Monday, July 29, 2013

The Black Swan – Pirate Movie

Yes, I’m aware of the movie about the psychotic ballerinas. I’m writing here about the 1942 Black Swan, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara.

It’s been said that a “swashbuckler” movie is an adventure that uses history for inspiration and atmosphere, but never lets it get in the way of a good sword fight or a torrid love scene. The Black Swan is a lovely swashbuckler.

Tyron Power has been called “the poor man’s Clark Gable.” A fine Shakespearian actor, as his father had been before him. My mother, who was from a generation that appreciated both men, told me that it was a matter of type. Both men were sexy, but women preferred one or the other. She preferred Ty. I first saw Tyrone Power in the 1940 Mark of Zorro. I agreed with her immediately.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Long John Silver and Robert Newton

Treasure Island is the most famous pirate story every written, and the most famous pirate in it, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Long John Silver. And the most famous Long John Silver was the actor Robert Newton. Robert Newton gave us pirates.

Long John Silver came from the mind of Robert Lewis Stevenson, and is said to have been inspired by a friend of Stevenson’s, W E Henley. Henley was a poet and journalist, and the author of the poem “Invictus,” the last stanza of which is:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Henley spoke of his punishments and torment out of experience. One of his legs had been amputated for “tuberculosis of the knee,” and he later spent nearly two years in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary having his remaining leg saved by the great surgeon Joseph Lister, at the expense of immense personal suffering.

His wooden leg and expansive personality made a great impression on Stevenson, who wrote to him: “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver.”

Robert Newton was born on June 1, 1905, in Shaftsberry, Dorset. Newton grew up in what is called the West Country of England, a place which was the origin of many real pirates. The son of landscape painter Algernon Newton, he started his career as an actor on the stage at age 16, in the Birmingham Reparatory Theater. He was soon working in London, and did well in a variety of plays, including Horatio in Lawrence Olivier’s 1939 production of Hamlet. During WWII Newton served in the Royal Navy, and, strangely enough, continued acting in films, including a version of Oliver Twist in which he played a truly chilling Bill Sikes.

We don’t think of Britain producing movies while they were fighting the Nazis, but folks at home needed to have some entertainment. During the war, Disney studios had released several of their movies in Britain, and had made quite a bit of money. After the war, they were faced with a problem.

Monday, July 15, 2013

16 Common Sayings with Origins From the Sea

All the phrases we use in conversations have to come from somewhere, and many of these have origins from the sea… and sailing ships in particular.

Above board – meaning honest or hiding nothing. On a ship, “above board” signifies the top deck, masts and sails, everything above the ship’s boards, open to view.

Bitter end – meaning the absolute end of something. The cleat or post where the anchor cable was tied was called the “bitt” or the “bitts.” So when an anchor was let out as far as possible, and had reached the extreme end of its tether, it had reached the “bitter end.”

Monday, July 8, 2013

Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the novel Treasure Island, and published it originally as a serial in the children’s magazine Young Folks between 1881 and 1882, under the pseudonym Captain Charles North and then as a novel in 1883. It is among the most popular books from its time period, and has been instrumental in forming our modern notion of pirates.

Stevenson was a bit of an adventurer. He had originally intended to join his family business as a lighthouse engineer, but dropped out of engineering school to attend law school. He never practiced. His desire to become a writer hit him early and hard. His original stories were non-fiction, based on his vacation travels around Europe.

Stevenson’s literary output was primarily non-fiction travelogues or short-story adventures, until he drew a “treasure map” for his stepson, and created a story to accompany it. The story became Treasure Island.

The story was the first of his writings to be labeled, “for children” and also the first book-length work. It was immediately popular and was the first major success for the man who would soon write Kidnapped, The Black Arrow and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

Unlike most children’s books, or adult books from the time period, Treasure Island features a morally ambiguous main character in the form of Long John Silver.

Silver was based on a friend, William Henley, "...a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet". Henley was also missing a leg. It had been amputated due to infection, and Henley walked only with the aid of a crutch. In a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island Stevenson wrote: "I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver...the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you."

Stevenson was inspired by the duality of a crippled man who is also powerful, frightening and dangerous. A strong, honest-seeming, hardworking man with a successful business (Silver is owner-operator of the pub and eating-house the Spyglass) he is nonetheless a ruthless pirate, “The only man that Flint feared.”

Monday, July 1, 2013

Gay Marriage Among Pirates

In celebration of the end of DOMA, and hoping for the freedom to marry, for everyone, everywhere.
Sailors at sea have always been prone to what sociologists call “situational homosexuality.” All-male crews, at sea for weeks or months, cut off from the rest of humanity, turned to each other for sexual release. Pirates, most specifically the pirates active in the Caribbean beginning in the 1600’s, had formalized unions between consenting adult men.

The term used for this was matelotage a French word with the meaning of “seamanship” stemming from the word matelot which meant “seaman” or “sailor.” The French government showed concern for their sailors turning to a homosexual lifestyle, so much so that in 1645 the French governor of Tortuga requested hundreds of prostitutes be shipped to the New World to lure the sailors out of each other’s arms.

Being French, the sailors did not deprive themselves of pleasures already acquired, but shared the favors of the ladies as they shared so many things.
Sailors often moved between ships, even between ships of different nationalities. The English sailors, observing the close relationship between pairs of their French counterparts, adopted the words “matelot” and “matelotage” into English, with the approximate meaning of “buddy” and “buddy-ship.”
Eventually, the word “matelot” was shortened down to “mate.”  Yes, like pirates say. “Hello, mate!”

The English navy was not nearly so reasonable concerning homosexual relationships. In an age when the English Navy ran on “rum, sodomy and the lash,” (as noted in many writings of the time), homosexual relationships were punishable by death.

The result here was that in the English Navy, relationships went underground. Very often, they became forced, often between a superior and a subordinate. When English crews went on the account, becoming pirates, they looked for a way to legitimize relationships of honest affection.
Matelotage, now used as an English word, became a term for a legal marriage between two men. Some of these had begun as master-servant or senior-junior. But under the pirate flag, they could be honored and legitimized.

Why the extreme difference in attitudes between the English Navy and the pirates, many of whom had been navy men at one time? I think the difference lies in the fact that, in the pirate world, the law-makers and the law-abiders were in the same boat, literally and figuratively. In England, the moneyed, law making class was largely immune to the very laws they instituted. As the rich were becoming more rich through expanded trade and the growing cash economy, they enacted draconian laws to control the lower classes.

One of the peculiarities of this system was that, for a crime to be prosecuted, someone had to pay the court costs. This made it easy for a rich person to prosecute a poor one, but almost impossible for a poor person to prosecute someone better off. As long as a rich person did not “bother” a member of his own class, he was immune from the law, while a member of the lower classes who seemed to be having the “wrong kind of fun” might attract the attention of someone with more money who was willing to spend money to take him to court.

In pirate society (and only pirate society) two men could “marry.” They would exchange gold rings, and pledge eternal union. After this, they were expected to share everything.  Plunder and living spaces were obvious, but couples in matelotage were also known to share other property, and even women. If one of the partners was killed in action, pirate captains were careful to make sure that the surviving member received both shares of plunder, as well as any appropriate death benefits.

Simply put, homosexual relationships had been kept under wraps by people in fear for their lives because of draconian laws. Among sailors who had practiced this form of release themselves, it lost its sense of being alien, and so became accepted and legitimized as soon as they (by turning pirate) gained the right to make their own laws.

In today’s society, the recent legitimization of gay marriage in the US became possible because of the people who “came out” when it was still dangerous. Neighbors, friends and relatives saw that gay people were not so very different after all.