Damon Smith on Pirates

“What does a sailor miss when he finds himself back on dry land? The solitude and the rocking of the waves.”—Roman Polanski, 1984

Roman Polanski’s critical reputation as a world-class writer-director rests largely on the firmament of six films made between 1962 and 1976: Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Tenant. Two of these films long ago entered Hollywood’s empyrean caste system as “classics,” recognizable (at least by name) even to casual observers of cinema, who can doubtless offer a pithy summary (“Mia Farrow has Satan’s child”) or quote (“It’s Chinatown, Jake”) whether or not they realize (or care) that these movies are “directed by Roman Polanski.” In the main, scholars and historians of Polanski’s oeuvre tend to read the robust literary adaptations (Macbeth, Tess, Oliver Twist) as allegories of estrangement and dislocation that further underline his putative preoccupations with paranoia, exile, confined space, and sexual intrigue, a strain of artistic obsession there appears to be little disagreement about. Other films (including Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden), these accounts maintain, are prismatically related in terms of theme and structural conceit (a marital coupling undone or threatened by the presence of an interloper), but earn fewer plaudits in terms of performance and plot execution, not to mention (especially in the case of The Ninth Gate) taste and overall tone. Late-career excursions like the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama The Pianist and The Ghost Writer have earned Polanski back some of the prestige that he enjoyed in the mid seventies, an old-master honor he no doubt deserves even if the reward is a leaky life raft of clinical exegeses and exclusive talk-show interviews with the likes of Charlie Rose.

What’s curious is how few commentators seem engaged by or interested in Polanski’s most cheerfully unbridled comedies, or the strain of absurdist, often lurid humor that courses through all his work, from early shorts like Two Men and a Wardrobe and Mammals to The Ghost Writer. Wiped from the eyes like so much sea-wash, his 1986 disaster Pirates is considered a rude, humiliating smear on an otherwise thematically sophisticated, if uneven body of work that, yes, occasionally courts the vulgar. (Perhaps the missing link is Polanski’s seldom-seen What?, a kinky, transgressive sex romp starring Euro-perv Marcello Mastroianni and real-life innocent abroad Sydne Rome, about a chaste American nymph who alights in a porn-o-ramic French villa.) Nevertheless, comedy has a presence and a meaning in the director’s work as important as the erotic and psychosexual dynamics at play in so many of his films. In his excellent short study for the University of Illinois Press’ Contemporary Film Directors series, James Morrison suggests that the comic valences in Polanski’s work are connected to his interest in melodrama and characters whose desires and impulses do not conform to the imperatives of modern social utility (pirates, libertines, paranoiacs, occultists), producing “strange emotional juxtapositions” that blur the distinction between rationality and irrationality. It is also reasonable to assume that Polanski—whose own roles in his films have shown his capacity for self-parody (timid dimwit Alfred in The Fearless Vampire Killers, phallus-obsessed Mosquito in What?, a thug who slits open Jack Nicholson’s nostril in Chinatown, and wigged-out renter Trelkovsky in The Tenant)—enjoys cracking himself up.

Drubbed by critics upon its release (“This movie represents some kind of new low for the genre that gave us Captain Blood,” opined Roger Ebert; “uniquely appalling,” crowed a British tabloid), Polanski’s misbegotten swashbuckler—a bloated international coproduction starring Walter Matthau, French warbler Cris Campion, jailbait ingénue Charlotte Lewis, and a rogue’s gallery of players from British television—had little hope of setting sail at the box office, where Tunisian producer Tarak Ben Ammar (Monty Python’s Life of Brian, La Traviata) saw his $40 million investment in the nautical comedy sink faster than a solid-gold anchor. Despite a few glimmers of support—two César Awards for costume and production design, plus an Oscar nomination for the former—a hurricane of savage notices and feeble word of mouth led to humiliating ticket sales. (According to Christopher Sandford in Polanski: A Biography, who doesn’t name his source, Stanley Kubrick considered the movie a “balls-out masterpiece,” at least in terms of its Turner-esque visuals.) The years have not been any kinder to Pirates. What, if anything, can be salvaged from its wreckage?

