Directed By: Mel Damski
Starring: Graham Chapman, Peter Boyle, Cheech Marin
Tag line: "A Shipload of Laughs"
Trivia: At one point, there were at least four different versions of this film's script
A 1983 comedy co-written by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, Yellowbeard had one hell of a cast, some of the finest comedic performers of its day. So why wasn’t it a laugh riot?
It’s the end of the 17th century, and the notorious pirate Yellowbeard (Chapman) has been rotting in an English prison for 20 years. Yet, through it all, he’s refused to reveal the whereabouts of his treasure, which is buried somewhere in the Caribbean. As you’d expect, a lot of people are anxious to get their hands on this bounty of gold and jewels, such as Yellowbeard’s old shipmate Moon (Peter Boyle) and Moon’s new pal Gilbert (Marty Feldman); as well as Commander Clement of the British Navy (Eric Idle), who’s convinced the Queen to lend him the fleet’s fastest ship so that he can track Yellowbeard and, hopefully, claim the treasure for Her Majesty. In addition to all the hoopla about his hidden booty, Yellowbeard learns from his estranged wife Betty (Madeline Kahn) that he’s the father of a 20-year-old son, though unlike dear old dad, the boy, Dan (Martin Hewitt), doesn’t kill, rape or steal. Instead, he’s a gardener, employed by Lord Percy Lambourn (Peter Cook). What’s more, Betty reveals that, in order to keep it safe, she had Yellowbeard’s treasure map tattooed on the lad’s head when he was an infant! With his son, Lord Lambourn, and physician Dr. Gilpin (Michael Horden) in tow, Yellowbeard sets out to retrieve his fortune, but will he be the first to find it?
Three of the Monty Python troupe appear in Yellowbeard: Chapman, Idle, and John Cleese, who plays a humorous version of Blind Pew, a character taken directly from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. A number of Mel Brooks’ stock players are also on-hand, including Boyle, Feldman, Kahn, and (in two separate roles) Kenneth Mars, all of whom were in Young Frankenstein. But that’s just the beginning; the film features Peter Cook (at his understated best as the often drunk Lord Lambourn), Cheech and Chong (as Spaniards who, in the opening scene, are attacked by Yellowbeard and his pirates. Their two characters appear later in the movie as well, residents of the island where the treasure is buried), and James Mason (as a Captain Bligh wannabe whose ship is manned by more pirates than he realizes). Still, despite all the talent involved in its production, Yellowbeard is only fitfully amusing (think of it as “Python Lite”). When I first watched it on cable in 1983, I was expecting a new comedy classic, and was admittedly disappointed when it wasn't one.
In a 2001 interview, co-star John Cleese called Yellowbeard “One of the six worst films made in the history of the world”. That’s a bit harsh. The movie does have moments of hilarity, many of which are dialogue-related. When Betty visits Yellowbeard in prison to tell him he has a son, she leads up to it by asking him if he remembers 20 years ago, before he was arrested, when they had “a little cuddle”. “I raped ya, if that’s what you mean”, Yellowbeard bellows. “Okay”, she snaps back. “It was half cuddle, half rape”. There’s also a mean-spirited, but admittedly funny scene involving a flower girl (Ava Herela), and Peter Cook is always fun to watch.
No doubt about it: Yellowbeard should have been better, but there are still laughs to be had.