Monday, July 31, 2017


I’m talking here about the 1976 movie starring Robert Shaw. At the time, the film was a considered a flop, but it has survived, mostly I think because it’s a pirate movie, and they just seem to stick around. 

Pirate movies had fallen out of favor after the 1950’s. In an era before computer effects, they were horribly expensive to make, and when the 1960’s brought around drug culture, the Vietnam war, protests of the Vietnam war, and fear of nuclear war with Russia, the adventures of a bunch of sea-thieves seemed to lose their charms.

But in 1973 a version of The Three Musketeers did extremely well, and when Jaws became the first real summer blockbuster in 1975, studio executives were willing to risk the investment in a pirate movie.

The cast list is fascinating. Robert Shaw had played Quint in the aforementioned Jaws, and had also been a Bond villain. In Swashbuckler, he plays the main pirate, Captain “Red” Ned Lynch. A very young James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) plays his friend Nick. Peter Boyle, most famous as the Monster in Young Frankenstein, is the Evil Lord Durant. And Geneviève Bujold plays the young English noblewoman, Jane Barnet.

Requisite underwear shot

Other notable actors are Geoffrey Holder – famous for his fruity laugh, as Cudjo Quadrill, a former slave and knife artist, and Angelica Huston as “The Woman of Dark Visage.” Award winning character actor Beau Bridges (brother to Jeff Bridges) plays the often ridiculous Major Folly.

In this movie the pirates are definitely the Good Guys. Lest there be any confusion, the opening monologue refers to Lord Durant’s cruelty, and to the innocent prisoners wasting away in his dungeons. Throughout the film, Lord Durant kills people for fun. He arrests the current Lord Justice for no noticeable reason, and throws that worthy man’s wife and beautiful. feisty daughter into Jamaica’s slums.

But it’s his private life that creeps us out. Many of Durant’s scenes take place in his bathroom/lounge, a place inhabited by numerous scantily clad young women, strapping, shirtless black men, and Angelica Huston, who lurks like a vulture. But worst of all is a creepy blond boy, listed in the credits as “the lute player.” At Durant’s command, and with evident erotic glee, this person dons long steel fingernails and uses them for suggestive torture. It’s weird as hell, and it didn’t look especially convincing, even in in 1976.

Less creepy as a monster

The producers weren’t making any effort at historical accuracy, but they landed on it by accident a couple of times. The mix of races on the pirate ship, the easy authority of James Earl Jones, the pirate’s second in command, all ring true. In addition, the townspeople, also people of many races, show their support of the pirates in various ways. This stands to reason, as the pirates in this movie do what pirates have always done – they capture money, and then spend it on women and liquor. Thus, the local economy is improved.

And the film is not shy with the women. James Earl Jones likes to have a blond girl on one knee, and an African girl on the other, and there is no doubt that he takes them both to bed. Several pirates are shown in bed with their doxies, and the women enjoy showing off pirate-supplied jewelry. After an adventure, the pirate ship is filled with women, and Robert Shaw tells his crew to “sleep well, lads,” as he heads into his cabin with a willing wench.

The show also is one of the only pirate movies to film with a real (replica) pirate ship. Lynch’s vessel, the Blarney Cock, is actually an exact replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. The actual Golden Hind floated in 1577, and would have been sadly outdated during the year of the movie, 1718. But it’s wonderful to see a replica of real vessel that was owned by real pirate.

She’s very small, though she carries cannons (which also seem small, though they would be accurate for Drake’s time.) Too many pirate movies put the pirates on vast ships where the captain eats at a table 17 feet long. There are places where the Golden Hind’s whole width is less than 17 feet. She’s crewed by an appropriate number of pirates, and they actually do things like sing real shanties, and make real repairs. In one scene, the pirates are using a period-accurate paint brush to paint the deck red. (This was said to make the crew braver, because if someone was wounded the red blood would not be so noticeable.)

102 feet long, 20 feet wide. Not big

 The town also looks more accurate than most pirate movies. It consists of rich-people housing and slums, nothing in between. There are vegetable shops, taverns and whorehouses, and the streets are filled with pickpockets, small businessmen and prostitutes. No one looks too clean or too well dressed, though the clothing that has any noticeable style is not period accurate.

Cudjo is the leader of a highly unlikely troop of circus performers, and flashes a lot of 20th century leather armor and knives. He is an example of several people who are in the cast mostly because they were famous at the time. Can’t fault the actor, though. He’s exotic and that was his main job here.

The plot is entirely predictable. All the people hate Lod Durant and love the pirates, who steal from the nobles and then spend it as if gold was water. Then the pirate captain meets the Lord Justice’s beautiful, feisty daughter, and falls in love with her because, um – she’s beautiful and feisty. The pirates and the town people rise up to stop the Evil Lord Durant from making off with a large amount of ill-gotten wealth. Durant dies, justice triumphs. The creepy kid with the fingernails impales himself while falling down a flight of stairs, and Anjelica Huston steals Durant’s dead body for reasons we probably don’t want to think about.

There are several mildly interesting chase scenes, all technically believable, and a couple of rousing fights. All of this is damaged by a lack of good music. Someone went cheap on the music for this film, and the soundtrack only offers one “adventure theme” that plays over and over and over. By mid-movie it’s annoying. It also makes no use of any of the music existent at the time, or of sea songs. What a waste.

Swashbuckler is worth a look, though it only gets 3 stars. It has some fine bits of dialogue, a great location, and raunchy poetry. Shaw shines as a pirate, and seeing James Earl Jones as a young man is a beautiful thing. The chemistry between the two of them really works. “Nobody’s ever dared stand up to us more than once,” says Shaw, and you believe him.  So grab some popcorn and enjoy a good, silly pirate flick in Swashbucker.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the tip! picking it up at my library ^_^