The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

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A delightful sanctuary, monsieur. A safe haven for buccaneers! 1745 Scotland. At the Durrisdeer estate Jamie Durie (Errol Flynn), his younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel) and their father Lord Durrisdeer (Felix Aylmer) hear about the Jacobite rising. Their advisor MacKellar (Mervyn Johns) recommends that one son side with the rebels, the other with King George II, thus preserving the estate no matter who wins. Jamie wins to fight in the uprising in a coin toss above the objections of his fiancee Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell). The rebels are crushed at Culloden and Jamie teams up with Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey) a characterful Irish adventuring type and they manage to get back to Durrisdeer where they intend securing money and passage to France. Jamie’s mistress Jessie (Yvonne Furneaux) betrays him to the British out of jealousy over his relationship with Alison:  he is shot by Major Clarendon (Ralph Truman) and falls into the sea. Henry becomes the heir because Jamie is presumed dead – but instead he’s wounded and takes off with Burke on a ship bound for the West Indies. There they are betrayed by Captain McCauley (Moultrie Kelsall) and captured by pirates led by Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier) a man for whom execution is a spectator sport. Jamie goes into partnership with him and when they arrive at Tortugas Bay, they see a rich Spanish galleon captured by fellow buccaneer Captain Mendoza (Charles Goldner). Arnaud agrees to Jamie’s idea that they steal the ship. But then he turns on Jamie who kills him in a duel and takes command. They sail for Scotland and Jamie returns to the family estate with pirate treasure, only to arrive in a middle of a party celebrating Henry’s engagement – to Alison! He confronts his brother, despite the presence of British officers. A fight breaks out, in which Henry tries to aid Jamie. The unequal fight ends with Jamie and Burke condemned to death. Jessie helps them escape, at the cost of her own life. Henry also assists them. Jamie tells his brother of the location of some treasure which Henry can then use to pay off Jamie’s gambling debts. Alison decides to go with Jamie to an uncertain future and she, Burke and Jamie all ride off together. This Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation isn’t a major pirate film or actioner but it has lots of good things about it – even if the wonderfully charismatic and handsome Flynn was clearly showing signs of premature ageing despite Jack Cardiff’s lovely photography. Livesey (of all people!) has the lion’s share of the fun dialogue as the rambunctious Irishman in a movie that has pretty much everything – dancing, swashbuckling, pirates, Indians, politics, romance and betrayal. What more do you want?! Oh, it’s got a tragic sacrifice by a beautiful woman and a wonderfully jaunty score by William Alwyn. And just relish those fabulous pirate scenes shot in Palermo, standing in for the West Indies. Adapted by Herb Meadow and Harold Medford and directed by William Keighley, whose fourth and final film with Flynn this was and in fact it marked his retirement from the movies.

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Captain Ron (1992)

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Some day Marty will do something worth writing about. Chicago businessman Martin Harvey (Martin Short) is leading a humdrum life with his wife Katherine (Mary Kay Place), trampy teenage daughter Caroline (Meadow Sisto) and little boy Ben (Benjamin Salisbury) until he inherits a yacht formerly owned by Clark Gable from his late uncle, last seen in  the US in 1962. They head off to the island of St Pomme de Terre (Saint Potato) in the West Indies to do it up and sell it through yacht broker Paul Anka (!) and inadvertently hire an eye-patched pirate type – the titular Ron (Kurt Russell) –  to lead them through tranquil aquarmarine waters as they venture through the islands cleaning up what turns out to be a wreck. Marty doesn’t trust Ron one iota but learns to trust in himself as his kids and wife become their truly adventurous selves – Place in particular has a whale of a time. There are no pirates in the Caribbean, says Marty. Then they give guerillas a lift from island to island and have their boat stolen by pirates and take their raft to Cuba -where the yacht is docked… Critics slated this for obvious reasons – why on earth was brilliant comic Short cast in the role of straight man in this twist on the Yuppies in Peril strand so popular in the early 90s? There are compensations, principally in some of the setups and the cinematography. The midlife crisis narrative of course has a twist – that’s in the narration by Marty and in the ending, when Ron doesn’t have a glass eye in his new job:  pirate tales are all in the telling, after all. Colourful and amusing. Written by John Dwyer and directed by Thom Eberhardt.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

