As the moviegoing world anxiously anticipates the upcoming summer release of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the Museum’s Dryden Theatre will present a winter series of delightful, swashbuckling entertainments from over 100 years of film history, shown in vibrant 35mm prints. They are sure to warm your spirits while shivering your timbers.
Cinema audiences’ fascination with seafaring outlaws can probably be traced back to even before a 1907 French production called The Pirates, but it wasn’t until the arrival of athletic and charismatic stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn over the next several decades that the extravagantly costumed genre became a viable one. It was these acrobatic performers, as well as new efforts to exploit well-known works of literature in the public domain, that brought new life to big-screen swashbucklers.
Although not all of these selections take place exclusively on the high seas, we begin with MGM’s polished movie rendition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s shipboard classic Treasure Island, featuring Wallace Beery as the peg-legged, one-eyed pirate Long John Silver. Released the same year as this Treasure Island, the 1934 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo features mostly landlocked action. Yet the exciting sword-fight sequences and the wonderful performance by Robert Donat as Edmond Dantes are just two of the reasons why Edward Small’s production is still considered the best Count of them all.
Errol Flynn’s star-making performance as the physician-turned-pirate Captain Blood made him one of the Warner Bros. studios’ top moneymakers in the 1930s and 1940s and inevitably led to a series of spin-off swashbucklers, including the equally rousing and not-so-subtly propagandistic The Sea Hawk. The talented son of Douglas Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., wrote, produced, and stars in The Exile, a vehicle specifically designed to remind viewers of the Fairbanks legacy. Directed by European master Max Ophüls while he himself was exiled in Hollywood, this largely fictional but nevertheless thrilling account of Charles II’s time in Holland features a stunning sword duel on the moving blades of a Dutch windmill! Not to be outdone, George Sidney’s Technicolor treat Scaramouche is a smashing yarn that concludes with what is still the longest sword fight in motion picture history.
Slyly lampooning swashbucklers and classic fairy tales, Rob Reiner’s hip The Princess Bride has now become as enthusiastically embraced and fondly remembered as the golden-age gems that came before it. Bringing things literally up-to-date, The Island presents Michael Caine as a journalist who stumbles upon a modern-day cadre of tourist-robbing rogues. The Goonies brings things full circle with a story of misfit kids searching for buried booty in their beachfront town. This Steven Spielberg production includes a clip from The Sea Hawk and several nods to the great Little Rascals short, Mama’s Little Pirate, which will precede The Goonies.
The series’ centerpiece attraction will be two screenings of the newly restored and unedited version of Christian-Jaque’s Fanfan la Tulipe, starring Gérard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida. Both a traditional swashbuckler and a send-up of the sword-wielding genre, this light and funny action comedy has been virtually unseen in its uncut form in the US since the 1950s.
Adding to the fun, fresh popcorn, soft drinks, and candy will be on sale in the lobby before all of the screenings in this series.
~Jim Healy, Assistant Curator, Exhibitions, Motion Picture Department