I expected more from the 1986 film, Pirates. But it was no more than a catalogue of ill-informed parodies of an age the makers of the film didn’t understand half as well as they thought they did. When I saw Walter Matthau was the main character and that Roman Polanski was the director, I had high expectations that were dispelled the moment Matthau’s character Captain Red bit the buttock of his faithful fool, a Frenchman he calls Frog. This stereotypical name is perhaps the high point of humour in the disjointed and aimless film. The officers of the Spanish galleon are all dressed as if they are courtiers at Versailles, while the cabins are furnished as lavishly as any of the Sun King’s rooms. In fact, Polanski doesn’t seem to be aware that he is making a film centred round a Spanish galleon. It’s difficult to imagine how any of the officers could have managed in a storm or climbed the rigging. Their sole role seemed to be meting out harsh punishments to the crew.
Cliches extend to the overuse of enemas by a ship’s physician whose remedies are implicitly responsible for the captain’s death; though he expires just after confessing his doubt in God’s existence,thus revealing himself to be worthy of redemption. The priest who confesses him is another sanctimonious cliche who is apparently intended to represent the harshness of the Spanish Inquisition, who blithely confesses pirates and criminals to be garrotted.
The only notable female in the film is María-Dolores de la Jenya de la Calde, played by Charlotte Lewis. It is easy to understand why she is not well-known and why she hasn’t made any films for 13 years, though she was only 19 when she played María-Dolores de la Jenya de la Calde; this character was particularly vacuous and vain insisting that her ransom should be 30,000 doubloons instead of 3,000, and asking her uncle to agree that her honour is worth more than a kingdom, when she is about to be raped; at the same time, he coy smile implies that she hopes Frog does rape her.
There are no heroic characters, nor even interesting villains. Damien Thomas, who plays, Don Alfonso de la Torré, the officer who takes over command of the galleon, the Neptune, after the death of Captain Linares, gives the most competent performance as a would-be ruthless schemer though he proves to be a foiled fop through a series of slapstick accidents that are obstacles to development of any sensible storyline as much as they are to any entertainment value in the film.
All in all, a dreadful experience.