Polanski himself is enjoying something of a renaissance: a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York has wrapped up and the Zurich Film Festival finally bestowed its lifetime achievement award on the director, a plan thwarted two years ago by a very messy extradition trial that revived the still-controversial 1978 statutory rape case. Polanski’s latest film, Carnage, opening the New York Film Festival this week, earned strong notices at its Venice premiere and is one of the season’s most highly anticipated films. As critics and programmers look back on his oeuvre, it is unlikely that anyone will claim Pirates as a brilliant flameout on the level of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or a misunderstood masterpiece like Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart. Objectively speaking, it is a bad film. Marred by C-grade dialogue, vulgar jests about rape, enemas, and other kid-friendly subjects, Matthau’s embarrassing now-you-hear-it, now-you-don’t “Cockney” brogue, questionable racial caricatures (an African crewman emerges from the shadows, literally “spooking” the white characters), and at least one gross-out gag vile enough to turn your stomach instead of bending it in mirth, Pirates is the cinematic equivalent of a room-clearing abdominal vapor; no one wants to linger long enough to catch another whiff.

Given the baser qualities of Polanski’s anhedonic seafaring adventure, it’s important to note that Pirates was a pet project for the director, who conceived the cock-eyed comedy with longtime screenwriting partner Gérard Brach after wrapping Chinatown. As with The Fearless Vampire Killers, a deliberately dingbat satire on late-sixties sexual mores and Hammer Films–era vampire movies, Pirates seemed to spring from some Monty Python–esque “And now for something completely different” impulse, as well as Polanski’s desire to pay tribute to the adventure films of his youth. The script went into turnaround, Hollywood’s version of creative purgatory, and languished for ten years. Bedeviled by misfortune on the set of Tess—catastrophically bad weather, the death of his cameraman—Polanski had all but given up on filmmaking until the Pirates project was revived in 1984. It’s worth mentioning the attenuated production history of the film in order to emphasize that it was anything but a work-for-hire project forced upon a world-class director at a low point in his career. According to the gossipy Sandford book, Polanski, Brach, and Tess co-writer John Brownjohn laughed themselves sick while updating the screenplay, oblivious to the luckless future of the project. Logistically, the shoot itself was much worse than Polanski could have imagined, keeping him marooned in Tunisia for nearly two years with a mutinous cast and crew.

Why all the effort for such a patently silly movie? Polanski might be the least pretentious art-house director of his generation; amid even his darkest imaginings, one catches flashes of his mischievous side. (Polanski once told the actor John Fraser, who was scandalized by the script for Repulsion: “But John, it’s meant to be funny.”) Early on, he’d somehow found a way to fuse the moral seriousness of Andrzej Wajda (for whom he acted) with the madcap flair of countryman Jerzy Skolimowski, whose nutty 1970 Napoleonic farce The Adventures of Gérard has a crazed energy that must have delighted the maker of Pirates. Even if Polanski’s scurvied lunge at broad humor fails as a comedic enterprise (Pirates was never released on DVD, except in Australia), is that all there is to say about the film? Perhaps the gutter-level gags and inert humor of Pirates afford a truer picture of Polanski’s essential perversity than the auteurist literature—where the film usually merits little more than a passing reference—seems to suggest.

