Swashbuckling pirate stories are tailor-made for the big screen and Hollywood has produced many down through the years. Tom McParland recalls some classics – and some turkeys.
My pirate fascination should’ve started with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. By eight, because of Hollywood movies, my world was already familiar with Long John Silver, Squire Trelawney, Billy Bones, Ben Gunn, and Blind Pew characters. Just as well, because Stevenson wasn’t a natural writer – a brilliant essayist, talented poet and great ideas man – but a stilted fiction writer.
I take up my pen in the year of grace 17, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman (Billy Bones), with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof. These first chapters I devoured, until Jim Hawkins & Co. set sail from Bristol in the Hispaniola. From here Stevenson’s prose becomes becalming enough to lose the gust of curiosity, Hollywood having beforehand inflated the sails of expectation.
Hollywood copied a success like Stevenson’s book the way Kamikaze pilots followed orders. Franchise the new guise of déjà vu – mercilessly put repeated versions of Billy Bones etc, to the sword innumerable times till the original was all but obliterated. Duplicates, like Medusa’s hair problem (over-abundant snake-growth), were everywhere. Copycat version movies of Stevenson’s pirate idea worked contrary to Medusa, Snakes & Co.
The duplicated duplicates were so bereft of artistic integrity that watching even half of one meant – if not certain death – certain stone death. For back screamed the Hollywood déjà vu snakes like contentious in-laws force feeding another putrid turkey till befuddled moviegoers, now quitting ducks, were ready to watch Treasure Island 37.
Boys playing pirates held as many problems as our inner enthusiasm held iffy solutions. The life of a boy pirate was shorter than a real one, maybe 1ƒ minutes. With a short-handed, fractious crew of – at best four – identity problems were commonplace (momentary captain one second, mutineer the next). Generally, things were as ship shape as the greyish shirttail remnant Dirty Roger flag was pleasant. The one constant was childish restlessness and restiveness on the high seas of imagination – just like in the movies.
Pirate plays (e.g. 1712’s The Successful Pirate), and books (1737’s Daniel Defoe’s History of Pyrates) had been around forever. The 1870’s saw a world awash with tuppeny booklets, folios and pirate serials. An 1879 Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Pirates of Penzance, satirised pirate slavery (pirate slaves working and dying of exhaustion).
In Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta the ‘slavery’ is Duty, where a youthful apprentice’s indenture prohibits him from marrying before the date of his 21st birthday – February 29th – subsequently making him Duty bound for 63 years.
The first Treasure Island movie was Vitagraph’s short 1908’s Story of Treasure Island. Here, Long John Silver shivered his cinematic timbers and his parrot cackled monochrome pieces of eight in silence. This was only 26 years from Stevenson’s 1882 novel. Fifty-eight Treasure Island movies later? The island has more diggers than Glasnevin had funerals, and for 138 years had been busier than a Dublin rush hour. Because every pirate movie is Treasure Island in drag.