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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Buccaneers (originally published 12/02)

In "A Pirate Looks at Forty," Jimmy Buffett bemoans the fact that he was born "200 years too late" to pursue his calling as a pirate. Imagination is timeless, however. Although piracy in the classic, swashbuckling sense has passed into history, it seems that the retelling of a good pirate story never will.

The recent release of "Treasure Planet" seeks to transplant Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" into a futuristic setting, but its modest box office performance seems to indicate that audiences still prefer their pirate stories in their original setting. If you went to see "Treasure Planet" and found yourself wishing for a good old fashioned pirate movie instead, here are a few titles to look for on home video.

"The Black Pirate" (1926). Douglas Fairbanks, who had essentially invented the swashbuckling movie genre with "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), waited until relatively late in his career to weigh in with a pirate movie. When he finally made one, he made sure that it had everything. It was a compendium of every pirate tale that Fairbanks had ever loved, and he had loved most of them.

"Old Ironsides" (1926). Inspired in part by the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem of the same name, this silent classic portrays the U.S.S. Constitution, not in its fabled exploits during the War of 1812, but in its earlier service against the Barbary Pirates. The film begins with Jefferson's "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute" speech and ends with Stephen Decatur's burning of the captured U.S.S. Philadelphia to render it useless to its pirate captors.

"Treasure Island" (1934 and 1950). Stevenson's classic novel has, of course, been translated to the screen many times before its current science-fictional incarnation. It's easy enough to narrow down the choices to two, but beyond that it's just impossible to make a clear recommendation. The 1934 version is probably the better movie, with Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins and Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. Still, it's hard to resist the wonderfully hammy performance of Robert Newton as Long John in the 1950 Disney version. Newton chews the scenery, creating the pirate characterization that remains the basis for all pirate parody ("arrr, Matey...") to this day. If you're a fan of Stevenson's book, you really need to see both versions. And if you're not a fan of the book, better check for a pulse.

"Captain Blood" (1935). This was the film that made stars of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. In this adaptation of the Rafael Sabatini novel, Flynn plays Peter Blood, a physician who falls afoul of the tyrannical King James II. In 1865, the rebellion against James has just been crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor. When Blood is caught treating the wounds of one of the rebels, he is arrested along with his patient. Both are sold into slavery as punishment. Just when things look hopeless, the Spaniards invade, allowing Blood and his fellow prisoners to escape in the chaos. They seize the Spanish ship and become buccaneers on the Spanish Main. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Buccaneer" (1958). In 1938, Cecil B. De Mille had mythologized the contribution of Jean Lafitte and his freebooters to the American war effort at the Battle of New Orleans. The original, amazingly enough, has not been released on video, but the 1958 remake was released on VHS, and used or rental copies can still be tracked down. The remake was supervised by De Mille, but by then he was too ill to direct it himself. He delegated the director's chair to his then son-in-law, Anthony Quinn. Yul Brynner plays Lafitte opposite Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson.

"The Crimson Pirate" (1952). For a good-natured, spirited, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the pirate movie genre, you can't do better than this lively romp. Burt Lancaster stars as Captain Vallo, the leader of a thoroughly scurvy band of pirates. They become involved with a revolution against Spanish rule on a small Caribbean island, but the plot is really of secondary importance. The main attraction is the outlandish acrobatic action, drawing on Lancaster's background as a circus acrobat.

One way or another, there seems to be little doubt that Hollywood will always remain committed to preserving the buccaneer spirit. You can see it on the screen, and you can feel it in your wallet each time you walk up to the box office and scan the ticket prices.

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