Monday, November 17, 2014

Pirate Costumes in the Movies Part 3

Against All Flags wasn’t the only movie to steal sailing-ship scenes from Black Swan. Film clips from the 1942 movie were still being recycled forty years later, in 1982, when an Australian film company made The Pirate Movie, an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.



The film is a bizarre mish-mash of the 19th century original and 80s fashion and music. Framed by a story in which a shy, mousy girl named Mable falls for a handsome young fencing instructor named Fredrick. A knock on the head puts Mable into a dream state and takes us back in time to pirate days, where the plot of the original Operetta unfolds (more or less).

The movie certainly doesn’t know what it wants to be, and the costumes echo this difficulty. The original 80s scenes look like the 80s all right, but once we’re in dreamland, all kinds of things happen.

The original pirate ship harbors men wearing stereotypical pirate gear… eye patches, fancy satin vests, beautiful wide-sleeved pirate shirts that lace up the front. But their costumes cover an unusually wide range of time, ranging from the mid 1600’s through the 1900’s (The dream sequence is set firmly in 1876, with dates mentioned in the movie locking it in place.) One assumes that this is supposed to reflect the dream state of the proceedings.

Fredrick himself appears throughout much of the movie in white tights, cream colored thigh boots, and a vest that looks like Sargent Pepper was involved in a paintball fight.



This at least is understandable. It’s an effort to make the romantic leads “relatable” to the teenaged audiences of the time. The male lead’s clothes have been seriously touched by the 80s, even while all those around him come from much earlier times.

Likewise the female lead, surrounded by “sisters” in Victorian summer dresses, first appears in a decidedly 80’s off-the-shoulder number with a skirt hiked up to the hip. Later, when the sisters change into bathing suits circa 1900, Maud keeps her slinky dress. (The remark that she’ll have a hard time finding a husband seems especially out-of-place here.)



Irrationally, she shows up later for a swimming scene in a corset and bloomers. I suppose they were sexy, and sexy sells.  Also sexy was the off-the-shoulder white blouse and peach colored satin shorts she wears through most of the movie.  

In one way the production did know what it was trying for. The female lead consistently stays in provocative clothes, and the male lead wore what was designed to attract teenage female viewers. The costume that best shows off his sex appeal is a simple white loincloth.

The actor, Christopher Atkins, had made an enormous splash only two year before, when he had starred opposite Brook Shields in The Blue Lagoon. This idyllic story of two young people, marooned on a tropical island made Shields a major star and Atkins a major heart-throb. Showing him in this outfit was probably the wisest move made by the company.



The Pirate Movie didn’t do well, and received terrible reviews. It probably would have completely slipped from memory, except that it’s about pirates, and provides such an odd little footnote in the list of pirate movies.

On a much larger budget, Cutthroat Island aimed much higher, spent a lot more money, and came out about even in the ratings department. It was supposed to be an opportunity for Geena Davis, previously known as a star of light comedies, to become an action heroine.



Unfortunately, difficulties casting a leading man, messed up the production and drove up expenses, and it turned out that Davis didn’t have a strong enough personality to be quite believable as a pirate captain. This, combined with an overabundance of times when the leads nearly fall to their deaths, only to be saved by landing on a piece of waded-up sailcloth, or a banana leaf, and topped off by the film’s extremely weak ending, made the movie one of the biggest flops of all time.

There was certainly no problem with the costumes. It was becoming acceptable for a movie to be shadowy, and the production makes good use of firelight and candlelight for atmosphere. All the costumes are suitably worn and dirty.

This is a world where even the good guys don’t wash too often. Even the rich party-clothes of the nobility seem a little tawdry, a little tarnished.



This movie takes place in the late 1600’s, the era of Captain Morgan. Davis spends most of the beginning of the show in a very practical suit of men’s clothes (a set of garments that’s actually about 100 years too late, but which matches much of the other clothing in tone).

But female pirates need to wear sexy clothes, and the story gives Davis a chance to wear a beautiful noblewoman’s dress, with all the accoutrements, as she goes into town to look for someone to translate the inevitable treasure map. Circumstances lead to a chase, which leads to Davis losing most of this outfit. She has a great scene driving a team of white horses madly through town, wearing little beside her expensive embroidered bodice and a pair of bloomers.

Later she has occasion to switch clothing with a streetwalker by way of a disguise. Davis succeeds here in being sensual and sexy, and the dirty, worn clothing is both scuzzy enough and attractive enough to stand beside any pirate costume ever.



Further proof here that the details tell you who the main players are. When the streetwalker is wearing the outfit, she has quite good in-period hair and makeup. Davis wears it with “natural look” makeup and hair that would have been popular among the movie’s viewers when it was released. The result is a look that’s not accurate but far more attractive, while not seeming to stray too much from the rest of the movie’s look.

The authorities wear slightly boxy red coats and full-bottomed wigs, a-la Captain Hook, but without the panache. It’s easy to dislike them, especially the governor, whose white makeup and beauty mark are entirely in period, but which make him look effete and slimy.

Dawg (played by Frank Langela), Davis’s uncle and nemesis, is the only person in the movie with a wildly unlikely look. As a successful pirate, Dawg should be wearing an embroidered coat, even if it’s in disrepair. Instead he wears a period vest, with no shirt under it.



It’s unlikely that anyone in the time of the movie would have actually dressed like this. A shirt was underwear, and a vest wouldn’t have been worn without one, especially since the vest would be wool. But Dawg is a man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. The strange clothing, his close-cropped hair, different from anyone else in the cast, set him completely apart.

If only the rest of the movie has stood up as well as the clothes.  


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