Main Features No 89
Not just a Pirate, but also some very naughty boys.
Shiver Me Timbers, It’s a Swashbuckling Seventeenth Century Pirate Parody Comedy with James Mason.
Yellowbeard Trailer (1983), Mickeyjuice, http://www.youtube.com
When I think of swashbuckling movies, there’s usually swords, pirates, plumed hats and a
n annoying damsel in distress leading to some romance. And sword fights aplenty. This film, Yellowbeard (1983) has all of these and more. It is chock-a-block with comic – and acting – names recognisable from every decade from the sixties to the eighties. Faces you’ll recognise include Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Nigel Planer. And most of the Monty Python comedians, some actors better known from Mel Brooks’ movies and both Cheech and Chong.
This impressive list continues with a couple of surprising big British acting names in the form of Susannah York and Michael Hordern. And the biggest shock in this cast, with an appearance of British Oscar nominated actor, James Mason. Yellowbeard also sports a cameo from a musician whose acting parts I’ve reviewed earlier in this blog, and whose identity I’ll let you discover yourself. This dazzling array of talent, both from the UK and America, are seen in to this surprisingly little known movie. A film which I only heard of after researching a vague description of it from Darlin’ Husband, as it’s one of his treasured childhood movies.
The film starts with a fantastically swashbuckling opening musical medley from John Morris – also responsible for many a Mel Brooks score – and ye oldie swashbuckling/ pirate, golden font which immediately transported me back to the seventies. Then, as a kid I watched many a swashbuckler matinée in those
snowy rainy Christmas holidays, including those Sinbad movies – with Ray Harryhausen monsters -, an all-star Musketeer movie – with Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Oliver Reed and Charlton Heston – and the excellent Robin and Marian (1976) with Sean Connery as Robin sword fighting his way through the movie. In the eighties, I enjoyed that swashbuckling cartoon dog, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (1981-) and later in the 90s Kevin Costner’s now American accented Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991). And Alan Rickman at his best.
These were all enjoyable additions to the genre rather than that other more recent pirate of the big screen, Captain Jack Sparrow. I just can’t watch this particular film series anymore – despite the presence of Ian McShane (who can now do no wrong after John Wick Chapter 1 (2014) and Chapter 2 (2017)) – after Darlin’ Husband riffed Depp’s part mercilessly in the whole of The Tourist (2010). Particularly that scene where Depp’s character runs across a roof. Darlin’ Husband’s riffing in the style of Sparrow, admittedly made it a more fun movie.
Anyway back to the film on hand, this terrific musical score easily evoked memories of these swashbuckling movies. Special mention for Yellowbeard‘s fantastic costumes and detailed sets adding to the screen ambience of which reminded me so much of the films set in this time period. With surprisingly a small town in Mexico transformed into 17th Century Plymouth most convincingly. The sword fights were fun, well staged and choreographed well and with moves you’d recognise from every pirate movie ever.
The film starts in 1687, in El Nebuloso’s cabin, where Cheech (Marin) and (Tommy) Chong as El Segundo and El Nebuloso respectively – a couple of seafaring scoundrels – have procured a chest full of jewels on their travels. However a man with golden curly locks is swimming towards the boat, it turns out it’s the most feared of pirates and therefore he’s not as angelic as he looks. After outwitting the crew – cue sword fights aplenty – Yellowbeard (Graham Chapman) and his band of pirates get the treasure and take over the boat. Yellowbeard then makes an enemy in his partner in crime, Moon (Peter Boyle), after Yellowbeard claims the treasure as his and the plan was Moon’s contribution.
Then we fast forward 20 years, and through a scripted rolling screen we learn Yellowbeard was imprisoned for tax evasion, shortly after the opening scenes. Despite torture he has not divulged to anyone of the whereabouts of his treasure. He laments on prison life with “friend”, Gilbert (Marty Feldman), with Gilbert clearly more interested in the treasure’s whereabouts. Just before his release, Yellowbeard’s wife, Betty (Madeline Kahn) visits and tells him he has a twenty year old son, Dan (Martin Hewitt). Dan is by her reports a good boy and has a job as a gardener – much to Yellowbeard’s horror – and is residing at the Queen Anne (Peter Bull)’s court.
