Pirates (1986 film)

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Pirates 1986.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRoman Polanski
Produced byTarak Ben Ammar
Written byGérard Brach
John Brownjohn
Roman Polanski
Music byPhilippe Sarde
CinematographyWitold Sobocinski
Edited byHervé de Luze
William Reynolds
Cathargo Films
Distributed byCannon Film Distributing (US)
Release date
  • 8 May 1986 (1986-05-08) (Cannes)
  • 18 July 1986 (1986-07-18) (United States)
Running time
112 minutes[1]
Budget$40 million[2]
Box office$1,641,825 (US)[2]
$6,341,825 (Worldwide)[3]

Pirates is a 1986 Franco-Tunisian adventure comedy film written by Gérard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Roman Polanski and directed by Polanski. It was screened out of competition at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.[4]


The Atlantic Ocean, the year 1659. The infamous English pirate Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau), known as Captain Red, and his ship's teenage cabin boy Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion), nicknamed "Frog", are lost on a raft without supplies in the ocean. Luckily, Captain Red and Frog are picked up by Neptune, a Spanish galleon en route to Spain. Thrown into the brig, Red and Frog meet the ship's cook Boomako (Olu Jacobs), imprisoned after being accused of poisoning the Neptune's captain Linares (Ferdy Mayne) in a supposed attempt at stealing the golden throne, loot from the Aztec King Capatec Anahuac, that is being secretly transported in the galleon's hold. Captain Red becomes obsessed with capturing the throne for himself. Meanwhile, Frog falls in love with Maria-Dolores (Charlotte Lewis), the niece of Maracaibo's governor, who is travelling on the Neptune as a passenger.

Captain Linares dies and the command of the ship is taken over by his ruthless and ambitious first mate, lieutenant Don Alfonso de la Torré (Damien Thomas) who is also in love with Maria-Dolores, though she does not reciprocate his feelings. Red and Frog, put to work along with Neptune's crew, make an attempt at instigating a mutiny. In response, Don Alfonso has them sentenced to death along with a few other mutineers. However, Captain Red devises a plan that allows them to avoid execution and use the ensuing confusion to launch an open rebellion, which proves successful when most of the crew members rally against their masters. After the battle, Frog gains Maria-Dolores' interest when he saves her from an attempted rape, killing one of his fellow mutineers in the process.

Putting himself in command of the Neptune, Captain Red directs the ship to a pirate cove, led by Dutch (Roy Kinnear), a merchant and old associate of Red. Meeting his former crewmates, Captain Red throws a party and imprisons Don Alfonso and his officers. However, one of Dutch's hostages releases them while the pirates are partying. Don Alfonso and his men return to the Neptune and retake the ship, sailing away with the golden throne in the morning. Using the money he has gained from Dutch, Captain Red purchases an old brig and pursues the Neptune to Maracaibo.

At night, Captain Red, Frog, and Boomako sneak into the governor's residence with Maria-Dolores as their hostage. Red plans to use her as a bargaining chip and force her wealthy uncle to exchange her for the golden throne. Although the governor proves to be unsympathetic for his niece's fate, he becomes more cooperative after Captain Red tortures him instead, finding out that he is suffering from podagra. As Red demands, the governor provides him with a document that entitles him to confiscate the golden throne, posing as the governor's secret messenger. However, Red and Frog fail to carry the throne out of the bay and are later captured by Don Alfonso, who puts them in prison. Maria-Dolores visits them in their cell. She reveals her feelings toward Jean-Baptiste as the two embrace and share a kiss. Maria-Dolores returns to the Neptune, which soon sets off to Spain again, with Don Alfonso promoted to captain.

The pirates, informed by Boomako of what has happened, assault the prison the following night, releasing Red and Frog. Captain Red pursues the Neptune and launches an assault on the galleon. Red sinks his own ship, making retreat impossible, and secretly orders Boomako to prepare a boat in order to make off with the golden throne. In the heat of battle, Frog finds Maria-Dolores and duels with Don Alfonso over her. However, in the end, he remains loyal to Captain Red, abandoning the fight with Don Alfonso in order to aid his leader in capturing the throne. With the Neptune burning and beyond repair, her remaining crew and passengers flee on the boat, while Red, Frog, and Boomako make off in one of their own with the golden throne in their possession. With Maria-Dolores out of his reach now, a furious Frog throws insults at Don Alfonso, who tries to shoot him in retaliation. However, Maria-Dolores intervenes desperately, disrupting his aim, and Boomako is shot dead instead. Red and Frog then leave the scene, abandoning their surviving crewmates in the water.

