Monday, November 16, 2009

The Case for Cutthroat Island

Geena Davis is a legend in the world of action. Yet, some of her action films were widely panned at the box office. Many are known today through "cult classic" status. I don't know why that is, so I'm gonna break it down in defense of Cutthroat Island here.

Why did it "fail"?

Cutthroat Island is just about as concentrated a pirate film as you will ever find. Within the first three minutes, we’re treated to a double-cross, a lavish horse-riding on the beach scene, plank-walking, and such pirate iconography as a skull and cross bones, a monkey, a map, and a peg leg...

Within the first six minutes, we have our first underwater scene. For the rest of the film, we're treated to lush tropical scenery, impressive stunts, huge caverns full of Spanish treasure, authentic period costuming, Fairbanksian antics, and some very large, very amazing ships. Let’s not forget one seriously huge explosion at the climax. It’s the stuff pirate geeks’ dreams are made of, and this movie plays out like a veritable “best of” reel of pirate standards, visuals, ideas, scenes, and characters. This makes the mystery of its failure all the more intriguing to me.

To date, Cutthroat Island is the biggest financial loss ever posted by a film, so sayeth the Guinness Book of World Records. It bankrupted the production company behind it, Carolco Pictures, the company also responsible for the first Terminator movie. Perhaps it was an unwilling public in 1995 that killed the film. Some films released around the same time were Father of the Bride II, Sabrina, Sense and Sensibility, Grumpier Old Men, and the closest thing to a fantasy adventure was Jumanji.

The Gap

This was pre-Lord of the Rings, before new life had been breathed into the action/adventure/fantasy genres. Cutthroat Island was like the new kid in some small Midwestern town, wearing clothes that nobody had seen yet but that would be popular in a few years time.

The Other Gap

This was also post-Alien and pre-Tomb Raider, so a woman at the center of an action film may still have been an oddity for some people. Though the ratio of male driven action films is still far larger than those of female driven action films, by a ridiculously large margin, the general public is now well acquainted with the action heroine. That was not the case in 1995. And as far as a movie about Pirates…it seemed laughable at the time. It would be eight years before pirates were “in” again with masses of moviegoers thanks to Disney.

Today, movie fans are more acquainted with the “making of” process to a film. We can track news about upcoming and underway film productions via websites like We can hear what the directors are saying as they are making the film, and even see YouTube videos about what’s going on during the filming.

There are ways now for fans of fantasy and adventure epics to support the making for the entire duration, even just via word of mouth. But in the mid-90’s, the internet was still fairly new and the production of Cutthroat Island was essentially isolated. So the massive (and impressively independent) undertaking of CI’s production went unappreciated and built no buzz or excitement. By the film’s release, it’s entirely possible that a few bad reviews by some critics who had gone too many years without having fun at the box office had the power to kill the film.

You may think I’m blinded by my love of all things pirate, but I can make a few concessions about the film. It’s far from perfect. It’s a little slow in segments and perhaps a touch too long, but these are qualities typical of all escapist movies. Try sitting through a Bollywood musical or any Bruckheimer movie without going to the bathroom. I dare you.

Also, there are some real whoppers of one-liners coming from the film’s central villain, played by Frank Langella, who doesn’t make the most convincing pirate. Though he seems to give it his all, and is good at being despicable and making mean faces, which in my book, he makes up for a distinct lack of pirate-ness. There are some early 90’s comic touches that may not have aged very well. And in keeping with the pattern of a movie featuring a monkey, there is a lot of time spent with said monkey. Nothing approaching Anaconda or Outbreak levels of screen time, not even close.

The sheer concentrated nature of this movie is what makes it great, what gives it the ability to rise above its flaws. This is an action film. A long, violent, exploding action film! It’s every bit as exciting (and delightfully implausible) as the Die Hard films, and yet it’s treated as something to be embarrassed about liking, whereas Die Hard is treated like a timeless classic.

Why the double standard in blockbuster preferences? I don’t want to be the writer that blames Cutthroat Island’s lack of success on sexist critics…so I’ll stop that line of thought now, and encourage you to think long and hard about the ratio of action films starring men to that of action films starring women, and leave the rest up to you.

Geena Freaking Davis

I want to talk about Geena Davis. She is easily one of the single most under-appreciated actresses ever by film geek standards. Pirate lovers should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her. You can’t talk about Cutthroat Island without talking about her. Davis has a hugely significant role in film history. Aside from her diverse career, she also has a place as one of the most notable women of the action genre.

It’s not often that a woman gets to star in an action film, though far more common today than it was when she was starring in movies like the uber-violent Christmas classis (Yeah, I said classic) The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Again, Davis was working in the "women of action gap”, midway through Sigourney Weaver’s amazing performances as “Ripley” in the Alien films and pre-Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. (Which was the only movie at the time to make as much money as Alien did upon its release. Yes, there was a 22 year gap in history between leading women in a financially well-performing action flick.)

As Captain Morgan Adams, Davis positively soars. She’s so convincing as a violent pirate, I’d wager she could defeat any other fictional pirate ever featured onscreen.

She commands a crew convincingly. When she yells, she really yells. None of that namby-pamby fake yelling that some actresses do. You know the kind of actress, the one who is afraid to attempt her own stunts in case she'll look silly, the one who is afraid to make an angry face for fear that it will give her a wrinkle.

