June 24, 1983
Later than 1983, but not that much later, I watched MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL over at my friend Jerrod’s house, and it was the funniest thing I ever saw. You know – they make this clip-clop sound with coconut shells instead of riding horses, and the guy sings “and his penis—“, and there’s fake credits in the middle, and there’s a killer bunny. It’s a really funny movie, and I was a young boy at the time, so it was a mindblowingly funny movie. At some point later I saw MONTY PYTHON AND THE LIFE OF BRIAN and I liked that one even better. As a teenager I tried watching the show for a bit, and I think I liked some of it, but it didn’t stick. It was those two movies for me, and I’m okay leaving it at that, and otherwise only following Terry Gilliam’s career. So add “the various Monty Python guys” to the list of “things that were huge in 1983 that were just a little bit before my time.”
YELLOWBEARD is a pirate comedy starring Python’s Graham Chapman, who’s a wild man in this one instead of the straight man like in those other ones. The movie opens on a Spanish galleon, with Cheech & Chong playing (in reverse order) the Inquisitor Nebulosa and his primary stooge (credited as El Segundo). Nebuloso plays with gold coins chanting “I am the richest man in the world!,” and then tells his underling to bang his head against the floor as punishment for questioning his right to keep the treasure for himself as “god’s representative.” He does it willingly, saying “Muchas gracias!”
But their ship is raided by the notorious pirate Yellowbeard (Chapman) and his crew. Yellowbeard greedily refuses to share the spoils with his partner Moon (Peter Boyle, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE), saying “Hands off!” and shutting a treasure chest so hard it chops off one of his hands.
After that brief origin story for his nemesis, a narrated scroll tells us about Yellowbeard “killing over 500 men in cold blood. He would tear the captains’ hearts out and swallow them whole. Often forcing his victims to eat their own lips, he was caught and imprisoned for tax evasion.”
Well, that’s how it’s written on screen. How it’s narrated is, “He was caught and imprisoned… for tax evasion.” Reading ahead made me laugh, hearing it killed the joke.
But now we have the premise: while imprisoned for 20 years at “Her Majesty’s Prison St. Victims For the Extremely Naughty,” Yellowbeard never gives up the location of his hidden treasure, despite torture from the authorities and not-so-subtle nudging from fellow convict Gilbert (Marty Feldman, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN).
Yellowbeard works as a parody of an old timer with fucked up issues trying to push his backwards ways on the new generation. Instead of trying to brag about a scary bad guy he is, he just complains about everyone else not being like him. While on dead-body duty in the prison he complains about prisoners these days being a bunch of wimps, dying during torture. “When they stretched me on a rack for a couple o’ years I didn’t go around dyin’ all over the place! Pathetic. Takin’ the easy way out like that… You won’t catch me dyin’. They’d have to kill me before I die.”
He’s not the romanticized type of pirate – he’s an absolute monster, played as a curmudgeon. One of the running gags I’m wary of bringing up, because it’s a subject that’s generally agreed now not to be something to joke about. Because he’s a pirate they often talk overly casually about rape. His wife Betty (Madeline Kahn, PAPER MOON – easily the MVP of the movie) comes to visit him in prison to tell him he has a son.
“Do you remember just before you were arrested we were havin’ a cuddle?”
“I was rapin’ ya if that’s what ya mean.”
“All right. Sort of half cuddle, half rape.”
Later, when lying to the police about fugitive Yellowbeard visiting her, she pretends to suddenly remember who they’re talking about. “Oh— someone did pop in and rape me.” If making light of such a horrible topic is upsetting to you, definitely avoid this, because it comes up repeatedly. But I have to admit, the way Kahn delivers this stuff is funny.
When Betty tells Yellowbeard about “the fruit of his loins” he says, “Ya madwoman. I haven’t got fruit in m’ loins. Lice – yes, and proud of ‘em!”
His son is 20 year old Dan (Martin Hewitt), who she hid from him because “I wanted him to be brought up like a gentleman and not a pirate.” When Yellowbeard expects his son to have killed 500 men like he had at that age, she says, “Well, he’s not quite so extroverted as you.”
It becomes a mismatched father and son adventure after snooty Secret Service Commander Clement (Eric Idle) orchestrates a plan to encourage Yellowbeard to escape (in a coffin) in hopes they can follow him to his treasure. Yellowbeard, Betty and Dan do indeed plan an expedition. Dan has to go because Betty destroyed the treasure map and tattooed it to his scalp, and he convinces his dad that if his head were severed it would “putrefy.” They find a way to travel on a boat in disguise and secretly change the ship’s course at night to get to the island where the treasure is buried, which is also where El Nebuloso has a fortress. Meanwhile, Gilbert was secretly working as an informant for Moon, who helps him escape so they can chase after Yellowbeard as well.
There’s some swashbuckling, some mutiny, lots of interrogation, and sword fights around a pool of acid (not safe). The basic approach is to use a normal and serious-seeming pirate adventure plot, plus a rousing adventure score by John Morris (who did most of Mel Brooks’ movies, including THE ELEPHANT MAN, which nabbed him an Oscar nomination), as a vehicle for lots of silly characters and funny dialogue. Unfortunately once they get to the island in the last half hour they make the rookie mistake of acting too much like we might care about who wins the sword fights, or about Dan’s love for Nebuloso’s daughter Triola (Stacey Nelkin, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), or about him becoming a pirate and finally making his father proud. Dan and Triola kind of seem like the human characters in a Muppet movie, which isn’t as cool in a movie with no Muppets.
