[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
In this life sure things are rare, and it were churlish not to pay tribute to one when found. Very well, then: see James Goldstone marked down as the director of a given film and rest assured it will be a shambles. Not that a mindless pirate picture would be the easiest project to bring off in the Seventies with a modicum of style and dash—commodities almost in shorter supply than sure things. But even if a director were capable of steering round the improbabilities in a pirate-meets-girl, pirate-foils-nasty-dictator, pirate-gets-girl-without-losing-a-PG-rating script, he’d still have to do something about making other generic conventions seem effortlessly natural: conveying a sense of fun and exuberance that would make those nonstop guffaws over the joys of fighting, guzzling and wenching seem other than forced, or the absence of any notion of danger—even when the air is full of live steel and cannonaded masonry—seem the only proper response to a world made for devil-may-care adventure. A gregarious raconteur like Raoul Walsh has it in his blood; a Michael Curtiz can cram his frames and send them hurtling after one another with such dizzying stylishness that any feeling of extravagant artifice all but becomes a virtue; even when a stolid craftsman like Henry King is in charge, the solemnity of his responsibility in marshalling a big-budget period picture lends a narrative stability of its own. Goldstone doesn’t come near suggesting any of these guys (although at one point he keeps the duelling Peter Boyle and Robert Shaw out of sight behind a staircase, and if you happen to spot their shadows on the wall amid the clutter of extras, you might feel generous enough to count it as failed-Curtiz) and, worse, has no consistent idea what to do on his own hook.
Peter Boyle, hair slicked back and pudge contained in straining black silk, might have been fun given any consistent context, uttering lines like “I serve only one master and his name is Darkness”; but here the audience just goes whaah-he-say?, the co-players sneak a glance left of camera, and the swash buckles on. Innocence poses a problem, too: Even though Red Ned Lynch (Robert Shaw) tups his way around the Caribbean (a careless figure of speech, that—from all appearances he and his ship never leave a three-mile-square area), somehow he respects the feisty English nobleman’s daughter (Geneviève Bujold) too much to dream of laying a hand on her in ungentlemanly fashion. Well, we might get around that, too; but Goldstone, remembering that pirate flicks of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties often included some kind of jungle lagoon bathing sequence or emergency you-can’t-swim-for-it-with-all-those-petticoats-milady escape scene, elects to have Bujold take a recreational plunge, starkers, from a ship full of carousing (but very unobservant, for declared lecherous sorts) buccaneers. The genre has to keep up with the times? Yes, that’s a problem all right, and it’ll be worth waiting to see how Roman Polanski handles it when he makes his pirate picture. Meanwhile, Swashbuckler (The Blarney Cock—which is the name of Lynch’s ship—must have seemed too leering) is just a dumb film boasting broadly bad performances by a good cast, some pleasant scenery, the pleasure of watching a real ship (the Golden Hinde) tossing on a real ocean instead of a miniature in a tank, and a narrative style without even the courage of nostalgic anachronism.
SWASHBUCKLER (The Blarney Cock)
Direction: James Goldstone. Screenplay: Jeffrey Bloom, after a story by Paul Wheeler. Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop. Production design: John Lloyd. Music: John Addison. Production: Jennings Lang; executive: Elliott Kastner.
The players: Robert Shaw, Geneviève Bujold, James Earl J ones, Peter Boyle, Beau Bridges, Geoffrey Holder, Avery Schreiber, Tom Clancy, Kip Niven, Anjelica Huston, Dorothy Tristan.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson
A pdf of the original issue can be found here