Fox // 1961 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // June 11th, 2004
Return to the days of wooden ships...and even woodener men.
Permit me to indulge once again my childhood reminiscences. I remember commercials for a certain candy bar that generally featured two people trying to go opposite directions down a narrow corridor. One person would carry a bar of chocolate, the other (for reasons unknown) an open jar of peanut butter. When the inevitable collision occurred, they would exclaim, "You got peanut butter on my chocolate!" "You got chocolate in my peanut butter!" The commercial always ended happily, however, once the two protagonists discovered that peanut butter and chocolate are, in fact, two great tastes that taste great together.
A similar accident, with less happy resolution, seems to have occurred in the making of Pirates of Tortuga. I can see it now, two aspiring screenwriters approaching each other. One has a script for a pirate adventure. The other has an early draft of the script for My Fair Lady or something similar. We have a collision, and the two writers decide that mixing the two films might just be a wonderful idea.
I preferred the candy bar.
Captain Bart Paxton (Ken Scott, The Second Time Around) is a merchant captain and privateer in the service of the British crown, though you wouldn't know it from his accent; his clearly American tones are so flat you could plant wheat on them and call them Nebraska. Another privateer, the famous and flamboyant Sir Henry Morgan (Robert Stephens, Empire of the Sun) has gotten a little too good at his trade, and the King sends Bart to the West Indies to stop Morgan's threat to important colonies like Jamaica.
Along the way, the fiery, streetwise Meg (Letícia Román, Fanny Hill) stows away on Bart's ship. Bart's officers and crew take a liking to her immediately, but Bart is not amused. He does not consider the ill-mannered street actress and thief a proper lady. His officers, each with apparent romantic designs on the beautiful stranger, take it upon themselves to train her in the ways of polite society.
There are some momentous events later on in the film, as Bart first infiltrates Morgan's pirate stronghold and later organizes an attack against him. There are political maneuverings among the colonial elite in Jamaica. However, it all takes a back seat to Meg's adventures as an Eliza Doolittle wannabe, first aboard ship and later in the mansion of Jamaica's colonial governor.
Ken Scott is not a pirate, or privateer, or anything of the sort. At no point during this film did I believe his character for a second. He's the flattest, most deadpan actor who ever walked the decks of a seagoing soundstage. He's like Ward Cleaver, only without all the fiery passion.
Letícia Román, as Meg, is a wonder to behold. That is, you will wonder who cast her in this movie. She gives an enthusiastic, breathless reading of her lines that is so over-the-top that it borders on spastic. Actually, come to think of it, "reading" might not be exactly the right word for what she is doing here; as an Italian newcomer to Hollywood, one supposes it is possible that she knew so little English that her interpretation of the lines may in fact be totally phonetic. I cannot verify whether that is the case, but I almost hope it is true, as it would make her ghastly performance a bit more understandable. Her butchery of English does take on an unintentionally comic aspect at times, such as when she dresses up as a proper lady for the first time, looks in a mirror, and intones to herself, "Oh Meg! The sight of you would melt a nurl -- or maybe a king!" It may be a minor point, but she's also about the least alluring gypsy dancer ever.
There are bigger flaws with Pirates of Tortuga, of course, that don't relate to the accents or acting abilities of the leads. I don't know about you, but I firmly believe if a movie has the word "pirate" in the title, then pirates had better be the main emphasis of the film. The bulk of the film should be taken up by cannons, boarding parties, swordfights, and grizzled seamen yelling "Arrrrrrr!" Pirates of Tortuga has some of that, certainly, but not enough to salvage a film that thinks it is My Fair Lady at Sea. There is an excruciatingly long stretch of the film where nothing happens, except the attempts of Captain Bart and his officers to teach Meg some manners and how to act like a "real lady." It is meant to be cute and romantic, but it is not. For the audience, the damage done to the characters during these floating finishing school scenes is irreparable. We come to realize that we cannot care about a woman who is this dumb, shallow, and determined to be shallower still. Captain Bart, for all his talk about ladies and gentlemen, is an insufferable prick to Meg for the entire duration of their sea voyage. It will surprise no one that they of course wind up together at the end of the movie -- unless you have seen the movie, of course, in which case it is a jarring shock.
The Pirates of Tortuga DVD is a double-sided disc, with a chopped "full-frame" version on one side, and a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen version on the other side. Quality varies widely, in ways that seem to point more of the blame at the source print rather than the DVD transfer. The opening credit sequence gave me hope, with its bold red and white names showing razor-sharp against a sepia-toned scene of ships sailing into a harbor. Colors, at least in indoor scenes, are sharp and vivid, with crisp reds and deep, strong blacks. Actually, blacks look to be a bit over-saturated, leading to a loss of detail. Outdoor scenes, particularly those featuring ships at sea, are grainy and muddy, with very poor definition and almost no fine details. The whole movie looks a bit dark, as though it were being shown in a theater with the projector bulb turned down a bit too low. There are some clearly digital problems as well, such as shimmering and mosquito noise around detailed objects, such as the ship's rigging in Chapter 2, as well as what appears to be some fairly normal edge enhancement and aliasing issues. There are notable instances of shimmer and moiré issues in fine details such as the gold braid of a British soldier's red coat.
Audio is presented in both the original mono and a forced stereo mix. The mono track is the best bet, even if it doesn't make much use of your audio setup. The stereo track sounds hollow, with a fake-sounding echo to give it the appearance of more depth. The audio shows its age, with a fair amount of analog hiss and occasional wobbles and wavers in the musical score.
Special features on this disc consist of a theatrical trailer for Pirates of Tortuga, as well as A High Wind in Jamaica, The Black Swan, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Prince Valiant.
With efforts like Pirates of Tortuga, I can see why pirate films were considered box office poison for most of the latter half of the 20th century.
Guilty! Pirates of Tortugais far too much My Fair Lady, and not nearly enough Captain Blood. Arr, matey! I sentence ye to hang from the highest yardarm! (That's how people should talk in a pirate movie, not all this bilge about how ladies should hold a pinky erect while drinking from a wine glass!)
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailers