The Fantasy World of Piracy
By John A. C. Cartner
Special to Piracy Daily
I like movies. The fresh air of a just-vacated theatre is a wafting perfume. The aroma of stale popcorn and walking on sticky floors also excite me. However, I love fantasy movies. Fantasy sells too. The biggest fantasy genre of all is, of course, pirate movies. Pirate movies sell very well indeed. If one cannot think of anything else to produce then pirates sell like Christmas.
Hollywood learned about pirates before the talkies when D. W. Griffith put on The Pirate's Gold starring George Gebhardt in 1908. Before 1920—during a period of 18 years—there were eight pirate movies and one animated film. The one that stands out to my mind is the herky-jerky black and white of Daphne and the Pirate, which reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In the Roaring 20s another 14 pirate movies came out. That is an average of one every eight months or so. The public could not be sated. Of course, pirates in the movies are always well-dressed and, indeed, there was one in 1925 with the name Clothes Make the Pirate. Now there's a title. ...
Things slowed in the 1930s with only one a year—the Great Depression and all that. The one I like is Pirate Party on Catalina Island, which was a variety show starring southern Californians. Go figure. Not to be outdone, the 1940s produced 12 cinematic exploits, including such worthy titles as Buccaneer Bunny, an animated short film, and the quite forgettable The Pirate. That title was used twice again in more What I Did Last Summer movies.
Now let us think about 1950. That year was the golden year of piracy celluloid with seven of the genre arising. But wait, that’s not all! In 1952 nine came out!! The pent-up demand was unprecedented in the mostly un-air-conditioned flick houses. There were 35 pirate–themed offerings in that decade or about one a quarter. If you could not get your pirate fix in the 50s you had a real problem. Davy Crockett and the River Pirates was a box office landslide.
There were 21 pirate films in the 1960s but a paltry six in the 70s. That was a strange decade in many other ways, too. But the ’80s and the ’90s came with 16 each. Flat market. The past 12 years have seen one a year. I especially liked Pirates of the Great Salt Lake. It reminded me of American maritime policy.
The creativity of new plots is quite remarkable. Treasure Island has had 16 versions at least and the words are novel. “Pirate” was used in 45 movies. Creativity always has its way.
Now pirates always portray latent sexual urges when not raping and pillaging. Accordingly, there have been at least two pornographic pirate big-screen exposures. Some 16 small-screen takes have shown up and one cinematic experience was based on a computer game. It won no mentions at the Oscars. Like breeds like it appears.
So what do we have here? There have been 155 of these things in 105 years or about every year and a half. They really are exotic, too. The Caribbean wins hands down with five using the word in the title and another two using Jamaica, and one each for Tortuga and Panama. Odd places where one would not vacation were a place called Frenchman’s Creek and Blood River. Not to be left out were Spain, Java, Tripoli, Ballantrae and of course—in rousing choruses—Penzance which one thinks was more alliterative than amusing.
But let us leave this excursion from life. In all piracy the killings are real. The blood flows sticky red and smells like freshly-sheared copper. The captures are violent and not merely exciting. The fear is palpable in the atmosphere. There is no naval rescue steaming over the horizon. There is nothing for the seafarer but imminent mortal danger. It is indeed unfortunate that the pirate genre does not represent the pirate reality—then or now. Perhaps if it did there would be popular outrage at what is happening off Somalia, West Africa and elsewhere. I do not see that in the near future.
Mark your calendars for October 11, 2013 and the premiere of Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama takeover. I expect Tom Hanks to do as well or better than his stint as an Army Ranger in Saving Private Ryan. In the less-talented category is the Danish offering, The Hijacking, which has been described as "formulaic," whatever that means. It too, however, can be prickly necker.
© 2013 John A. C. Cartner. May be used with attribution and a mention that it was published first in Piracy Daily.