Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) – A Review

Roman Polanski Pirates cast box office bomb
Roman Polanski’s Pirates

Whoa. Roman Polanski’s Pirates! I recall when it first came out reading about it and not finding any positive reviews for it. It took quite the lashing from critics. It quickly became a member of the notorious family of big box office disasters after having cost around $40 million bucks and grossing about $7 million worldwide.

That’s pretty bad. It’s not surprising we didn’t see many pirate movies being made in its wake.

I eventually watched a few minutes of it when it showed up on cable soon after it disappeared from theaters. But I had never watched the whole thing. Now that I have, I regret not quitting while I was ahead. Sometimes you should just go with your gut.

In 1986 Roman Polanski got to film a project that he had been dreaming of for over a decade. A pirate movie that would be his homage to the old swashbuckling adventures that he enjoyed as a boy. The lavish production would create a full scale galleon that would be the centerpiece of the story.

It sounds like it could be a cool idea. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Really it wasn’t.

Walter Matthau is the peg-legged, filthy Captain Red. Hopelessly adrift at sea with his first mate Frog (Cris Campion) it looks like to be the end for them until they happen upon a Spanish galleon.

After being enslaved by the Spaniards and forced to wash the decks, they create a mutiny with Red seizing control of the ship with his eyes on taking the Spanish treasure onboard, specifically a solid gold Aztec throne. Meanwhile Frog falls for the niece (Charlotte Lewis) of a Spanish governor. The pair recruit even more pirates from Red’s past before the ship is overtaken by the Spaniards. This leads to an all out battle for the ship and the treasures inside.

Cris Campion Walter Matthau Roman Polanski's Pirates 1986 movie
Cris Campion and Walter Matthau

This story sounds a little slim doesn’t it? Well, that’s exactly what it is – slim. There’s really nothing going on. It starts with an intriguing setup as Red and Frog are seemingly doomed (I suspect after one heck of a pirate-ty adventure) and they manage to board that passing Spaniard ship.

They’re shackled and forced to work. Red spots the mountain of treasure stored in the ships hull and his eyes widen. From there on the film just kind of floats along headed in no clear direction like the two castaways in the middle of the ocean.

There’s very little that works here. All the supposed drama, action and comedy falls immediately overboard faster than an anchor and you’re just left there staring at the screen feeling no emotion. Things bounce all over the place to heavy dramatic battles to embarrassing romance to downright silliness.

The story as I said goes nowhere. It should be fairly simple to follow – everyone wants this Aztec throne and they’re willing to do anything to get their hands on it. But the movie becomes so convoluted with confusing detours that key motivation of the pirates and Spaniards gets lost.

Throughout the film I was never engaged or interested in seeing where this adventure would be headed. Instead it becomes a series of scenes that follow one another that never build to anything.

Other than Matthau, the cast has very little to do or get to bring to life any memorable characters.

Campion is meant to be the young dashing hero with his budding romance with Lewis. However, neither of them create any sparks and their relationship is written in the most broad boring cinematic strokes. It’s mainly them making googly eyes at each other and both are completely forgettable in this.

Other than Lewis appearing in The Golden Child soon after this I’ve never seen any other work either of them has done. So I’m guessing their participation in Pirates didn’t help their careers much.

Damian Thomas is the Spanish villain and again is given very little to do other than recite clichéd bad guy dialogue. I can’t recall anything about any of the supporting parts or pirates. Everyone just seems to blend into the background and are there to encircle Matthau and Thomas as they give speeches.

Matthau’s miscasting here as Captain Red has gotten a lot of heat, probably the most picked on part of this movie. It’s interesting to think what Pirates would have been like had Polanski gotten Jack Nicholson for the role as he originally intended. That might have been pretty cool seeing what Nicholson would have done with playing a nasty pirate.

Walter Matthau Captain Red Pirates 1986

Instead Matthau fluctuates between doing comedic slapstick, acting cruelly nefarious to downright disgusting. And none of what he does here makes me enjoy spending time with him. I wouldn’t even mind his often criticized accent had he been a fun, greedy rapscallion who I was amused to watch.

