I Saw A Film!
Yellowbeard, played by the brilliant (but reportedly often drunk: See: A Liar’s Autobiography) Graham Chapman, is married to the delightful Madeline Kahn and is about to be released from the dingy prison, where he was not expected to survive. He learns of his twenty year old offspring being a gardener, leaving him most disappointed. He doubts the offspring is really his son as, he later says, women don’t usually survive his attentions. Learning things never taught Kahn nothing, says she berating the boy, and last time she was reading she got raped, and so she finally lets her son in on the secret that he’s the son of the famous pirate Yellowbeard. Yellowbeard twists his hair into smoldering blunt ends as Blackbeard was said to have done with his beard in the New World. In the end there’s a treasure, no one needs much more motivation.
There are many good jokes buried in this messy film, but the feel isn’t Holy Grail or Life of Brian enough to be a real classic wild-assed comic romp, though there are some recognizable Python gags. It is perhaps much more akin to Jabberwocky. The plethora of rape jokes are a bit difficult to swallow, but Kahn is so sweetly hilarious it’s easy to forgive the insensitivity. If we can be amused with violence and criminality–as a spoof intends–and there’s no doubt we are, especially with such ridiculous historical malarkey, we can attune ourselves to the ludicrousness of the situation, and the inevitable comparison to reality keeps a good satire centered in proper context. The drunkenness and carelessness of our ancestors is exactly the sort of thing Haldor Laxness to Norman Mailer correctly identified as primary cause for much of historical buffoonery, official and otherwise.
Some of the slap-stick is actually worse than the insensitive violence jokes. Feldman chasing Cleese around with a horn, and the multiple swats and grabs as Chapman’s Yellowbeard scoops up hapless ladies left and right suggesting his vileness with rampant sexuality. Children are kicked down into basements, and shit is flung into faces. The one thing I’ve always appreciated from this better educated crew of comics is the nastiness of the old world. You are left with no uncertain romances about what the 17th, 18th or really any previous era would be like to endure. Savagery and sadism are the humor here. Kenneth Mars plays the ship’s ferocious disciplinarian. Peter Boyle is also excellent as Mr. Moon, a mutinous scalawag loyal (at first) to Yellowbeard. He laughs encouragingly over the lad’s first killing, “It’s like that, killing.” All in all there was probably little funny about pirates and so being a stickler for political correctness would have edged this out of production anyway. Sad because Chapman is great here! His rolling eyes and blonde mane are good silly, if somewhat offensive, fun. And frankly any period of history, as I have just remarked would likely have offended us, so why not depict it with the edge facing out.
The climax of the film includes a few too many gags. Plus, this really is a hell of a crew of comics in one bag and can’t really deliver on the variety of talents on offer. Tommy Chong’s enormous reptile head-piece to the crew of the pursuit ship basically dancing a conga line to find the treasure are weak visual aids. Still if you love any of these old jokesters from Chapman to Kahn the film works just fine, and possibly works as a viler version of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise sold to the kiddos more recently.
This runs free on Prime and reminds us of the loss of Chapman (talented in both acting and humanitarianism) far too soon!