Sunday, 2 April 2017

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: YELLOWBEARD


26. “With your head on my shoulders we could wreck civilization!”



02/04/2017




Once his frequent collaborator John Morris’s majestic theme strikes up, you could be forgiven for thinking “Yellowbeard” was a film by Mel Brooks. However, sadly, only the presence of Peter Boyle, from “Young Frankenstein,” and Marty Feldman, who died during its production, are the only other indications. Other than that, this film promised to be as funny as a Mel Brooks film at the very least but, given the talent involved, amazingly managed to fail.

Half of Monty Python are present in “Yellowbeard,” co-written by, and starring, Graham Chapman and Peter Cook. A panoply of British comedy and acting stars, from James Mason to Beryl Reid, appear in smaller parts, along with Americans Peter Boyle and Cheech & Chong. It is a film inspired by the classic Hollywood pirate films seldom made by 1983, and with Chapman’s Yellowbeard inspired by the real-life Blackbeard, and its action is on a scale with Marlon Brando’s “Mutiny on the Bounty,” even down to using the ship built for that film…


…and yet, the script is not particularly funny, emphasising easier sight gags and jokes over the plot, which is a simple story of Yellowbeard’s voyage to reclaim his treasure, having served twenty years in prison (for tax evasion), pursued by his old first mate, and the British government. It is a wild goose chase of a plot, just like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and with as many stars, but keeps its running time within a hundred minutes.

“Yellowbeard” comes across as a film that should have been made, and released, during the 1970s – it was the sort of big, mad project that you could imagine Monty Python and Peter Cook doing at the time, and they may have done it with more energy at the time. Keith Moon had the initial idea for the film, but he died before they ever had funding for it. There were four versions of the script, including one published in book form, that had more of a plot, at the expense of the secondary characters. The Hollywood producing end of the British production, i.e. the side where the money came from, also had its hand in rewriting the story, rejecting a musical score from Harry Nilsson, considered not reliable enough to finish it, and disregarding any notes from Graham Chapman about editing, which made the jokes more obvious than they were supposed to be.

Hemdale, the British film company behind “Yellowbeard,” would recoup any financial losses the following year with “The Terminator,” which shows where public tastes had gone by the time the film was finally made. In terms of pirate films, it is either twenty years ahead, or twenty years behind. Being known as the film on which Marty Feldman died hasn’t helped much either.

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