Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Movies:"Who is to say the Devil doesn't exist?"

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm not a huge geek for the Golden Age of Piracy. Don't get me wrong, you wouldn't have Jean Laffite if there wasn't a Henry Morgan before him - and how cool would it be to sit down with those two chuckle heads and crack open a bottle of wine? - but I personally tend to identify with the privateers of the late18th and early 19th century first and foremost. There, now you know my filthy little pirate secret.
That said, you can't really write about pirates and privateers and ignore the greatest ever to ply the trade in the waters of North America, Edward Teach himself. So, to kick things off right brave Brethren, today we take a look at National Geographic's docudrama "Blackbeard: Terror at Sea."

Now, NatGeo is good with the documentaries. From "Battles B.C." with the taught abs and flying swords to "Locked Up Abroad" which will make you swear off travel for life, they rarely disappoint and this little gem is no exception. Blackbeard's story is told by narrator Israel Hands who, when we first meet him, is Master aboard a sloop Captained by a man named Vane. The year is 1715 and another of the innumerable wars between Britain and Spain has ended. The privateers for the Crown are losing their letters of marque which allowed them to legally raid Spanish shipping. Some will give up The Life but others will turn pirate. Enter Edward Teach.

Teach is Captaining the sloop Revenge of twelve guns and, in a typically questionable tavern in Nassau, Bahamas, he's rounding up crewman. Hands decides to sign on and, in a memorably threatening exchange between Teach and Vane, our favorite antihero reveals that he won't turn pirate for the cash per ce. He's angry that England would expect men to build their Empire for them and then turn right around and sweep their livelihoods out from under them without any compensation. He'll go to sea again, but not for the reasons everyone imagines. "I just want to be remembered," he tells Hands. Evidently his strategy worked.

Teach progresses from small time pirate to public enemy number one in short order. When he takes a French slaver and turns her into his now infamous Queen Anne's Revenge all hell quite literally breaks loose for the Caribbean and the southern colonies. There are side stories about the ruthless Governor Spotswood of Virginia who means to see Teach dead at any cost, the cabin boy "Frenchie" who stays with Teach when he takes the slaver and the cruel bosun Mr. Givens whose favorite fantasy revolves around taking Teach's place as Captain. Good luck with that, Givens.

All the while Hands is keeping the viewer up to date on the rules that governed piracy. The lack of hard currency is pointed out, with prizes generally offering up goods and foodstuffs -and,unfortunately, human chattel - instead of the usual fantasy chest of gold. The rule of equal shares comes up as does the fact that pirate Captains in the Golden Age were elected and had to be successful or risk losing their station. The information is accurate and clear but, thankfully, never turns into a lecture. The narrator's conversational tone keeps the story moving forward without getting clunky or preachy.

Many interesting asides come up about the titular pirate as well that might make a scholar want to do a little more research. Was he really more about the fame than the fortune? Was he a reader of history, as the film implies? Did he really admire Black Sam Bellamy, that famous and allegedly handsome rogue who went down off Cape Cod aboard his Whydah? Did he really turn out his wife to his crew with the admonition that each man should wait his turn for his equal share? It all makes for wonderful storytelling but where does the myth meet the man?

In the end, Teach takes the pirate pardon offered to all who ply the trade by King George only to find that life as a country gentleman does not suit. When his wife, Mary Ormond, insults him in front of the Governor of North Carolina he snaps. Mary is introduced quite intimately to the crew who have been hanging out on Ocrakoke Island and Edward gets back to what he's good at. Unfortunately the days of great pirates are numbered and two Royal Navy sloops are sent to engage the Queen Anne's Revenge and end Teach's career. Seeming to know that the jig is up, Teach wounds Hans and leaves him on land with Frenchie to look after him. This is an interesting scene that plays to the legend of an apparently heartless Blackbeard randomly shooting one of his crewmen while the viewer understands that Teach is in fact trying to remove Hands and Frenchie from harm's way. Its an interesting touch, but it might be more wishful thinking than history.

Finally, the Devil gets his due. Teach and his men board the Navy sloop Ranger. Teach is engaged by Lieutenant (remember, pronounce if "Leftenant") Maynard. Swordplay ensues and legend tells us that Blackbeard is shot five times and suffers twenty cutlass strokes before finally succumbing. His head is lopped off and hung from Ranger's bowsprit. His body swims around the ship seven times before sinking into the depths. His ship is captured, his men are hanged and farewell to the Golden Age. Its a great ending and one that the film wisely chooses not too scorn.

All in all the DVD is an hour well spent. The research is impeccable, the costuming and ships are spot on and the acting is solid over all. The only actor credited is James Purefoy and he chews up the screen as Blackbeard, his persona and his beard growing bigger with each scene. There is also a "Fact and Folklore" special feature on the DVD that gives more insight into the pirate life in its heyday. Check it out if you have a chance. I think you'll be pleased indeed.


Timmy! said...

Arr! Awesome first post Pauline... Welcome to hell! Err, I mean the blogesphere...

John Robert Marlow said...

The kind of thorough review I'd expect from my favorite pirate / privateer expert. Can't wait to see more--keep it coming!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Thanks for being my first (after Blackbeard I mean).

Pauline said...

Ahoy John! How pleased I am to get your feedback. Welcome aboard!