With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales poised to sail into theaters later this month, we’re about to get our fifth installment from Jack Sparrow and his motley crew. But the pirate film is nothing new.
The swashbuckler, featuring swordfights, dastardly villains, dashing heroes, and damsels in varying degrees of distress, has been bringing thrills, romance, and action to our screens for nearly all of Hollywood history. Eccentric and comical Jack Sparrow, noble Will Turner, brave Elizabeth Swann, and sly Barbossa are the latest takes on a long line of adventurous heroes and villains.
So if you’re a lover of the Pirates franchise and you’ve worn out your Curse of the Black Pearl DVD with your umpteenth viewing, check out one of these eight classic films instead.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Silent screen star and “King of Hollywood” Douglas Fairbanks was the original “swashbuckler.” The Thief of Bagdad was his favorite of his films and considered one of the greatest films of the silent era. Drawing upon several stories from One Thousand and One Nights, the film tells the tale of a thief who falls in love with a princess and must battle rival suitors and seek treasure in the quest to win her hand. Fairbanks employs his natural athleticism and gymnastic prowess in a series of action sequences that marked his ascent to swashbuckling hero along with 1922’s Robin Hood. One of the most expensive films of the 1920s, the film features lavish Arabian sets and state-of-the-art (for the time) special effects, including a flying horse and a magic carpet. Watch Fairbanks and The Thief of Bagdad to see where it all began.
Available to stream on Epix or to rent on Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, or Playstation
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Errol Flynn took up the mantle of Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling heroes, sword-fighting and romancing his way through Hollywood (both onscreen and off). He made a rousing impression in his first leading role opposite Olivia de Havilland in 1935’s Captain Blood, a seafaring adventure in which he is a slave turned pirate in the British West Indies. That would seem the most obvious choice for a recommendation inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean (or Flynn’s turn as a privateer in The Sea Hawk), but he left his best and most memorable impression as Robin Hood. There’s been many screen adaptations of the thief who steals from the rich to give to the poor over the years, but this is the gold standard — and Captain Jack Sparrow clearly shares roots with Robin Hood’s lovable rogue with a heart of gold.
Available to rent on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, or Microsoft
The Pirate (1948)
This Technicolor musical farce isn’t really about a pirate at all, but rather about a traveling performer, played by Gene Kelly, who masquerades as the pirate Macoco, “Mack the Black,” to fulfill the fantasies of Judy Garland. Garland’s Manuela is engaged to marry the mayor, who is the real Macoco in disguise, but she dreams of being spirited away by the notorious pirate. After Kelly’s Serafin hypnotizes her and learns of her fantasy, he tells her he is Macoco and a series of increasingly farcical events ensue. Garland and Kelly showcase their superb comedic timing (at its most brilliant in a scene where Garland goes into hysterics and throws every vase in the room at Kelly). Kelly gets to showcase his dancing prowess in a dream ballet, which finds Manuela fantasizing about “Mack the Black” in the form of Gene Kelly in skintight black short shorts. Some consider The Pirate to be campy and over-the-top, but its score (featuring standards like Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown”) and the comedic antics of its two leads make it a delightful endeavor (if nothing else, it’s worth it just to see Kelly’s legs in those shorts).
Available to rent on Google Play, Vudu, or Microsoft
Against All Flags (1952)
What more do we need to tell you about this film besides the fact that it stars screen legend Maureen O’Hara as a pirate captain? The red-haired actress appeared in so many swashbucklers, beginning with 1942’s The Black Swan opposite Tyrone Power, that she became known as the “Pirate Queen.” She excels in many of the films, particularly with Paul Henreid in The Spanish Main, but here she has the chance to bring her signature fiery persona to the screen as the independent and strong-willed Captain Prudence “Spitfire” Stevens. As Stevens, she faces off against Errol Flynn’s Brian Hawke. Upending the notion of the damsel in distress, she portrays a feisty woman who swashbuckles in her own right, wreaking havoc on the seas and bending to no man – you can see the makings of Pirates’ Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), who never waits for Will Turner (or any other man for that matter) to rescue her and takes up a rapier herself in the film’s sequels.
Available on DVD
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Based on real historical events, this tale of mutiny aboard a British Royal Navy ship was adapted to the screen twice – in this Best Picture winning iteration and again in 1962 with Marlon Brando stepping into Clark Gable’s shoes as 1st Lieutenant Fletcher Christian. Critics widely agree that this is the superior version. Clark Gable oozes masculinity and charm as the compassionate Fletcher Christian, which contrasts perfectly with Charles Laughton’s barely contained self-loathing as the brutal and sadistic Captain Bligh – the actor’s own strained relationship only added to the tension between their characters that ultimately results in the titular mutiny. Much of the film was shot off the coast of California’s Santa Catalina Island – the same swath of the Pacific Ocean that has doubled as the Caribbean in multiple Pirates films.
Available to rent on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Playstation, or Microsoft
The Crimson Pirate (1952)
It is rumored that this comedy-adventure film starring Burt Lancaster was actually the inspiration for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” Disneyland ride (itself the muse for the film franchise). Though many of the films on this list offer much in the way of this adventure, this is a rare film to combine its comedic sensibilities with its swashbuckling. Still, in spite of that, it found a way to include subversive political commentary. Burt Lancaster produced and starred in the film. As a protest against the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he included shrewd slaps at their actions, from the title, “The Crimson Pirate” to its tale of rebellion against a persecutory government. All of this is skillfully hidden in a light-hearted comedic adventure about a pirate who abandons his mercenary plans to double-cross the Royal Navy and the revolutionaries of a fictional Caribbean nation after falling in love.
Available to rent on Google Play or Vudu
Gunga Din (1939)
Loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, this film tells the tale of three British sergeants and their native Indian water bearer, the titular Gunga Din. While its inaccurate representation of Hindu rituals is culturally insensitive to modern audiences, its scenes of adventure and winning performances from Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. make for an entertaining romp. The trio plays British officers who are sent to investigate faulty communication lines at a British outpost in India and find themselves immersed in the machinations of a Thuggee cult in a gold-plated temple. Emerging from what many consider Hollywood’s greatest year ever, Gunga Din still manages to distinguish itself as one of 1939’s more memorable offerings (and it came second only to Gone with the Wind in box office its year of release). The film’s combination of treasure hunting and jingoistic British heroism pave the way perfectly for Pirates’ tales of the British navy and the lovable rogues they face on the high seas.
Available to rent on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, or Microsoft
Romancing the Stone (1984)
The most recent film on this list, this movie still bears all the hallmarks of a classic adventure film. It subverts the larger-than-life heroes of these films by making its heroine, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Wilder), a mousy romance novelist who gets drawn into intrigue when her sister is kidnapped in Colombia. She sets out to ransom her sister and finds herself plunged into an adventure worthy of one of her novels, complete with a dashing smuggler with questionable motives played by Michael Douglas. Unlike many adventure films that focus on the exploits of its male hero, this places our heroine front and center with Douglas stepping in as romantic supporting player. This is a film for anyone who’s ever wished they could find themselves in an adventure story, mixing playful wish fulfillment with palpable danger. Unexpectedly, it helped revitalize the swashbuckler genre in the 1980s alongside the Indiana Jones trilogy, which it was accused of ripping off despite the original script pre-dating Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Available to stream on HBO Go/HBO Now or rent on iTunes, Google Play, Fandango, Vudu, or Microsoft
If you need a swashbuckling adventure to tide you over until the latest Pirates hits theaters, any one of these classics promises to be a satisfying thrill-ride full of the tropes and characters that have made the Pirates franchise a hit with contemporary audiences.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens on May 26.