One positive I can say about Matthau is his peg-leg. They managed to make his wooden leg look pretty convincing and successfully hid Matthau’s real one under his clothes. They pulled that off pretty good at least.

I haven’t seen all of Polanski’s films, but Pirates has to be one of the worst, if not the worst on his resume. Even while watching Pirates I didn’t feel there was any passion behind it. There was nothing notable in it that made me think this was a dream project that a talented filmmaker has finally gotten a chance to make and he’s really putting his all into it. That he was excited to be trying something different and really spent a lot of time thinking about all of this. I was just left thinking, “why did they waste their time making this? Did they really think this was good? What was the point?”

Pirate ship Neptune Italy tourist
The Neptune now a tourist stop in Italy

The only other positive thing that I can say about Pirates (other than Matthau’s peg-leg – not exactly a quote-worthy blurb to be used on the movie poster) is after all the money they spent on the galleon it did pay off and it does looks pretty impressive. Seeing it in wideshots I kept imagining what a wonderful floating set it would be to set an entertaining movie on. Pirates isn’t it though.

‘The Neptune’ is now docked in Italy and open for tours. And I’m betting strolling around its decks is more interesting and entertaining than having to see it in this movie.


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7 Responses

  1. spaceodds says:

    Your comment;
    "….it becomes a series of scenes that follow one another that never build to anything."
    This line pretty sums up what the film is.
    As a diehard Roman Polanski fan, Pirates was one film I wasn't going to miss out on, and it s a shame I didn't because this film, along with his 1973 film What? are the worst films he has directed to date.

    When Polanski wanted to first helm this in the mid 70s after the milestone success of Chinatown, he originally envisioned Nicholson as Captain Red, and himself playing the Frog. Not to mention there was a rumour that he wanted Dustin Hoffman for Don Alfonso. Sadly this was never meant to be, and after a decade which saw Polanski direct some of his greatest films (The Tenant in 1976 and Tess in 1979) and endure an infamous episode that still haunts him, Polanski was back at the helm of this extravaganza.

    The problem with Pirates is that it doesn't have a flow in pacing, it literally is, as you said, a series of scenes that don't build up to anything. When the action appears, it ends abruptly without making an impact and instead we have to put up with Matthau doing another 'grandiose' speech his cockney accent. With the exception of one scene between Red and 'The Dutch' (played by Roy Kinnear) who is in a bathtub and shaking, the humour falls flat and becomes cringe worthy. However for me the worst scene of all is the ending, Red and Frog get the throne, but end up in the same predicament as they were at the beginning. You see a close up of a shark's fin for a millisecond and then you see a long shot of the raft that Red and Frog are aboard on. The film doesn't end, it stops. I sometimes wonder whether the distributor edited out a lot of footage to make the film shorter, and since the distributor was Cannon Films (remember them?) I won't be surprised if this is the case.

    Matthau tries his best, but he literally has no help from the supporting cast; Chris Campion disappeared soon after, best thing he could have done since he has no charisma whatsoever, whilst Damien Thomas (who got the gig after Timothy Dalton dropped out) is simply a cardboard villain.

    As for Charlotte Lewis. The only things I recall about this woman is her two Playboy photo shoots, and her allegations that Polanski sexually molested her, a claim which she made in 2010 and went nowhere. I also vaguely recall her giving an interview where she claimed that she had sexual tryst with Polanski, Eddie Murphy and others and that at the age of 14 she was a hooker whilst she was at school.

    Overall the film is a disaster of epic proportions; however there are two positives about this film and that is Philippe Sarde's score, which is superb, and the galleon which was built for the film. The galleon was built from wood, and turned in a less wooden performance than most of the actors in this film.

    In the U.K. we have a blu ray distributor called Arrow, who have been releasing a few Cannon titles such as Runaway Train, The Last American Virgin and The Delta Force. I really do hope to see a release of Pirates since I would love to see a documentary on the film.