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Aka Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales. Thanks to the Australian government’s tax incentives, that Pirates-shaped gap in my life has finally been plugged with a new instalment in the delayed series. I love these films, and all pirate films, and have had to sate myself with the genius Black Sails in the interim (I have one series to go, so no spoilers please! I’m still not over Charles Vane’s execution!). This is number 5 in the franchise and it operates as a kind of unofficial reboot because it has been (gasp) 14 long years since the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was released. And it’s aptly returned to this for most of the bones in terms of story, character and structure, even if this has way more shaggy-dogness about it in an untidy set of plot mechanics. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann vows to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to right the wrong on his father who’s abiding in a watery limbo on the Flying Dutchman. He knows that the Trident of Poseidon will break the curse. Death meanwhile lurks on the high seas in the form of Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew who cannot set foot on dry land – also condemned and cursed by Sparrow’s antics. An astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) is being executed as a witch in St Martin where a bank is being opened – and this is where Captain Jack makes his spectacular reappearance with his unruly and disgruntled crew led by Kevin McNally, with their awful ship in dry dock where they’re all broke. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is summoned by Henry to help out and he is ironically reunited with a daughter who doesn’t know the provenance of the map she seeks … Colourful, silly, not entirely logical and definitely rehashing plot points from the earlier films particularly the first one, this is handled pretty well by Norwegian directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg working from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, with a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio.  The young lovers story gets a run-through, the Barbossa plot gets a very fitting conclusion, there’s a fascinating flashback (I want one to give me skin like that in real life) and there are homages here and there to make you smile – the zombie sharks being a reference to the original summer blockbuster granddaddy of them all, the ghost crew a nod to the original’s skeleton crew, Depp taking his Robert Newton/Keith impersonation to new heights of pantomime, a great Paul McCartney cameo and a bank robbery like no other. Some of the lines could have done with a rewrite – especially the jokes which are heavy on the misogyny; and there’s no real mad surrealism which has graced previous episodes (is there anything as wild as the hallucination of the ship on dry land and the multiple Jacks?!). While most of the legendary tropes are present bar a real Brit villain the last action sequence is so darned complex I genuinely forgot what it was about. But it’s full of fun and wild adventure and I for one love this series even if number 4 fell far short of expectations. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty useful couple to base the next set of films, kicking some new plotlines into touch. What do you want – live action Space Mountain?! Hoist the mainbrace! Wahey me hearties! More!

Happy 70th Birthday Steven Spielberg!

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We sometimes forget the people who are always there and Steven Spielberg has always been in my life, like a comfort blanket. His command of the visual language complements an extraordinary understanding of the centre of things, the emotionality, the source of humour and compassion, thrills and action. His films have made me swoon and gasp in awe, laugh hysterically, gaze in wonder and shiver in fear. He uses new technology and collaborates with great practitioners in filmmaking crafts. He creates worlds and leads us there, by the hand, and sometimes educates us. He produces films and inspires and mentors other writers and directors and has given the world the great John Williams scores and the summer blockbuster. He is at the heart of pop culture and for Generation X he is simply our guy:  Jaws, CE3K, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET:  The Extra-Terrestrial. His sensibility may have altered somewhat as he has aged, but the audience is always crucial to his thinking:  good stories, well told and beautifully made. He is a master of all genres, pretty much and those he hasn’t directed he’s produced. Spielberg was born 18 December 1946 and we are fortunate to have him. Long may he reign.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

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Johann Wyss’ book was a big part of my childhood and when I went to the Disney theme parks I loved seeing the treehouse – I’m old fashioned, dontcha know and it was a toss-up between that and Alice’s tea cups as to what was my favourite thing. Napoleon’s on the warpath so it’s time for the Robinsons to depart Europe for Guinea – but their ship is wrecked, chased by pirates onto rocks and the crew have abandoned them to their fate. So they set up home on an uninhabited island, experiencing crazy adventures with wild animals, fighting off the returning pirates and generally making themselves very handy indeed. Then another ship is run aground …  Mom and Dad are played by Dorothy Maguire and John Mills, the kids are James Macarthur, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran,  cute as a button, as always. And you might recognise Turk the Great Dane,  (future) star of The Ugly Dachshund. Supreme action adventure beautifully shot in Widescreen and Panavision by Harry Waxman, with a rousing score by William Alwyn, adapted by Lowell Hawley and directed by Ken Annakin. The real treehouse in Tobago remained until it was destroyed by Hurricane Flora in 1963.

