Hey, remember Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales? Neither do I. As the House of Mouse’s latest crack at flogging the dead horse that is Jack Sparrow recedes in our rearview mirror, let’s go back to a time when pirate films were considered viable vehicles instead of the living avatar of franchise fatigue.
No, not back to 2003, when Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl dropped and earned an Oscar nomination for the then-fresh stylings of Jack Sparrow, to the surprise of everyone who heard “a movie based on a Disney park ride.” And not back to the studio days of early cinema, either, where such swashbuckling fare was a mainstay of the filmographies of performers like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.
No, let’s go back to the magical land of 1995 when Clinton was president, Windows 95 dropped, and Cutthroat Island was in theaters.
For two whole weeks.
Cutthroat Island is remembered as both a bad movie and as the film that sank pirate films at the box office forever. The first is true. The second… well, it’s a little more complicated.
Geena Davis, fresh off of the romantic comedy Speechless, stars as Morgan Adams, a pirate whose father and two uncles are also pirates. In fact, so was their father, who hid vast amounts of treasure on Cutthroat Island and divided up a Dan Brown-esque map among the three brothers. They, of course, wait a good long time to start murdering each other for it. With a freshly murdered father literally under her belt in the form of his severed scalp (GROSS), Morgan sets out to recover the treasure before her nefarious uncle, Douglas “Dawg” Adams, does.
Cutthroat Island careens from set piece to set piece on spindly wheels that threaten to give out at any given moment and occasionally do. A delightfully barefaced and seaswept Geena Davis has all her considerable charisma and charm smothered underneath a script that asks her to do little but some stunts and toss off truly rancid one-liners like “I’ve got your balls.” And Matt Modine, the last draft pick on a Who’s Who list of Hollywood actors in 1995, is just okay as the thief-turned-slave Shaw. I think he’s supposed to come off as Errol Flynn-ish, but the vibe is much more Cary Elwes in Robin Hood: Men in Tights trying to star in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
And all of that could honestly be forgivable. At their hearts, pirate films are ultimately period action films. I saw Pirates of the Caribbean 2: The One Where Norrington Gets Hot in theaters five times solely on the strength of that final, madcap action sequence. You go to a pirate film, in short, to see some piracy. But Cutthroat Island’s thrills and chills fail to chill and thrill. The fight choreography feels awkward and a little lazy, dragging when it should punch, zigging when it should be zagging. When Morgan, disguised as a prostitute, battles Dawg’s forces in a pirate stronghold, you can almost feel the waves of weariness radiate off of her as she clambers over obstacles like me struggling to get upstairs. (To Davis’ eternal credit, however, she performed the vast majority of her stunts.)
The film’s lone saving grace is Frank Langella chewing scenery left and right as Dawg. You may not have ever thought about purchasing tickets to Frank Langella’s gun show, but let me assure you—they are well worth the price of admission. Where Davis and Modine are artificial and camp, respectively, Langella is practically vibrant. He throws away lines like a second-semester senior basketball captain tossing balls of crumpled paper into the wastebasket from across the room without even looking. When the infatuated Morgan and Shaw choose to fall together to their assumed death rather than make a deal with his crew, Dawg brushes it off. “Love,” he shrugs expansively. “Who can explain it?”
All that being said, though, Cutthroat Island is pretty bad, but it isn’t awful. As a lifelong lover of big-budget fiascos, I have seen far worse films misspend immense amounts money and still end up cult classics. Like, say, Xanadu. And it’s not as if pirate films had been a consistently successful genre up to that point—they’d been limping along for decades, from 1976’s Swashbuckler to 1987’s creatively titled Pirates, never making much of an impact but remaining just present enough to generate parodies like 1982’s The Pirate Movie. (The greatest pirate film of all, Muppet Treasure Island, dropped in 1996, tragically placing it firmly outside of this timeline.)
So why, then, is Cutthroat Island often blamed as the film that sunk pirate films for good when the genre had been limping along for decades?
Probably because it is also infamously the biggest box office bomb in history, even when adjusted for inflation, having earned back only $10 million of its $98 million budget. The fact that it stars a woman definitely plays into it, in that resistance to that idea sank the ship.
Cutthroat Island was already troubled when it hit pre-production. Production company Carolco Pictures, the company that produced iconic early nineties hits like Basic Instinct and Terminator 2, was so severely in debt that it desperately needed a surefire hit in the summer of 1995 just to survive. Director Renny Harlin had had to convince Carolco executive Mario Kassar to cast Geena Davis, his then-girlfriend, as Morgan, well against her usual type. Things didn’t look great…
But they didn’t look dire, either. At least, not until Michael Douglas, the original Shaw, pulled out of the film because he thought Geena Davis was asking for too much screen time at the expense of his own.
Reading contemporary coverage of Cutthroat Island’s production reveals that resistance to Davis leading the film wasn’t just limited to Douglas. A contemporary post-mortem on the doomed production sniffs at Davis’ behavior in failing to properly curb her ambition to reassure Douglas, as well as her believability as a canny action heroine. Even Modine complains about Harlin focusing on directing Davis rather than him. Nobody seemed above the temptation of implying that Davis was a selfish diva, rather than as just one moving part of an incredibly flawed production.
With the extremely bankable Douglas gone, Harlin had to recast the male lead on the fly, eventually landing on Modine. Unfortunately, while Harlin was tied up fixing that unexpected setback and his other projects, pre-production forged ahead at Mediterranean Studios in Malta, where entire sets were built without Harlin’s final approval. Once he arrived, he had them rebuilt, kicking off a series of problems that plagued Cutthroat Island’s production.
Not all of these were Douglas-related, of course. One of the more than $1 million full size replica ships used in the final battle caught on fire, delaying production. Filming in Thailand faced setbacks like illness and injury because the crew had little experience shooting on water. And all those special effects that look quaint to our modern eyes still cost quite a pretty penny.
But Douglas’ departure seems to be the turning point that doomed the production, resulting in a financial flop that retired an entire category in the Guinness Book of World Records and derailing careers. Harlin continued directing, but his projects have dwindled in prestige, from boy witch flick The Covenant to the John Cena vehicle 12 Rounds to one of the most recent Hercules movies. (No, the other one; you’re thinking of the one starring the Rock. Harlin did the one starring the bro vampire from Twilight.) Modine quite never made his big Hollywood breakthrough, although he remains a consistently working actor. Davis’ next film, after Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, another against type project starring his beloved, was as the mom in the Stuart Little trilogy. (Yes, it was a trilogy.)
Our instinct, as both humans and pop culture obsessives, is to try and divvy up history into neat little narratives. Pirate films used to be a profitable venture during the studio days. Then they weren’t. And then here comes Cutthroat Island, whose production can be turned into the story of a diva Hollywood power couple overspending both their money and their talent. It’s so much more narratively satisfying to blame Cutthroat Island specifically instead of just audiences growing indifferent over the course of a few decades. Cutthroat Island didn’t sink the ship of pirate films. It was just the most convenient island to run ashore on.