The Boy And The Pirates

Director: Bert I. Gordon
Charles Herbert, Susan Gordon, Murvyn Vye, Joe Turkel

If you were a kid in The United States or Canada several decades ago, and you went to clinics or doctors' offices, maybe you will be familiar with the Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories books that were often in the waiting rooms. Written by Seventh-Day Adventist Church member Arthur S. Maxwell, these books were filled with short stories for children that pushed good Christian and other moral values to their young audience. I remember some of the stories to this day, and one of them started with a young brother and sister lamenting they were bored and that they wished that they could be pirates. But then the sister reminded her brother, "But we would be arrested," and suddenly realizing that, they instantly thought of something else that they could do that wouldn't get them arrested. Was it becoming mercenaries? Nope, they all of a sudden decided to instead do really nice things in secret for their neighbors. I could never figure out why they would suddenly choose good over evil, especially in the years that followed, I discovered how much fun I could have being a pirate while still being a kid. No, I didn't suddenly board a galleon and start sailing the Seven Seas. Instead, I was a different kind of pirate - I was a software pirate. Along with many of my classmates at elementary school or junior high school, I would regularly use a computer program called Locksmith to copy the Apple II computer games I would get my hands on, and trade them for even more games. There was no way that I was going to shell out the few dollars I had in my possession for these games, and apparently my classmates felt exactly the same way.

As I have gotten older, I may have put my practice of pirating computer games in the past, but the taste of piracy still flows in my veins, these days with motion pictures. While I have never got into torrents in fear of getting a virus on my computer, or getting a lawsuit from a Hollywood studio, YouTube has been satisfying since I have managed to find movies there I have long sought out, from The Last Of The Ski Bums to Big Gus, What's The Fuss? Anyway, while my piracy over the years has been pretty small potatoes, I have all of this time sated the rest of my piracy appetite by reading about what probably comes first in your mind when you see the word "pirates". I'm talking about people like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, or Calico Jack, who hundreds of years ago raided ships along the Atlantic side of the Americas. While you probably have what you think is a good picture of these pirates, some of what you think you know isn't how it was. For examples, real life pirates all those centuries ago did not bury the treasure they stole. And there were pirate captains who were female, and some that had African ancestry. One of the most interesting pirate captains I learned about was Bartholomew Roberts. He was a Welsh pirate who took over 400 ships and other prizes in his pirate career. But how he ran things was really interesting. He didn't drink alcohol - he only drank tea. Every Sunday, he would make his crew sit through religious services. He banned gambling among his crew. Lights out every night would be at eight o'clock. And if any of his crew were to get seriously injured during their piracy work, they were under a kind of group health insurance, getting handsomely compensated with hundreds of pounds for their injuries.

Of course, I know that the majority of the public has grown up with a more different picture of pirates than what I have told you about Bartholomew Roberts. That specific picture I have known myself since a child, and back then and even today, that picture makes me wonder why many people The Boy And The Pirateshave a romanticized picture of traditional pirate culture. To me, people saying "Arrr..." all the time... always seemingly missing one of their eyes and/or one of their limbs... always seemingly missing many of their teeth for that matter too... suffering from scurvy... being in a literal cutthroat business... well, all that and many other harsh realities never made me want to travel back in time and hit the seven seas. When I came across the DVD for The Boy And The Pirates, its promise of telling a youth audience the truth of pirate life naturally interested me enough to give the movie a look. The "boy" in the title of the movie is one Jimmy Warren (Charles Herbert, The Fly), an eleven-year-old child who is dissatisfied with school work and the work he has to do in his home life for his parents. He dreams of a more exciting life, namely that of being a pirate. One day, while walking on the beach near his home, he finds an urn that has washed up. Feeling that this urn is magical, he uses the opportunity to wish he could be a pirate. The urn is indeed magical - a genie named Abu (Joe Turkel, The Devil's 8) appears, and in short notice Jimmy is whisked back into time and finds himself on the galleon of the legendary Blackbeard (Murvyn Vye, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court). Abu tells Jimmy that he must return the urn in three days to where he originally found it, or otherwise Jimmy will take the place of Abu in the urn. Needless to say, what follows is Jimmy's struggles with Blackbeard's demands with his new cabin boy, as well as with the harsh realities of pirate life while trying to find a way to return the urn.

