Yellowbeard Blu-ray Review: A Brutal and Brutally Unfunny Pirate

As is the case with a number of cinematic failures, the production history of Yellowbeard is far more interesting than anything that actually made it to the screen. Star and cowriter Graham Chapman’s behind-the-scenes book has the details — among them, the film was partially financed by the Who’s Keith Moon and featured aborted involvement from Adam Ant and an unused soundtrack from Harry Nilsson.

These may not seem like scintillating revelations, but compared to the film — well, let’s just say an oral history from Adam Ant on all the roles he didn’t play would probably be a better use of one’s time.

Yellowbeard is a formless, brutally unfunny swashbuckler, made all the worse by the potential it wastes. After all, half of Monty Python is in this thing, along with an impressive roster of comic stars and genuinely great actors, including Marty Feldman (who died during production), Madeline Kahn, Spike Milligan, James Mason, Peter Boyle, Peter Cook, David Bowie, and yeah, Cheech and Chong too.

Given the number of big names, one might reasonably expect an overstuffed, outsized parade of gags, a la It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but the script by Chapman, Cook, and Bernard McKenna is far too fallow for that, rationing and repeating its meager supply of bits. (Poor Kahn is stuck making the exact same rape joke about six or seven times.)

For what it’s worth, Chapman’s book features a different script that’s supposedly more faithful to his original vision, and there are the usual allusions to studio interference. That doesn’t alleviate the fact that the concept is ill-conceived from the foundation up.

Chapman’s protagonists in Holy Grail and Life of Brian were more than simply straight men; they were weirdly pathetic, ineffectual losers, and Chapman excelled at futilely bristling against a world that he didn’t fit into. The thickheaded pirate Yellowbeard is a marauding, unassailable idiot with a one-track mind — not a great fit for Chapman’s skills and not a very interesting character in general, as the movie basically admits when it shifts gears to make Yellowbeard’s son, Dan (a blander than bland Martin Hewitt), the de facto protagonist.

With a dearth of jokes, the plot has plenty of room to be laboriously outlined, despite its relative simplicity — the powers that be (among them, Eric Idle in his wheelhouse as a preening authority figure) release Yellowbeard from prison in hopes that he’ll lead them to his buried treasure. Director Mel Damski seems more concerned with cramming everybody into the frame than establishing any comic rhythm, and eventually just settles on filming a series of inert, shot-reverse shot sword-fighting duels as the film mercifully peters out.

John Cleese, who gets a few minutes of screen time as a blind informant, once called Yellowbeard “one of the six worst films made in the history of the world.” That implies an onscreen fiasco that’s a lot more fun to imagine than this lumpen, forgettable bit of mush.

Olive Films’ 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer of the 1983 film is pretty good, although some fluctuations in image and a little wear and tear suggest it’s based off some older elements. Colors are reasonably consistent, if not particularly vibrant, and the image is generally sharp-ish and detailed. Close-ups are crisp, while long shots can be somewhat muddy. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has some depth to the effects and John Morris’s remarkably generic score (should have gone with the Nilsson songs), and dialogue is quite clear.

Though the production history might make good fodder for a behind-the-scenes featurette, a trailer is the only extra.

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Dusty Somers

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