and her half sister, Mary, imprisoned her for a time in the tower of London. It was experiences like this that made Elizabeth a lot tougher and more pragmatic than many people give her credit for. She gave Grace everything she asked for, provided her piracy against Britain ended. Soon Bingham was forced out of Ireland in disgrace – for doing exactly what he was told, to the woman he called, “Nurse of all the rebellions in the province for 40 years”. Politics, it seems, doesn’t really change much in 400 years.

Another interesting tale is told about an incident on the way home to Ireland. She stopped at Howth Castle, where hospitality dictated she should have been offered a meal and a place to stay. But she was told the lord was dining, and wasn’t to be disturbed: an infuriated Grace was leaving, when she met the lord’s son, who was returning to the castle. She kidnapped him, and as the terms for his return, demanded that in future, anyone who asked at Howth Castle would get food and a bed. The tradition continues to this day; the family that lives there still has an extra seat for dinner, just in case…

Grace lived on into old age and died peacefully – in the same year as Elizabeth, 1603 – although it is said she never lost her sense of adventure. The meeting would involve several scenes in the film, and it would be a case of deciding what to leave out rather than having to make things up. I first heard about Grace from the Warrior Women series hosted by Lucy Lawless (right). The enthusiasm for her subject was quite infectious and I can’t think of anyone better to play her in a movie version.

[Jim chips in: I think Nicole Kidman might be an interesting alternative too. She seems to have the kind of quietly steely personality that would be right for the role. Sigourney Weaver is another possibility. The difficulty is the film needing to span several decades of time, so it might be best to have several actresses playing Grace at different times in her life. On the plus side, the total lack of any portraits or illustrations drawn from life does give us enormous flexibility in this area. Though it does pose problems when it comes to finding pictures for this article!]

Cutthroat Island

starstarstarstarhalf

“Rated Arrrrrrr…”

It seems to me that Cutthroat Island was largely just ahead of its time. Made in 1995, it shares a lot of the same elements as the wildly-successful Pirates of the Caribbean, which also had two gangs of pirates, feuding over treasure, while the British navy runs interference. Hell, there’s even an annoying pet monkey in both movies. But Cutthroat was such a big disaster at the box-office, it sat in the Guinness Book of Records, until subsequently passed by the likes of Gigli, and helped bankrupt Carolco.

Certainly, with an estimated $92m budget and a US gross of only $10m, it was a disaster movie, in the most literal sense of the word. But, truth be told, it’s not that bad: in the IMDB it rates a 5.4, which is respectable enough, and there’s no denying that, unlike many such films, the money is actually obvious on the screen. For this was made in the days before large-scale CGI, when the only way to have pirate ships battling on the high seas was…well, actually to have pirate ships battling on the high seas. Malta and Thailand stood in for the Atlantic, Davis mostly does her own stunts, and the finale features one of the best explosions captured on celluloid.

The plot is patterned after classic Errol Flynn films like The Sea Hawk, with Davis in the Flynn role as Morgan Adams, who inherits a ship after her father is killed by her evil uncle, Dawg (Langella). She also has part of a treasure-map – Dawg has another chunk, with the final portion owned by a third brother. The film is largely concerned by the various parties trying to acquire all the parts of the map, race to the treasure, avoid the British navy, and escape with the loot. There’s also a romantic subplot involving career thief William Shaw (Modine), needed to translate the map, but he and Morgan don’t have much chemistry. That’s perhaps because Davis was, at the time, married to director Harlin, and it’s certainly notable that every other woman in the film looks like she’s been keel-hauled beside the impeccably-styled Davis.

cutthroat1[The plan at first was to have Michael Douglas as the male lead – at a price of $15m – but he supposedly withdrew when his role was shrunk to make Davis the lead. Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise got the same offer, but declined. The producers then worked their way down the food chain, through Daniel Day Lewis, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen, Liam Neeson and Tim Robbins, before getting Modine for $4m. It’s interesting to speculate about how the film might have ended up with any of the other names – I mean, Charlie Sheen in a pirate film? On the other hand, a lot of people thought Johnny Depp, and letting him channel Keith Richards, was a bad idea…]

What the movie lacks in love interest, it more than makes up for in action – particularly, things going BOOM. This was set in an era when men were men, but women were men too, and everything was apparently likely to explode in a monstrous fireball at a moment’s notice. The opening sequence sees Morgan being recognised as a pirate, and chased by the British through Port Au Prince, a sequence which contains enough action for the climax of most films, not least when the navy decides to open fire from off-shore. The highlight has Davis rolling out a window, off a roof and onto a moving carriage, a serious “How the hell did they do that?” moment [the answer is, it’s a composite shot, joining one of her falling from the roof, to one of her pretending to have landed on the coach].

You will probably spend much of the film wondering how the film is going to top that, not least because the middle-part of the movie is not exactly enthralling. I mean, we know everyone is going to Cutthroat Island, so could they possibly hurry up and get there already? I’m also unimpressed by Chaykin as a journalist, embedded with Morgan, who is supposed to be writing up the activities of the pirates for his publisher. Not sure quite what his purpose was, and in a film that already runs over two hours, reckon he could have been removed without issue. It would also be fair to say that the plot, in general, is no more than a string of cliches, and the characters are similarly over-familiar, a disappointment given the transgressive concept at the film’s heart.

But it is a pirate movie and, to quote Roger Ebert, “is everything a movie named Cutthroat Island should be, and no more.” The final battle, where everyone collides in the middle of the ocean, is a great action set-piece, and Morgan duels her way with Dawg everywhere from the crow’s nest to the hold. Though I do feel his final dispatch (it hardly counts as a spoiler – I stress once more, this is a pirate movie) is, again, a slight shame, with the heroine forced to pull out the, ah, big guns to deal with him, rather than using her own skill.

Still, an entertaining effort, which truly deserves to be seen on a big screen with a good sound-system, and is an interesting precursor to The Long Kiss Goodnight, made by Harlin and Davis shortly after, which also tanked. In light of the subsequent success of Caribbean (and its imminent sequels), the time seems right for a re-evaluation, and I note that most of the recent IMDB comments have been warmly enthusiastic towards the movie. While the chances for the obvious sequel likely evaporated with the couple’s messy divorce – she filed in 1997, the month his personal assistant gave birth to his son – it certainly deserves to be freed from Davy Jones’ Locker of Hollywood Failure.

Dir: Renny Harlin
Star: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chaykin