Times Staff Writer

Our first glimpse of Walter Matthau in Roman Polanski’s “Pirates” (citywide) is on a raft adrift in the Caribbean.

What a splendid sight he is: Dressed in filthy 17th-Century finery, full-bearded, a glint in his eye, Matthau’s wily and notorious Capt. Thomas Bartholomew Red is instantly a real pirate. And when he opens his mouth, his low-class English accent has a glorious Leo McKern/Michael Hordern sound to it.

Alas, would that “Pirates” were as inspired as the casting of Matthau. The film is as handsome and authentic-looking a period production as one could wish, but the script, by Polanski and his frequent collaborator Gerard Brach, is as ponderous as the film’s beautiful, looming Spanish galleon (constructed especially for the picture at a reported cost of $8 million).


“Pirates” has its sly, funny moments, but ironically ends up a work by a sophisticated film maker that may be best left to the least demanding audiences.

As you’d suspect from the film’s opening, Capt. Red is not exactly enjoying a moment of triumph when we meet him. In fact, he’s so hungry that he’s about to decapitate his unsuspecting young French sidekick, the Frog (Cris Campion), when the fellow catches a fish just in the nick of time. Capt. Red has lost his ship, but salvation beckons when that galleon, the Neptune, looms on the horizon. But the two wind up in the brig, the Spaniards understandably unconvinced by the pirates’ assertions of respectability.

To be sure, we know that the Neptune and its New World treasure, including the Golden Aztec Throne of Kapatek-Anhuach, is going to end up in Captain Red’s greedy clutches. But it takes an unconscionable 53 minutes (nearly half the picture) for him to pull it off. Come on, it would have taken Charles Laughton’s Capt. Kidd about 10 minutes to turn the tables. After all, “Pirates” is scarcely a reprise of “Knife in the Water,” Polanski’s psychological thriller set entirely on a yacht; it’s a swashbuckler, pure and simple.

That’s the problem: What more can you really do in a long-dead genre that was brilliantly and definitively spoofed more than 30 years ago in “The Crimson Pirate”? Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a point in “Pirates” having been made in the first place.

Polanski could at least have cut down on the talk and beefed up the action, for the plot of “Pirates” does no more than seesaw between Capt. Red and the Spanish in having the upper hand. In the meantime, “Pirates” suffers from a lack of bosoms and battles (there is a suitably robust climactic fight, but what a wearying wait till we get to it).

Where is Maureen O’Hara and her fire when we need her? Indeed, Capt. Red could be more fun with a contemporary counterpart for O’Hara (maybe someone like Ann-Margret, who played off Matthau so well in “I Ought to Be in Pictures”). As it is, the film’s only damsel in distress is a demure Infanta type played by lovely newcomer Charlotte Lewis, who falls for the Frog.

Where “Pirates” shines, in addition to Matthau’s shrewd and endearing performance, is in its gorgeous Anthony Powell costumes and Pierre Guffroy’s superb production design, which together create something of the textural richness of a Sternberg film. Yet in the absence of a swift and light story they too tend, for all their artistry, to weigh down the film.


There are, however, numerous quirky types who provide a lift from time to time--in particular, Roy Kinnear’s shifty Dutch trader; Ferdy Mayne’s dying Spanish captain (routinely subjected to vinegar shots administered by the world’s largest syringe) and Richard Pearson’s dippy priest.

But it’s left to Matthau to breathe as much life as possible into “Pirates, and he does indeed have a delicious moment when his rat-in-the-soup ploy intended as an incitement to mutiny backfires and he and the Frog must eat a rat between them.

“Pirates” (rated a suitable P-13) is the most commercial and least personal of any film Polanski has ever made. It’s too big an enterprise for Walter Matthau to be the whole show.