Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides co-star Ian McShane suggests that Johnny Depp is “paid more than the national debt of most countries” to play the tipsy freebooter Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp may be the highest paid movie pirate to ever sail the seven seas, but he’s not the only celluloid sea dog.
Movie pirates were popular on the silent screen —they swashbuckled as early as 1908’s Treasure Island — but it wasn’t until Errol Flynn played the title role in 1935’s Captain Blood that pirates became screen staples.
“No one can beat Erroll Flynn,” says Under The Black Flag: The Romance & Reality Of Life Among The Pirates author David Cordingley. “He has the edge over all the other movie pirates.” Coming close is Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Treasure Island.
One of the best live action Disney films of the 1950s, it is the movie that originated the Cornish accent that has become the accepted pirate speak in dozens of movies to follow. For a sample check out the voice of The Simpsons’ Captain McAllister. It’s based on Newton’s pirate portrayal.
Less conventional is Walter Matthau’s take on Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red in Roman Polanski’s Pirates. The planned followup to the director’s massive hit Chinatown (it actually took 12 years to make it to the screen) was to have starred Jack Nicholson but, like the buccaneer he might have portrayed in the movie, the star was money hungry. According to the director, when he asked Nicholson exactly how much he wanted, the actor simply said, “I want more.” His replacement, Matthau, redefines grizzly in his depiction of Captain Red, but the film didn’t meet with good reviews.
“There hasn’t been a pirate movie in a long time,” wrote Roger Ebert, “and after Roman Polanski’s Pirates, there may not be another one for a very long time.”
What look at movie pirates would be complete without a mention of singing and dancing sea dogs? There are lots of pirate musicals but one of the best, and most overlooked, is The Pirate starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.
With direction by Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza) and songs by Cole Porter, the story of a young girl in love with a man pretending to be a pirate earned an Oscar nomination for Original Music Score, but lost out to another Judy Garland musical, Easter Parade.