The film opens on a Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze, its cackling skull paired with Philippe Sarde’s jauntily martial score, a throwback to the days of Errol Flynn. As the titles roll, the image dissolves into a shot of clear blue sky over open water and slowly zooms in on a makeshift raft where peg-leg pirate Captain Red (Matthau) and his model-handsome first mate, Frog (Campion), are drifting aimlessly, sunburned and starved. The first round of gags are all nonverbal: Captain Red wakes from a nap and looks at Frog hungrily as the youth squats with a fishing line. Just as he raises his sword to swipe him, Frog pulls a ridiculously tiny fish from the sea and Red gobbles it down, along with the hook. Matthau’s eyes bulge Little Rascals¬–style as he labors to extract the metal by yanking the line. Moments later, pigs oink faintly on the soundtrack; Red stares wide-eyed at Frog’s naked haunch before attempting to sample his flesh. The two hapless castaways have a daft exchange about cannibalism (“The strong awl-wayze eat the weak!” barks Red after Campion scampers up a mast to escape him) and then a towering Spanish galleon, the Neptune, appears in the distance. After further mishaps (a bucket on the head, more shark nonsense, and the first of the film’s peg-leg-wedged-in-a-plank routines), they board the enemy ship in a dirty panic, offending effete conquistador Don Alfonso Felipe Salamanca de la Torré (Damien Thomas), who has them thrown into the brig. There, imprisoned ship’s cook Boomako (Olu Jacobs) alerts them to the Neptune’s priceless, apparently cursed cargo: a solid-gold Aztec throne. Shiver me timbers!

If the opening ten minutes of Pirates signal Polanski’s devil-may-care preference for puerile material, the remaining reels do little to redeem its comic potential. (When Matthau and Campion lap up a bowl of spilled oatmeal from the ship’s floor in a pantomime of animal hunger, it’s a bathetic reminder of the actors’ fealty to their director.) Some bits fall flat, others are lame retreads of Laurel and Hardy gags, still others are gruesomely strange. The most infamous of these commences when Captain Red and Frog are summoned to Don Alfonso’s dinner table and mockingly invited to feast on a boiled rat found in a soup pot below decks. Thus begins a three-minute segment in which the two pirates carve and begin to eat the bisected rodent, a prop rendered more realistic than the aforementioned sharks, until comely María-Dolores (Lewis), niece of a wealthy Spanish governor, finally demands an end to the humiliation. (It’s hard to imagine that this nauseating sequence had any effect on viewers at its Cannes premiere, apart from silent peristalsis.) From such feeble beginnings issues forth a full complement of adventure-film clichés: narrow escapes, raucous swordfights, assaults in disguise, defenses of honor. When Boomako plants a musket shot in the mouth of a giant, ostentatiously fake anaconda, whose flickering forked tongue tickles his cheek like a demented lover’s, stupidity triumphs.

At least Pirates’ frivolous idiocy is belied by its masterful widescreen cinematography, courtesy of Witold Sobocinski, and exquisite production design—the ship itself (which cost millions) is an impressively crafted full-sail replica ornamented with a massive wooden sculpture of Poseidon. Some of his cutaway shots, like that of the Neptune languorously adrift in pink Mediterranean twilight, really do rate as Turner-esque. Polanski’s equally proficient bit players—a who’s who of British character actors including Roy Kinnear, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ferdy Mayne, and David Kelly, all playing grotesques of one sort or another—put to shame all among the leading cast but TV miniseries veteran Damien Thomas (who actually seems amused by his role). It’s too bad the film’s dunce parade of batty one-liners (“You son of a double-eyed ’ore from the reekin’ gutters of Rotterdam, a plague on your scurvy ’ead! Wot’s wrong wit’ me hostages?”) and romantic interludes (María-Dolores falls for Frog, who twice saves her from . . . rape) can’t reach the hammy heights of Rosemary’s Baby or re-engineer the camp burlesque of The Fearless Vampire Killers, its closest cousin in the Polanski oeuvre and the only other film he seems to have made just for fun.

Lightheartedness is the prerogative of an accomplished and successful artist intimately familiar with the horror and anguish of the modern world (Polanski’s mother was seized from a Krakow ghetto and murdered by the Nazis; his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was butchered by Manson Family goons), as well as the material force of its social, sexual, and juridical strictures. If the bumbling buccaneers and childish plot mechanics of Pirates are not worthy of weightier pronouncements, the exultant, libertine spirit of the film, at least, says this: Laughter, as personal as orgasm, is lawless.