The last scene from the film mirrors the first one, with Red and Frog finding themselves alone on a small boat in the open ocean once again.



Riding on the success of the highly acclaimed Chinatown, Roman Polanski began to write a screenplay for a swashbuckling adventure film called Pirates alongside his regular collaborator, Gerard Brach.[5]

"I feel like doing something entertaining", he said in 1976. "I feel like doing something I would like to see. I'm a great customer of Disneyland. Everytime I go on the pirates' ride I think I would like to do a film."[6]

Polanski recalled that at the time "movies were very much loaded with messages and the desire to educate. Pirates was somehow a reaction to that", he said later. "I think the young audience will enjoy it more than the adults, and that's really what I intended."[7]

Originally, Polanski intended Jack Nicholson to play the central role of Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red, a grizzled old pirate, and Polanski himself would play Red's sidekick. Then complications arose partially due to the enormous fees Nicholson was demanding. (According to Polanski, when Nicholson was asked what exactly he wanted, he replied, "I want more.")[8]

Polanski also wanted Isabelle Adjani to play the female lead. When production was postponed he made The Tenant instead, which he rewrote for Adjani. In 1976 he said he aimed to make Pirates the following year in England and Malta and that he would act in the film but only play a small role.[6]

However production was put back even further after Polanski was arrested in California in 1977 on charges including rape by use of drugs of a minor Polanski fled the United States to avoid sentencing.[8]

While in France, Polanski made Tess. In September 1980 he announced he had signed a deal with Filmways to make Pirates.[9] In October Arnon Milchan announced he would produce the film, which would be shot in Tel Aviv the following year at a budget of $24 million. Milchan would build a studio there at a cost of $2.5 million, which would have a marine tank. The film would have no major names, as all the money would go into special effects and the set.[10] Polanski called the film "a comedy adventure, in the style of 'Treasure Island' or that Disneyland pirate ride, the kind of thing you dream of as a child." Co-wroter Brach called it "a classical, stereotypical story, on which I worked very hard in order not to do something foolish." [11]

Polanki's legal issues meant the film could not be made in the US. He said:

The people who finance films don't care what your personal problems are, your image, whatever. They're interested in figures. They look them up the same way an insurance company does. And they know that if they spend $5 million or $6 million, $10 million on a film by me, their risk is quite limited. But once you have a subject complicated, more ambitious, like Pirates, even if you have a delightful script and great enthusiasm, even if you promise them heaven, they are afraid. That has nothing to do with my legal problems in America. What do they care for it? Do you think that they have a moral streak in them, that they really hesitate?[8]

Tarak Ben Ammar[edit]

Both Filmways and Milchan ultimately dropped out. Production restarted later in Paris, this time with a different production company, Carthago Films, and a new producer, Tarak Ben Ammar, who had pioneered Tunisia as filming location.[12]

In May, 1983, Universal Studios agreed in a memo to provide two-thirds of the budget of Pirates, then estimated at $28 million. Six months later there was a studio shake up and Universal pulled out. By this stage Ben Ammar had already invested $8 million. He could not find a new distributor.

As late as January 1984 Polanski still hoped to cast Jack Nicholson. Nastassja Kinski, who had been in Polanski's Tess, was going to be the female lead.[13]

Two months before production began, Dino de Laurentiis, who would release the film in Europe, arranged a deal with MGM/UA worth $9.5 million. Ben Ammar raised the additional funding from three other banks.[14][15][8]

"I really feel like making a film for a young audience", said Polanski shortly before filming. "Gerard and I have got a great script. It's exciting and it's funny and I expect to have a wonderful time making it. We're using the stereotypes and cliches of old pirate movies and books such as Treasure Island to explain the whole mythology so dear to kids."[16]

By February 1984 Michael Caine was attached as the lead.[17] By April Caine was out and Rob Lowe was being discussed as his sidekick.[18] Eventually Walter Matthau agreed to play the lead and Cris Campion, a French rock drummer, signed on as his sidekick.