Meanwhile at Queen Anne’s court, Commander Clement (Eric Idle) and trusty sidekick, Mansell (Nigel Planer) – from the Naval Secret Service – get her consent to lengthen Yellowbeard’s sentence (spot at least 5 or 6 comedians in these scenes). This in the hope he will escape and lead them to the treasure. Yellowbeard falls for their plan and immediately escapes and returns home for the map. However at home, Yellowbeard learns from his wife that his original map with the treasure was burned. But she has had the map tattooed on his son’s head as a child.
Yellowbeard makes to Queen Anne court where he meets his son Dan and his guardians Lord Lambourn (Peter Cook) and his wife (Beryl Reid). After telling all, Yellowbeard with his new band of supporters Lord Lambourn, Dr. Gilpin (Michael Hordern) and son, Dan make for Portsmouth to obtain a boat, in a bid to secure the treasure. With Boyle and Gilbert in their pursuit to claim the treasure as their own. However all but Yellowbeard are captured by Moon and Gilbert. Moon and Glibert aboard Captain Hughes’ (James Mason) ship with the recently captured ones in tow…. And in their pursuit is the royal navy helmed by Clement… Both these motley crews depart for Madagascar and both will search for Yellowbeard’s treasure using fair means and foul.
Despite the comic talents of the cast, there was just too many characters. As sadly with too many comedians, some were underused and some had blink at miss them parts. This was frustrating with so much talent available. The quality and quantity of the cast was comparable to Captain America: Civil War (2016). In the latter Hawkeye and Antman had all too brief a moment to shine, here it was John Cleese and Spike Milligan, of whom I would have like to see more of. Although I appreciate that it must have been difficult for the writers to show particular and individual strengths for each comedian in the well written comic script.
However, with this wealth of diverse comic talents I wondered how much improvisations and ad libbing was used by these characters, as the jokes ranged from slapstick scenes to more bawdy double entendres. It was interesting to learn that there is a behind the scenes documentary on the making of this movie. This documentary showed many of the occurrences off-screen which if appropriate to the plot would have been interesting to add to this movie, and thus support and personalise the comic characters more. However it was good to see both Graham Chapman and Peter Cook had contributed to the writing of the film, as well as star in more prominent roles.
In other roles it was good to see more of Peter Boyle’s comic talents which I’d enjoyed – all to briefly – in Surrender (1987) and Michael Hordern whose presence and voice I always associate with childhood be it in Paddington (1976) or Prince Charming’s father in The Slipper and the Rose (1976). Beryl Reid, an actress who I’d been used to seeing in the BBC quiz show Blankety Blank (1979-2016) and various grandmother roles in the eighties also appeared along with more Mel Brooks favourites Madeline Kahn (Betty) and Triola (Stacey Nelkin). Both playing love interests but won’t say how and when Triola falls for one of the characters. Martin Hewitt was later remembered as the leading man in Endless Love (1981).
However the more bizarre casting of James Mason in this film cast was a fun and unexpected comic surprise. As more recently, Mason has a habit of turning up unexpectedly in my telly and film viewing. He turned up in Heaven Can Wait (1978) with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Which was a much more tedious than my childhood memory remembered. However, I had seen enough to enjoy Mason’s more palatable parody cameo of his Heaven Can Wait’s scenes in Archer (2009-). With Archer himself parodying Beatty right down to his tracksuit. And alongside a fantastic impersonation of James Mason.
The script though had well written characters and it was great to start the film with a nice wee Yellowbeard origins tale which made his and other’s motivations clear. The cast worked well together, with their ensemble acting more evident than that travesty of the last ( I hope) of the Carry On movies – Carry On Columbus (1992) – making a more enjoyable movie. However to conclude, take this film idea on board. The plot could have easily been made into one of the original Carry On Movies in those comedy days of yore. Where in a similarly themed plot, but with another time and cast such as Sid James as a Ye Olde Yellowbeard would have sailed the high seas and leaving Kenneth Williams as Commander Clement in his wake… with all hands on deck with supporting comic actors such as Joan Sim as and Jim Dale as Dan. And Angela Douglas as Triola. And a treasure trove of bawdy comic lines…
Weeper Rating: 0/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂/10
Hulk Rating: /10
Blogathons 2017, No 36
The Swashathon Blogathon
This film was reviewed for the Swashathon run by Movies Silently. Other reviews with this cast include The Slipper and the Rose (Michael Hordern) and Blankety Blank (Beryl Reid). Monty Python’s song Finland, Finland, Finland featured in this post. Eric Idle is reviewed in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Peter Boyle stars in my Outland and Surrender reviews. If you want to know the cameo, CLICK HERE for a review of his acting performances.