The character of Morgan dresses for practicality, unlike many other onscreen heroines who end up in a leotard or a Halloween costume for the duration of their story. She handles tough dialogue well. Dialogue like, “Open fire” and “Hoist our colors” that would sound outrageous delivered in any other way. It may seem silly to suggest that playing a pirate can be a dignified thing, but Davis brought her natural dignity onto the set, and it was a credit to the film.

They’re not just playing with gender stereotypes in Cutthroat Island, they’re reversing them and are willing to pay up on that idea all way through the film. Davis takes on the role of what would be the traditional leading male character. The film stays self-aware that mass audiences will be hard-pressed to accept a lady as a pirate captain, addressing it several times through plot.

The one man who directly propositions Morgan for sex in the film is very quickly stabbed by the tip of Morgan’s knife as she tells him quite unemotionally, “Now leave this place and go far away.” If Davis was the leading man, then Matthew Modine became every bit the stereotypical “damsel in distress”. It is Modine’s character, Mr. Shaw, who is kidnapped, held hostage, in constant danger, and in need of rescuing throughout the film.

The Disney Factor

With the still resounding success of the Disney “Pirates” franchise, one simply must take a second look at Cutthroat Island today. Oh sure, it’s cool now to make a pirate movie. But for years upon years, pirate movies were to the silver screen what the Scottish play (MacBeth) is to theater. A cursed endeavor, a sure financial failure, and something few people wanted to see.

So in that sense, Cutthroat Island and its producer/director Renny Harlin, deserve a lot of credit. Credit for showing the team at Disney that a large blockbuster pirate film could still be done. Even though there was no guarantee of success, such a feat could be accomplished. And despite its lack of financial gain, Cutthroat Island is just as much of a visually rich film treat as Disney’s efforts. It’s just as much fun to watch, and shares many plot points as well.

I'm just sayin'...

Closing Arguments

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it? Re-watch Cutthroat Island and give it a fair shake. Forget what you’ve heard about the film or what you yourself have said about it in the past. Watch with an open mind. You try to figure out why it flopped, and POTC soared. You try to figure out why you can’t find it at your local Blockbuster or Hollywood video or Wal-Mart. If you enjoy the movie, tell your friends, have a viewing party, buy it for your library and set it proudly on your shelf with Hook, The Goonies, and Disney’s Pirate films. Do what you can to de-stigmatize this excellent adventure flick.

If by the end, you aren’t convinced of this movie’s awesomeness, then you win. If you don’t like the huge explosion, the piratey goodness, the endless final battle, the saluting monkey…well, then I’ll concede. I’ll say it’s not for mainstream viewers. But you’ll never get me to say that I don’t LOVE this movie, and I’ll never stop recommending it. The box office may be a fickle thing, but people who love Pirates will always know a good pirate movie when they see one.

And Cutthroat Island is one fine example of a pirate movie.


  1. Recently bought this movie looking for awesome action heroines. Geena Davis definately delivers! Totally an underated film worthy of any pirate movie collection.

    Geena Davis is also a woman to admire for her "See Jane" project trying to build awarness of lack of women's roles in film and TV, particular in media aimed at children and teens.

  2. I don't know how I missed this movie, as I've always like Geena Davis, but I definitely will give it a look-see now. After reading your great analysis I wonder if Renny Harlin was also a factor in its failure. Hollywood is so fickle and it seems to want to tear folks down if they become too successful, and Die hard2 and Cliffhanger were pretty big. I don't know. Maybe Angelina came up at a better time than Geena. Plus, Tomb Raider had a built-in gaming audience. I've been pondering writing about Angelina again as one of our biggest action heros. For a bombshell, she seems to transcend her female-ness in most of her movies. Your post is giving me inspiration.

  3. I'm one of the few people who actually saw this movie in theaters. I can safely say that everyone who saw it with me during this screening, enjoyed it just as much as me...which was exactly one other person. Recently I bought the DVD and watched it again, wondering if it would still hold up - and yes, it does. It's not perfect, though. When people complain about the movie, they tend to rip into Geena Davis performance (I think she looks pirate-like enough), the fact that everything explaodes (so what? Cars normally don't explode after every accident either, they nevertheless do in every action movie), aso. But when I see the movie, I always think that they did everything right - the costumes, the battles, the score (especially the score), with the exception of one thing: The script.
    I wish someone had taken the scrip and cut the all the english soldier (whose only purposes seem to be creating plotholes). No movie needs two villains and two traitors. Chunk this nonsense out, instead concentrate on Morgans relationship to her crew, how she establishes her position between them, and on her fight with Doug, and this would have been a perfect movie...well, and another scrip writer. I'm in the fortunate position to have the choice to watch the movie in German, and in this version the dialogues are way more snappier than in the english one (whoever did this script did a perfect job in evening out some of the bumbs in the original script whenever possible, and the dubbing is top notch).
    Admittingly, plot holes are quite a big thing in movies, something I'm normally very unforgiveable of. But in this case, I make an exception, because this is really the only movie I know which manages to get a female action character right. They really went all the way there, allowing Morgan Adams to do everything a male lead would do in her place, even toughing out a bullet wound (this scene is mentioned fairly often as unrealistic, but I bet if there were laying a male ship caption, nobody would blink an eye about him not screaming). And they also did it right with the character of Shaw in keeping him the weaker one in most situations, but not "why the hell should a competent woman fall for this idiot?"
    As pirate movies go, this is actually my second favourite, after PotC. Imho, the Potc sequels are worse concerning plot holes and character development than this one, and all the works from the true area of pirate movies really didn't age well.Cutthroat Island might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy pirate movies and female action heroes, it's definitly worth a watch.