The Boy and The Pirates was a production by the legendary Bert I. Gordon (The Amazing Colossal Man, The Magic Sword, et al.), who not only produced the movie, but also was in charge of the visual effects, conceived the story, and acted as the director. If you are familiar with Gordon's work, you'll know that he came up with some real turkeys in his career, such as the incredibly bad Empire Of The Ants. Though I didn't want to think of that particular movie ever again after watching it, I couldn't help but think of it while watching The Boy And The Pirates, because I desired to see it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Actually, even without comparison, viewers will probably be able to find some merit here. The budget wasn't lavish, but some of the visual effects are decent for the period, ranging from model work (namely galleons cutting through the waves) to oversized sets when it comes to shots focusing the one-foot tall genie Abu in various parts of Blackbeard's galleon. More "normal" shots of Blackbeard's galleon are generally acceptable - someone clearly spent a lot of time building the sets, though Blackbeard's cabin actually looks more polished than worn from seafaring. Gordon's directing, on the other hand, sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. For example, the mixing of shots filmed in a studio with shots filmed in the great outdoors don't mix very well; they each have their own distinctive look and feel. Also, it soon becomes apparent that Gordon didn't have the time, money, or desire to shoot enough footage for editor Jerome Thoms (The Crimson Kimono), because several times during the course of the movie, there are noticeable gaps in the flow of the narrative. This includes ships suddenly appearing out of nowhere, as well as ships being a considerable distance apart and then suddenly they are right against each other.

Gordon in the director's chair also slips up in other areas, including with handling his cast. None of the actors give a particularly compelling performance. Charles Herbet as the youthful Jimmy sometimes seems to try and be as annoying as possible, not helped by the fact his character, even for a kid, seems to have a hard time catching on to his new situation and the people he's encountering. (For example, at one time he threatens Blackbeard and his crew members with the wrath of the FBI.) His friend in both modern times and in the pirate world is played by child actress Susan Gordon - yes, director Gordon's daughter, and I am sure no further comment on her performance is needed. Joe Turkel as the genie Abu gives a performance that is best described as being purely theatrical - which may have been okay on stage, but here comes across as too flamboyant, especially with the other characters that surround him. Also, his character has very little bearing on the story other than popping out occasionally to laugh out loud and to discourage Jimmy some more. He is also not given a proper exit; at the end of the movie, his character simply disappears and we don't know his fate or what he might be thinking wherever he is now. In fact, the character of Blackbeard pretty much has the same kind of fate, adding even more frustration. Though even if Blackbeard's character had a stronger resolution, there would still be some glaring problems in other areas. In the role, actor Murvyn Vye gives a very inconsistent performance thanks to Gordon the director. In much of the movie, he is portrayed somewhat in a manner that's similar to how Peter Ustinov played the same character in the later 1968 Disney slapstick comedy Blackbeard's Ghost - somewhat grumpy but deep down has a lovable edge. But in other parts of the movie, he becomes a lot more threatening, on two occasions shooting and killing two relatively innocent members of his crew, and towards the end basically planning to cheat and then do away with the rest of his crew.

Seeing how Blackbeard gets so mean at times, I wondered while watching The Boy And The Pirates how kids back then and today would think about him. Well, kids (at least today) have seen much stronger stuff, so they probably wouldn't mind too much. But at the same time, I don't think they or their parents would get much out of this movie. For starters, the screenplay doesn't seem to know who should get the most focus - sometimes it's on Jimmy, and sometimes it's on Blackbeard. It's at times like two different screenplays jammed together. This feeling of jamming things together inevitably comes with some key moments squeezed out as a result, resulting for example with Jimmy somehow knowing some important details without any scenes showing how he learned those details. While this mashup might seem like it would constantly executing a lot of different plot elements to compensate for any plot holes, actually it's a lot different. There are many times in the movie where it's clear that nothing of consequence is happening, just foolish and inconsequential scenes such as when Jimmy's bubble gum accidentally gets into the ship's cook's stew. Making matters worse is that while Jimmy has been told that he only has a few days to save himself from replacing Abu in the urn, there is absolutely no sense of urgency or panic coming from this character. He takes the situation way too calmly, and makes very few actions to try and turn things around for himself. The movie simply doesn't have anything to grab viewers, young or old, and make them interested to see how things get resolved. While the pirates in this movie may utter "Rrrrrr" like your typical pirate, in this case it would have been a lot more appropriate for them to utter another letter of the alphabet, namely "Dddddd". Better yet, "Ddddddminus".

(Posted March 24, 2024)

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See also: Jimmy, The Boy Wonder, The Phantom Kid, The Rocket Man