"I didn't like the script", said Matthau. "I didn't understand the script. First it was the ship against the pirates, then the pirates against the ship, then the ship against the pirates. I didn't think it was funny or adventurous or anything. And the thought of swimming and climbing and duelling on one leg for five or six months in Tunisia didn't appeal to me. It was my youngest son Charlie who changed my mind. He said, 'You gotta take it, Poppa. You'll get to work with Roman Polanski, one of the great directors today. It's an open-air part that could change your career."[19]


Filming began in Tunisia in November 1984.[20]

By the time shooting began the budget had blown out to $40 million – Matthau and Polanski each commanded $1 million and the galleon built for the film cost $7–8 million, with $10 million spent on constructing two sound stages.[21]

The full scale galleon was built in a shipyard in the port of Port El Kantaoui situated at the city of Sousse, Tunisia, adjacent to the Tarak Ben Ammar Studios, which had been constructed exclusively for this production. An accurate replica above the waterline, but sporting a steel hull and a 400 HP auxiliary engine, the Neptune was and still is entered into the Tunisian naval registry, and is currently a tourist attraction in the port of Genoa, where its interior can be visited for a 6 euro fee.[22] The galleon was not finished until April 21, 1985, five months later than intended, and ran into a storm.[23]

Filming was extremely problematic, the shoot cursed by poor weather and a number of accidents.[8]

"Another producer might have torn his hair out by now, or developed an ulcer or swallowed lots of tranquilizers", said Ben Ammar during the shoot. "But it's only a movie... Sure it's important to me that Pirates be a hit, but it's also important that by building the boat in this country, where unemployment stands at around 20 percent, I gave 2,400 people work for two years. Yes, Polanski does seem to be disaster-prone, but his talent is so great that wonderful actors like Matthau and the top European technicians all wanted to work here with him. Pirates is giving my staff lessons in filmmaking money couldn't buy."[14]

"I find Polanski riveting and fascinating", said Matthau. "He's like an orchestra conductor. He gives you a sound, but you play it as you want. If you get inspired, he leaves you alone. This is an extreme example, but if you could get a black cat to jump onto your neck, he'd put it in the movie."[14]

Ammar and fellow producer Thom Mount were unhappy with the involvement of MGM/UA and eventually raised the funds to buy them out of the film.[24] Cannon Films agreed to distribute.

Accusations against Roman Polanski[edit]

On May 14, 2010, actress Charlotte Lewis and her attorney Gloria Allred accused director Roman Polanski of predatory sexual conduct against her when she was 16 years old, claiming that Polanski insisted that she sleep with him in return for casting her in Pirates.[25]

Release and reception[edit]

The film opened the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.

The film's original estimated budget, while Polanski was aligned with Paramount on the picture, was $15 million, but the final budget is estimated to have been US$40 million. The reported gross box office revenues in the United States was $1.64 million[2] and $6.3 million worldwide.[3][26]

"We make mistakes", said Globus of Cannon. "Pirates was one of them. . . . We will lose $1 million or $2 million. . . . It hurts. It teaches us a very big lesson that we should not even take for distribution a picture which we don't have all the rights." [27]

"For character and atmosphere I would give it four stars", said Matthau. "I would not give it four stars for plot and action. I will say that Polanski is a genius for making an atmosphere seem real. Most films have a counterfeit quality to them."[19]

Despite the film's financial failure, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.[citation needed]

Pirates received a mostly negative to mixed critical reception and currently holds a 30% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on ten reviews, with an average score of 4.56/10.[28] On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 32 out of 100, based on 12 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[29]

