CANNON MONTH: Pirates (1986)

Roman Polanski said to the New York Times, “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?”

Those legal problems?

In 1977, Polanski was arrested at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the sexual assault of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, who had modeled for him the day before at the home of Jack Nicholson. He pled not guilty, Hollywood came to his defense and his attorney set up a plea bargain where five of the six charges would be dropped. The charge that was left would be unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

He had to serve 90 days of psychiatric evaluation and his time served ended up being 42 days. Somewhere along the way, the judge on the case told several people that he was going to ignore the plea bargain and make certain Polanski died in jail.

The day before he was to be sentenced, Polanski left the country on a flight to London then Paris. And that’s where he’s stayed, making major movies, a French citizen protected from extradition with all those charges still pending.

In 1988, Gailey sued Polanski for sexual assault, false imprisonment, the seduction of a minor and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Five years later, he settled with her.

In 2009, he was arrested in Switzerland and in jail for two months. The United States were denied extradition and he was a free man again. Strangely, Polanski blamed Harvey Weinstein for the new focus on his sexual abuse case in the 2000s and claimed that the now-disgraced producer brought up the rape accusations again to stop him from winning an Oscar for The Pianist.

As of late, Gailey has said, ” It’s been 40 years. Enough.”

Polanski replied, “She is a double victim: My victim, and a victim of the press.”


After Chinatown, Polanski wanted to make a movie that wasn’t loaded with messages and education and with that, I think we can all agree that he succeeded. Polanski intended Jack Nicholson to play Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red and he would pull a page out of The Fearless Vampire Killers and play the sidekick.

The problem? Nicholson wanted paid. When asked how much he wanted, he just said, “I want more.”

It took until 1980 for the film to get to any stage of production. In between, he made The Tenant with Isabelle Adjani, then the arrest happened and then he made Tess with Nastassja Kinski — who he started dating when she was 15.

After that, Filmways and producer Arnon Milchan announced they would finance the movie, to be shot in Tel Aviv at a $24 million dollar budget, which would also include building a new studio and water tank. All the money would go to special effects and there would be no stars.

Then that didn’t happen either.

Carthago Films and producer, Tarak Ben Ammar took over the production and spend $8 million over the next half decade or so as the movie stayed in development. Luckily, just before shooting was to start, Dino de Laurentiis made a deal to release the movie in Europe and in the U.S. with MGM/UA. Ammar got three more banks to put up more money.

Numerous stars were picked for the lead role and finally Walter Matthau came on board. He would say, “”I didn’t like the script. 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.”

Things had to get better after that, right?

The budget went to $40 million, storms made the shoot pretty much out of control and Ammar kept on a happy face, because they were bringing jobs to Tunisia even if Polanski was, in his words, “disaster prone.” And then he was unhappy with MGM/UA, paid off their investment and brought in Cannon Films.

Things really had to get better after that.

Did they get better after that?

“We make mistakes. Pirates was one of them,” Yoram Globus told the Los Angeles Times.

The movie made s $1.64 million and $6.3 million worldwide on a budget of somewhere above $40 million.

Yes, it failed, even after it opened Cannes, during which the Neptune sailed into the Cannes harbor on the festival’s opening day, with all the cast on deck in their pirate costumes. And then nobody had any idea what to do with that ship, so it sat in the harbor at Cannes or sixteen years, a reminder of just ow much of a failure this movie was.

We should probably get to the movie.

Pirate Thomas Bartholomew Red (Matthau) and his cabin boy Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion) start the film lost in the middle of the ocean on a raft (not a rat thanks for catching the typo! They do eat a rat later though) when they’re picked up by a Spanish ship known as the Neptune. They’re immediately placed in the brig along with the sip’s cook (Olu Jacobs) who may have tried to kill the ship’s captain (Ferdy Mayne, who made this movie the year after he was in Night Train to Terror, which are both choices and a journey)because there’s Aztec gold inside the ship.

The captain dies and Don Alfonso de la Torré (Damien Thomas) takes charge of the ship. He’s in love with a noblewomen’s daughter, Maria-Dolores (Charlotte Lewis), who Jean-Baptiste has also fallen for. Our protagonists try to enact a mutiny, which leads to a rebellion and a massive fight scene and then Maria-Dolores is nearly assaulted because this is a movie that “young audience will enjoy more than the adults” to quote Polanski.

Shenanigans ensure and this movie ends up feeling like two years instead of two hours. The ship looks great though, right? It makes me wonder why Polanski made this movie look so realistic — I mean, there’s a rat eating scene and everything looks absolutely caked in filth — when everything else in it is a farce.

I’d been warned by how bad this movie was and despite me continually testing my resolve by watching the full filmographies of Bruno Mattei, Joe D’Amato, Jess Franco and way further down the chain of so-called bad movies and you know, this is the very definition of a bad movie. And I don’t believe in the term so bad it’s good. This is bad. From now on, I will compare every bad and boring movie that I watch to Pirates and they will become better by that comparison.

Of course, this movie has accusations of its own. Lewis said that Polanski had forced himself on her while she was auditioning for a role when she was 16 and he was 50. But then again, se claimed at the time that she was the one who pursued him, telling News of the World, “I knew that Roman had done something bad in the United States, but I wanted to be his mistress. I wanted him probably more than he wanted me.”

Obviously, she’s in this movie as María-Dolores de la Jenya de la Calde, appeared arm in arm with Polanski at Cannes a year after the incident and said in an interview, “I’d love to have had a romantic relationship with Polanski and a physical one. You can’t help falling in love with him. But he didn’t want me that way.”

That said, the world has changed a lot since 1986. So I really and honestly have no idea who to believe and the only ones that know are the people directly involved. I can dislike Polanski’s character as much as I want to and so much of watching exploitation film — most film — is to not whitewash what any individual has done. But I can definitely say that Pirates is a horrible movie that I suffered throughout.

You can listen to The Cannon Canon suffer through Pirates here.

2 thoughts on “CANNON MONTH: Pirates (1986)

  1. How big was the rat and was it dead or alive?
    Pirate Thomas Bartholomew Red (Matthau) and his cabin boy Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion) start the film lost in the middle of the ocean on a rat when they’re picked up by a Spanish ship known as the Neptune.


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