The script is credited to Chapman & Peter Cook (BEDAZZLED) & Bernard McKenna (Doctor in the House), and it’s helmed by Mel Damski, a TV director (M*A*S*H, Lou Grant) making his theatrical feature debut. I’m afraid he doesn’t have the visual panache of Gilliam, or the benefit of fantasy elements like Gilliam’s movies (or the later, much funnier CABIN BOY). I didn’t get a whole lot out of YELLOWBEARD but I must confess that I watched THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS to review earlier in the series and I didn’t even feel like writing about that one. YELLOWBEARD is at least consistently kind of funny. It has lots of dumb little jokes I found at least mildly amusing: there being a little kid in the prison (uncommented on), Yellowbeard not understanding the concept of having his hair and beard cut as a disguise (“That looks nothing like me!”), all the members of a naval frigate crew being “responsible for discipline” and “preventive punishment,” including one named “Mr. Prostitute” (Greta Blackburn, also in CHAINED HEAT that summer), who’s a beautiful blond woman with a very fake painted on mustache, Gilbert holding Moon’s hook-hand right after he’s accidentally held it over the fire.
In its original conception, this might’ve been a much cooler, or at least more novel, movie. The idea came about when Chapman and Cook were having dinner at Trader Vic’s with The Who drummer Keith Moon and motherfuckin Sam Peckinpah (!), and Moon said they should all do a pirate movie together. I’m unclear if Peckinpah ever took the idea seriously, but this would’ve been the ‘70s, since Moon died in ’78, so he might’ve been busy with CROSS OF IRON or something. (His last movie, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, came out a few months after YELLOWBEARD.)
Moon was originally going to finance and star in the movie, but got too sick, so Chapman took over the role. At some point the singer Adam Ant was cast as Dan, but it took too long to get off the ground, so he quit. They replaced him with another singer, Sting, until the producers insisted they needed someone in the cast to appeal to Americans, which to them meant an up and coming American actor doing a British accent, like Martin Hewitt.
A week and a half before YELLOWBEARD’s release, The Police put out their fifth album Synchronicity, which sold over 8 million copies in the U.S., won three Grammy Awards, was voted Album of the Year by Rolling Stone readers, spawned five hit singles, and spent 17 weeks at the #1 spot on the Billboard charts, interrupting the reign of Thriller. So I could be wrong but it seems possible that Sting at that time appealed more to Americans than a guy who had only been in one other movie, even if it was starring with Brooke Shields in Franco Zeffirelli’s ENDLESS LOVE.
They did manage to get David Bowie in a surprising one-line cameo as a dude paid to swim around wearing a shark fin to scare Betty into talking. He was on vacation in Mexico after finishing his album Let’s Dance, and he hung out with Chapman and Idle on the beach, so they convinced him to come in one day and shoot that.
Feldman died of a heart attack on location in Mexico, having filmed all but his death scene, which was completed by a double, of course. It was also the final theatrical movie for Peter Bull (Queen Anne) and Spike Milligan (Flunkie). Chapman did a few more things before his tragically young death in 1989, but the only other theatrical release was STAGE FRIGHT, in which he wasn’t credited.
YELLOWBEARD was a poorly reviewed flop, like THE PIRATE MOVIE before it and NATE AND HAYES after it. It opened in 11th place, well below the week’s other new releases PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and THE SURVIVORS. (The first two I’m skipping because I’ve already reviewed them, and the third I just didn’t want to watch, but it is from the director of PRIME CUT, so… I don’t know. If anybody’s a fan, let me know.)
Idle and John Cleese (who plays a blind man whose other senses are so strong Betty asks him to “keep an ear on the bar” at her tavern) both felt YELLOWBEARD was among their worst films. Damski went on to direct for some pretty good ‘90s TV shows (Picket Fences, American Gothic, Nowhere Man, Early Edition). Other notable works include BLOOD RIVER (the made-for-cable Ricky Schroder western based on an old John Carpenter script), EVERYBODY’S BABY: THE RESCUE OF JESSICA McCLURE, and LEGENDARY (the WWE produced drama starring John Cena, Patricia Clarkson and Danny Glover).
America’s favorite son Martin Hewitt later admitted that after “starting at the top” with ENDLESS LOVE his career was “sort of a downward path,” and that he would’ve cast Sting over himself. He did manage to be in a fun slasher movie, KILLER PARTY (1986) before several DTV thrillers. He retired from acting in 2003, owns a home inspection business, and enjoys surfing.
tie ins: Believe it or not there was a novelization written by Chapman and his partner (both in writing and life) David Sherlock. In 2005 it returned as Yellowbeard: High jinks on the high seas!, along with the screenplay, photos and a behind-the-scenes foreword.
There was also a 45-minute making-of documentary called Group Madness: The Making of Yellowbeard, which aired on NBC before Saturday Night Live. It’s director, Michael Mileham, went on to direct my favorite Mimi Lesseos vehicle, PUSHED TO THE LIMIT (1992).