Colin Greenland reviewed Pirates for White Dwarf #85, and stated that "Polanski being Polanski has made everything look so disgusting and filthy and diseased it's also too realistic, if anything. There's a bit where the desperado duo are forced to eat a boiled rat – oh you've heard about that bit, have you?"[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "PIRATES (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. 3 October 1986. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Pirates at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ a b "Pirates - Box Office Data, DVD Sales, Movie News, Cast Information - The Numbers". The Numbers. Nash Information Services. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
  4. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Pirates". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 18 July 2009.
  5. ^ Polanski: Laughing But With an Edge By Kenneth Turan. The Washington Post 11 June 1976: B13.
  6. ^ a b PARANOIA SUPERSEDES 'PIRATES': Polanski Prowls Mean Streets of Paris Polanski Prowls Paris' Mean Streets Blume, Mary. Los Angeles Times 11 Apr 1976: s1.
  7. ^ Polanski's still fighting 'evil dwarf' image: Stephen Farber Toronto Star 3 Aug 1986: D8.
  8. ^ a b c d e At the Movies; Polanski's pirate movie is set to sail Maslin, Janet. The New York Times] 24 Feb 1984: C.8.
  10. ^ POLANSKI TO FILM 'PIRATES' IN ISRAEL BORSTEN, JOAN. Los Angeles Times 1 Oct 1980: i6.
  11. ^ Writers with Gaul Yakir, Dan. Film Comment; New York Vol. 18, Iss. 5, (Sep/Oct 1982): 26–31.
  12. ^ MOVIES: FILMDOM'S KNIGHT IN TUNISIA BORSTEN, JOAN. Los Angeles Times 27 Nov 1983: w25.
  13. ^ LA CLIPS Polanski hopes memoirs will get a kind reception Deans, Laurie. The Globe and Mail; 20 Jan 1984: E.3.
  14. ^ a b c CAN MATTHAU AND AN $8-MILLION SHIP CHANGE ROMAN POLANSKI'S LUCK?: [FINAL EDITION, C] Borsten, Joan. Chicago Tribune 7 July 1985: 16.
  15. ^ 'PIRATES' HO! BORSTEN, JOAN. Los Angeles Times 26 May 1985: n1.
  16. ^ POLANSKI: HIS MEMOIRS FIT ROMAN A CLEF JORDAN ELGRABLY. Los Angeles Times 5 Feb 1984: k20.
  17. ^ Award drought is over for Caine Thomas, Bob. The Globe and Mail17 Feb 1984: E.6.
  18. ^ PEOPLETALK/BY LIZ SMITH Smith, Liz. Philadelphia Inquirer; Philadelphia, Pa. [Philadelphia, Pa]09 Apr 1984: E.2.
  19. ^ a b Matthau 'didn't like script' of Polanski film Tale of the reluctant Pirate Thomas, Bob. The Globe and Mail 6 Aug 1986: C.6.
  20. ^ JEWISON PUTS FAITH IN 'AGNES': FILM CLIPS London, Michael. Los Angeles Times 30 Nov 1984: j1.
  21. ^ OUTTAKES: [Home Edition 1] Borsten, Joan. Los Angeles Times 13 Jan 1985: 26.
  22. ^ http://www.foto.genova.it/z04cGaleone.htm (in Italian, with pictures)
  23. ^ CAST OF 'PIRATES' WAITING FOR THEIR SHIP TO COME IN: Borsten, Joan. Orlando Sentinel 6 May 1985: D.2.
  24. ^ "Pirates" producers Tarak Ben Ammar and Thom Mount are buying: Beck, Marilyn. Chicago Tribune 9 Jan 1986: 9I.
  25. ^ Goldman, Russell (14 May 2010). "New Victim Accuses Roman Polanski of Sexual Abuse". ABC News. Retrieved 14 May 2010.
  26. ^ LA CLIPS Paramount triumphs at box office Thompson, Anne. The Globe and Mail; 5 Sep 1986: D.1.
  27. ^ Cannon Bid as Major Studio Is Cliffhanger Firm's Future at Risk in High-Stakes Gamble: [Home Edition] Delugach, Al. Los Angeles Times, 24 Aug 1986: 1.
  28. ^ https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1016363_pirates
  29. ^ "Pirates (1986) reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  30. ^ Greenland, Colin (December 1987). "2020 Vision". White Dwarf. Games Workshop (Issue 85): 6.

External links[edit]