 

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

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Children and pirates and spies, oh my! I was dreading this when I read that Arthur Ransome’s real life inter-war intelligence activity was going to be integrated into the classic story of children messing about in boats on holiday in the Lake District. Yet it works a treat, commencing with a train sequence that’s not quite worthy of Hitchcock, when rude Rafe Spall intrudes on the Walker children while escaping the attentions of Andrew Scott and his Russian Friend;  he shows up on a houseboat when the adventurous children are desperately trying to persuade mother Kelly Macdonald to allow them sail to what they proudly christen Walker Island, where they encounter rival sailor girls and much, much more besides. This works up a head of steam and treats family tensions, sibling spats and pirate – and real – spying with due seriousness. Ransome hated the 1962 BBC version;  I grew up with the 1974 adaptation. Writer Andrea Gibb and director Phillippa Lowthorpe do a quietly impressive job. Quite charming.

Peter Pan (1953)

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Watching the abortion of a film called Pan necessitated my return to the real thing – Disney’s magical, charming interpretation of JM Barrie which lit up my childhood. It was the first book I asked my parents to buy for me. It was the second feature animation I saw in the days when the studio was re-releasing the classics before they reactivated their animation division properly. The first I saw was Snow White and in point of fact Disney intended that this be his second feature but it took  him years to obtain the rights and WW2 intervened. London 1900. Practical Papa Darling banishes Nana the dog nursemaid to the yard and Wendy to her own bedroom – it’s time for everyone to grow up. Peter flies into the house at night looking for his shadow, which Wendy tries to stitch to his shoes. He teaches her and her younger brothers John and Michael to fly and they follow him and pixie Tinker Bell to Neverland and have encounters with the pirate Captain Hook who wants revenge for having his hand cut off. Tinker Bell is jealous of Wendy and gets the Lost Boys to shoot her down and Peter banishes her. John and Michael and the Lost Boys set off to find the Indians on the island but they are captured because they believe they kidnapped Tiger Lily, the chief’s daughter … Everything concludes in some marvellous scenes on the pirate ship walking the plank, a ticking crocodile pursuing Hook and his crew, and order restored. Sheer timeless wonder made by the fabled Nine Old Men at Disney with songs by Sammy Cahn. You’ll believe You Can Fly.

Pan (2015)

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There are those films that should have been put out of their misery before they were permitted to become part of ours. And this is one of them. Because what the world really needed was a Peter Pan origins story. Not.  This is ghastly in so many ways it only needs a couple of examples to explain:  the Lost Boys singing Smells Like Teen Spirit. Rooney Mara is Tinker Bell. Written by Jason Fuchs. Directed by Joe Wright. Wrong.Wrong.Wrong.

Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!

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“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.” Errol Flynn’s final onscreen lines to Ms de Havilland in They Died With Their Boots On. Two-time Academy Award winner, rebel, survivor, lady and the better half of one of the most glorious screen couples. She is part of our classical Hollywood dream and we are all the better for sharing it. Thank you and Happy Birthday!

The Black Swan (1942)

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Twentieth Century-Fox knew how to make good plotty films and this rip-roaring swashbuckler is at the top of the entertainment heap. Adapted by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller (they both wrote Scarface, Miller wrote The Sea Hawk) from Rafael Sabatini’s novel, shot by Leon Shamroy in glorious Technicolor, scored by Alfred Newman and directed by the always reliable Henry King, what more could you want? Oh, there’s Tyrone Power as Jamie Boy, supporter of privateer Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) who’s just taken the King’s shilling and wants to clean up the Spanish Main and Maureen O’Hara as Lady Margaret, daughter of the Governor he usurps. They’re after Leech (George Sanders, splendid as a brigand in a ginger wig) who’s done a deal with Lady Margaret’s fiance to divest the Prince Consort of a pile of gold and taken off in the titular galleon. Thomas Mitchell provides comic relief and you must sit back and relish the witty banter between the mismatched lovers as Jamie Boy kidnaps the lustrous lady to lure Leech into a trap. Oh my! How wonderful is this!