There are some pirate movies that reworked the image of piracy successfully, such as Treasure Island (1950), Peter Pan (in several versions and adaptations) and most recently Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 – present). And then there are bad pirate flicks. While there have always been bad pirate flicks, such as Double Crossbones (1951), for about forty years, 1960 – 2000, that seemed to be all Hollywood could make. I recently tracked down and watched one of these forgotten “gems,” 1995’s Cutthroat Island, to see if I could figure out just why Hollywood couldn’t get it right for so long.
Cutthroat Island has it all, apparently: great sets, fast-paced action, a naval engagement, a treasure, a love interest, backstabbing, family disputes, a monkey, and the ritualized rape and murder of thousands of innocent civilians. Just kidding about that last one. This is a PG-13 movie, which means they can only hint at sex, and while extensive violence is allowed, it has to be relatively bloodless.
Bloodless. or maybe bodiless: that’s a major problem with this film. The movie spends so much time on its action scenes, from tavern fights to ship flights, that the characters get little change to develop. Everything looks so clean and antiseptic most of the time, even cleaner than the Disney-produced Pirates of the Caribbean films. And although Geena Davis could play a hot gal or a determined woman, in this film she always looks like someone’s suburban mother . . . even when she’s supposed to be playing a hot gal or a determined pirate captain.
Cutthroat Island apparently was trying to mix serious spectacle with self-parodying humor. This can be a successful formula: Against All Flags and The Crimson Pirate both did it in the 1950s, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films at their best do likewise. But the poorly developed characters undermine both aspects of this film. It’s significant that the single funniest joke in the film is Geena David cracking a double entendre at the beginning, so unexpected given her motherly appearance; while Matthew Modine’s character has his most amusing scenes when he first appears and has a chance to strut his stuff, before he gets sucked into the main plot and all character development is sacrificed.
History? Perish the thought! Apart from being set at Port Royal during the heyday of the buccaneers, history has no role in this film. And the film doesn’t even take advantage of that! Here we have Geena Davis playing a female pirate captain when there was no such thing in the Caribbean, and yet most of the time it passes unnoticed and unremarked.
What we’re left with is a film that’s probably best suited for kids immediately on either side of puberty. 8-year-olds will enjoy the action scenes while the sexual references pass over their heads. While 14-year-olds would snicker at the sexual references.
Cutthroat Island bombed at the box office in 1995, and almost killed Geena Davis’s career. Partly that was due to the film itself, partly to its troubled production and distribution history. Hollywood took it as evidence that pirate films wouldn’t work as mainstream films, as they did with Roman Polanski’s Pirates a decade earlier. Instead, they should have realized that they needed stronger characters and either better humor (the route Pirates of the Caribbean took) or grittier stories (which is where the first season of Black Sails went).