    • A documentary on Pirates would be interesting to see. It's ironic how most big-budget bombs seem to have more compelling things happening behind the scenes than what unfolds onscreen.

    • spaceodds says:

      A documentary on Pirates would be something interesting. I know that for the last few years there has been documentary in production on Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films which is a documentary I've been anticipating highly. There's a rumor going around that its ready to make its debut sometime this year.

      I also read somewhere that even though Pirates is a disaster, there are some directors who have championed it. I read in a Polanski biography that Stanley Kubrick was one such director who, according to legend, "…compared the film to a Turneresque painting" and called the film "….a balls out masterpiece". Don't know if this is true or not but you have to give credit where credit is due; the attention to detail is superb, and, looking back on it now, I do feel the film has a certain mark of craftsmanship due to the practical special effects on display. Still, despite these positives, there's no denying that the film stumbles along, and amounts to very, very, very little.

    • CKulik says:

      I can't wait to see that Cannon documentary! To me, the finest film they ever distributed, and I'm sure Hap would agree, was THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN, although they did release other decent films like RUNAWAY TRAIN and they even won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1986, their only taste of Oscar glory. I don't even mind the Richard Chamberlain-Sharon Stone version of KING SOLOMON'S MINES as a fun little adventure, even if it did rip-off Indiana Jones. However, it was SUPERMAN IV in which they screwed up big time, and it would ultimately lead to their breakup and liquidation. Then again, even if they hadn't have cut the budget in half and lose the amazing crew which had worked on the other Superman films, it probably still would have sucked. I still can't get over the fact that Reeve had a bit of a beer belly in IV….perhaps he couldn't shake off the drunkenness of asshole Superman from number III? (PS-Looking forward to Hap's video review of SUPERMAN IV) 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Cannon only handled distribution of "Pirates" in the United States (notice most posters when the film came out don't have Cannon on them) the film was shot and cut and released before they bought it and (AFAIK) they didn't alter anything.You could blame them for it's faliure in the US but I doubt any other studio could have made it a success

      So it's not really a Cannon film except in the sense that the Go-Go boys loved to buy lots of finished foreign films and do lots of deals at the Cannes festival.
      Charles Matthau is interviewed in Electric Boogaloo, though more about his own work. They might touch on Pirates.

      To Spaceodds, it's interesting you talk about loving Polanski but hate the ending of Pirates. The ending is frustrating but also one of the most Polanski-esque elements. Polanski loves a circular framing narrative, his characters go terrible journeys but the last shot is similar to the first (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, The Tennant, Death and the Maiden)

      I agree though that here the circular framing wrankles. Maybe because the film is a genre piece and Pirate films are supposed to be satisfying. In a thriller, a bit of irony is appreciated but after such an unhappy adventure, it would've been nice to see the charcters succeed.

      Funny detail:the ship was built at enormous expense, because it was thought that it would save money for the expected many many "Pirates" sequels(!) In a parallel universe, you're reviewing Pirates IV Revenge of the Frog….followed by David Lynch's Heretics of Dune

  2. CKulik says:

    I barely remember when my Dad rented this on VHS wayyyyyyyyy back in 1987….I don't remember a thing about it, although I think my Dad wasn't impressed with it. Like spaceodds, I'm also a huge Polanski film even if I don't 100% excuse him from his 1970s shenanigans (my review of the documentary "Wanted and Desired," which I gave a rare perfect score too, is available here: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/romanpolanski.php). One thing is for sure: FRANTIC was a nice comeback from such an epic disaster. Still, my favorite Polanski film will always be REPULSION, one of the top three scariest movies I've ever seen in my life…I was just paralyzed with fear at the end of it, so much so I didn't want to sleep! 🙂

  3. spaceodds says:

    @CKulik

    Totally agree with your feeling towards Repulsion, probably the greatest psychological horror film ever made, along with The Tenant. Hopefully Criterion will release The Tenant on Blu Ray very soon.

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