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Film review: Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

This is, surprisingly, my first current film review this year. I’ve been so caught up in my novels that I hadn’t been to the cinema until now. This one’s pretty spoiler-free, I think – if you’ve seen the trailers or read any pre-release publicity material, you probably already know more than I reveal here!

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, as its closing credits state, “suggested by” the novel of the same title by Tim Powers, reviewed on this blog earlier this month. This is a pretty accurate description, since all that has been retained from the book is the central conceit: that Blackbeard is searching for the Fountain of Youth to extend his life and continue his voodoo-enhanced reign of terror in the Caribbean. Since the first movie was also heavily inspired by the same book, there frankly wasn’t much left to pillage (without reprising Curse of the Black Pearl) – and it shows.

It’s not that there’s anything seriously, woefully wrong with the film – it’s not the random, almost incoherent mess that was At World’s End, but it lacks the sparkle of Curse of the Black Pearl. Whether that’s more the fault of the director or the scriptwriters, I leave to more analytical moviegoers to decide, but given that director Rob Marshall is a choreographer with more experience directing musicals than action movies, this was never likely to be the pinnacle of the Pirates franchise. On the other hand writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott didn’t give him a lot to work with – and in their case, we know they are capable of better. They wrote Curse of the Black Pearl, after all.

Again, part of the problem seems to come down to the impossibility of adapting the book a second time, and therefore being deprived of the narrative core that drives Curse. Without Will and Elizabeth to provide the romance element, the scriptwriters hit upon pairing Jack Sparrow with a previously unheard-of paramour, Blackbeard’s daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz). But Jack’s character doesn’t suit angsty romance, and his chemistry with Cruz doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire either. So they tried tacking on a subplot about a young preacher (to me at least, a very obvious substitute for the book’s hero, John Chandagnac) and the captive mermaid. However the preacher, Philip, is such a minor character that for a long time you don’t even know his name, and so the whole thing feels thin and under-developed compared to Will’s life-long devotion to Elizabeth. Sadly, two weak romances are no substitute for one good one.

The pacing is not great either. The film feels a good half an hour too long – and not just because of the excess romance scenes. Some of the action set pieces (like the mermaid’s capture) are dragged out as if to milk every last CGI possibility, and the final obligatory battle between pirates and soldiers is interrupted by a typical piece of Captain Jack’s witty banter – except that the dialogue lacks the dazzling panache of the earliest scripts and so only serves to bring the scene to a grinding halt.

Overall it’s not a bad movie – if one had never seen the previous ones, it might even seem like a clever resurrection of the pirate genre – but Curse of the Black Pearl was always going to be such a hard act to follow that On Stranger Tides suffers badly by comparison. There are far worse ways to end a series, though, so unless Rossio and Elliott can pull something extraordinary out of their tricorne hats, I very much hope this is Captain Jack Sparrow’s last, still-entertaining gasp.

Classic movie: Scaramouche

One of the big influences on my imagination when I was growing up, and therefore on my writing as an adult, was the classic swashbuckling movies of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it would be good to share some of my favourites on this blog – and of course it’s a great excuse to watch them again!

Scaramouche (1952)

Adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel of the same name, Scaramouche is set in late 18th century France. The hero, Andr√© Moreau (Stewart Granger), is the bastard son of a nobleman and best friend to Philippe de Valmorin, a hot-headed young revolutionary. Upon being told that his father, the Count de Gavrillac, has cut off his allowance, Moreau goes to visit him, and on the way meets the beautiful Aline (Janet Leigh) and falls in love with her. Unfortunately Aline turns out to be de Gavrillac’s daughter and therefore Moreau’s half-sister. Worse still, the count has just died, leaving his bastard son penniless.

When de Valmorin is killed in a duel by the arrogant Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), Moreau vows vengeance; but to have a chance of succeeding, he has to learn the art of the sword from the finest fencing masters in France. In the meantime he goes into hiding with a commedia dell’arte troupe, where he takes on the masked role of Scaramouche. This throws him back into the arms of his one-time lover, the fiery-tempered Lenore (Eleanor Parker), who plays Columbine in the same troupe. Meanwhile Aline, who is a ward of the crown, is introduced¬† to de Maynes by the queen and they become engaged, though Aline is still in love with Moreau.

Thanks to Moreau’s popularity as Scaramouche, the troupe is invited to play in Paris. Persuaded to join the new National Assembly, whose deputies are being systematically killed off in duels by the aristocratic members of the opposition, Moreau fights several duels and wins. Believing himself ready to take on de Maynes, he tries to call him out – but each time, de Maynes is absent on the queen’s business, thanks to Aline’s scheming.

Aline cannot keep the two men apart forever, however. Her plans go awry when she persuades de Maynes to attend the theatre where Moreau and the troupe are performing. Recognising his enemy, Moreau leaps up onto the balcony, and there follows one of the longest, and possibly best, swordfights in movie history, ranging through the theatre.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I think it will come as no surprise to find out that Moreau wins the fight and gets the girl in the end (which girl, I will leave you to find out!).

There’s so much to love about this film, I hardly know where to start, although the final swordfight, with Granger in a stunning black-and-white Renaissance costume (including, as Queenie from Blackadder II would say, “very tight tights”) is the highlight and most memorable scene by far. And whilst its female characters may be a little stereotypical by modern standards, Aline’s spirit and cunning make her rather more likable than the typical wilting heroine of pre-women’s-lib romance. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which she feigns a tantrum in order to divert de Maynes away from duelling, played by Leigh with such mischievous delight that I was cheering her on!

Watching it again, I was struck by how much this film influenced my first novel in particular, from the swordsman hero and travelling players, to the blend of action, politics and romance. It may be escapist nonsense, but it’s very much my kind of escapist nonsense!