Yellowbeard

Yellowbeard. Hemdale Film Corporation 1983.

Before watching the movie:

This looked like a bit of a mess when I first passed by it and taking a closer look now it seems like it’s even worse than it initially appeared. The huge cast of big names probably means that nobody except Graham Chapman’s Yellowbeard gets much time to be all that important to the plot. There’s a whole lot of Monty Python alums here, but it’s not a Monty Python or Terry Gilliam project. Though as Chapman is a writer, it’s easy to see how they were assembled.

At this point, it seems that the most marketable names in the movie are Cheech and Chong, and it’s not just weird that they’d be in a movie together and not at the center of it, but I don’t understand what they’re doing in such a Python-y movie.

After watching the movie:

Yellowbeard the pirate amassed a great amount of treasure through his exploits of thieving, killing, torturing, and generally being a wild man, but was eventually captured and imprisoned for 20 years for tax evasion thanks to his bosun Mister Moon’s betrayal. Just when he’s about to be released, Cdr. Clement of the Royal Navy, eager to get his hands on the treasure, gets the Queen to sign an order extending Yellowbeard’s imprisonment for another 140 years, spurring him to escape and go for the treasure, with Clement following him. Though he had hidden a map in a chimney in his wife Betty’s pub, she reveals that 20 years ago she burned it and tattooed it on the head of her infant son Dan, whom she claims is Yellowbeard’s though she’s allowed Lord Lambourn to believe he is Dan’s father and raise him so. Learning all this, Dan, Lambourn, and the intellectual Dr. Gilpin agree to set out on the voyage with Yellowbeard to claim the treasure, but the trio get pressed into the Royal Navy before they can embark, which not only stymies them, but also Clement’s pursuit, which is also hampered by Betty’s refusal to cooperate even through torture.

For a movie with such a notable cast, I was expecting a much thinner plot, but the story actually seems to be pretty strongly in most scenes. There’s a whole lot going on, but nothing is really all that extraneous. I can’t recall any showstopper bits where the comedy stopped being in service of keeping things moving.

Yellowbeard spends most of the movie pretty much feral. Aside from a few scenes that are necessary to get the plot going, he’s more animal than man. To the point that (unless his treasure is on the line) he can’t pass an attractive woman without pouncing on her. But don’t worry, it’s a comedy, so the women love having a bedraggled mountain man drag them into the bushes and possibly father their child without a word. Betty can’t even really tell the difference between “rape” and “cuddle”. The script went all in on some running jokes that were never in good taste, is what I’m saying. The blind man comes off better in this movie than any women, but that may also be a function of being played by John Cleese.

The closest this movie comes to having a protagonist is Dan. He doesn’t have a strong arc, but he does kind of grow into the life of a pirate, even if he still doesn’t much resemble his alleged father in most practices, but he’s just about the blandest character present, and not in a “square-jawed hero off the Hollywood factory floor” way. The poster gets a lot more visual mileage out of the map being tattooed on his head than the movie does. Until almost the end, we don’t even get to see it. Characters just move his hair aside to check things and the camera doesn’t follow the motion. Peter Boyle seems incredibly miscast. I think he’s one of only two people in this pirate movie with an American accent, and while he’s a decent villain he’s not at all a swashbuckling blackhat. And while Cheech Marin fits in very well as the Spaniard lackey El Segundo, Tommy Chong (the other American accent) as his boss the Inquisitor-turned-God-Emperor El Nebuloso is incredibly strange.

Maybe this story could’ve worked with different casting and some more perspectives in the writing room. It ends up being so densely plotted that it’s a bit hard to follow while also being completely loaded with jokes, of which too many were bad ideas. Ultimately the only point I can divine from this movie is “make a pirate movie and have a lot of fun doing it”, and I’m sure some of the people involved had fun. Unfortunately, not many people who watched did.

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