It’s National Talk Like a Pirate Day! I thought I’d honor it by doing a post on my favorite archetypal pirate villains from classic Hollywood films. And you know what? There are surprisingly FEW of them. America being what it is (and Hollywood being what it is) 95% of the movies of the genre feature a dashing, good looking rebel-pirate HERO in the Robin Hood tradition, with the villains usually being authority figures like corrupt colonial governors and Javert-style naval captains obsessed with catching slippery criminals on the high seas. I am also being strict in only including pirates, leaving out tyrannical sea captains who technically aren’t pirates, such as Captain Bligh and Captain Ahab. Still here are five (+) who lit up the screen with their colorful, piratical villainy. I rank them in rough order of importance.
Robert Newton will always be the top movie pirate of all time. His popping eye, husky voice, and West Country accent with its characteristic (and in Newton’s case, often gratuitous) “arrrrrr” sound, set the template for all time. He played Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island, later reprising the role in Long John Silver (1954), and in an Australian TV series by the same name. He also played the title character in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952).
Two things prevent me from putting Charles Laughton in the top spot here: 1) the fact that the great actor Laughton distinguished himself in so many other kinds of roles….and 2) that Newton’s pirate characterization has entered folklore as definitive. Laughton’s more refined English voice makes an impression, but hasn’t captivated pop culture to the same degree. Captain Kidd was Laughton’s greatest pirate part, playing him in the eponymous 1945 film, as well as the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd in 1952. Related roles include the murderous scavenger-pirate-Lord in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), and Captain Bligh (whom as we’ve already said is not a pirate but strictly a sea-villain) in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935).
Wallace Beery was not just good but memorable as Long John Silver in the 1934 version of Treasure Island (that’s Jackie Cooper above beside him as Jim). Beery was so good in the role he managed not to be eclipsed entirely by Newton. His own interpretation will continue to stand up for all time. Beery kind of IS Long John Silver.
4. Ernest Torrence and Hans Conried
Two actors have to share the #4 slot. Each of them played Captain Hook in screen versions of Peter Pan. The great (and large) Ernest Torrence (whom comedy fans will know as the father in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr) played him in the 1924 silent version, which I consider the definitive screen version of J.M. Barrie’s book. Oily, arch Hans Conried supplied the voice in the 1953 Disney animated version, the definite one for many. One is seen but not heard; the other heard, but not seen. So I make ’em share!
If Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd counts, so too should one of Bob Hope’s best comedies, The Princess and The Pirate (1944). Rough-hewn Englishman Victor McLaglen, familiar from many a John Ford picture, plays the villain of the piece, known as the Hook, in this picture, with Walter Brennan as his Smee-like assistant. In 1928 McLaglen had also played the title character in the early talkie The River Pirate.
Here’s me in a promotional shot for my 2002 play Sea of Love, which played at NYC’s Ohio Theatre (Soho Think Tank). I love pirates!