Cutthroat Island (1995, 124 min). Directed by Renny Harlin. Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella.
A buccaneer’s fearless daughter inherits one third of a treasure map, and clashes with her evil uncle, Dawg, in pursuit of the spoils. Famously bankrupting its studio, Carolco, and ruining the career of its star, Cutthroat Island, rather than a disaster, is thrillingly ahead of its time. Lavish production design, breathtaking swordfights, and rousing action sequences are at the service of a bold lady pirate, a necessary hero for our present moment. Modine plays the girlfriend part ably, and Langella, as a tarantula-squishing villain, chews a tropical island’s worth of scenery. This is the film for all the girls who didn’t want to be rescued by Captain Blood, but to BE Captain Blood.
I’ve been thinking for years about doing a series of swashbuckling women, and the problem is: they are hard to find! Adventure films use women as ornament and reward. Sometimes, a woman is “sassy” or a “spitfire” which means at some point she needs to be humbled, and probably spanked, to reinforce her childlike status, and submission to the hero. If she dresses in men’s attire, she has to be redressed, literally, and schooled in proper, submissive femininity. But, almost by accident, there are a few films that do not follow this template. I’ve uncovered a handful more, so perhaps, there will be a part two to this series. Now, the situation for women action heroes is a little different. There is Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel and Black Widow, for a little gender equity, although not without an ideological fight. First, we must have Pepper Potts, clicking in her high heels through Iron Man (2008), or Bryce Dallas Howard clicking in HER high heels through Jurassic World (2015). The more things change, etc.
Although it was not uncommon for women to dress as men and go to sea (although how they kept their sex a secret in the close confines of a ship, I can’t imagine) there are only a handful of historical tales of female pirates. Alwilda, a Scandinavian princess escaping from an arranged marriage, Sayyida al Hurra turned pirate to seek revenge on Spain for conquering her native Granada, Grace O’Malley, an Irishwoman, whose crew raided merchant ships in the 1500s, The Chinese pirate Cheng I Sao, whose fleet rivalled the size of many navies and Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who fit more neatly into the genre as Caribbean raiders during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy. A fictionalized version of Anne’s tale is told in Anne of the Indies. One of my favorite pirate tales is about Sadie Farrell, called Sadie the Goat, who pirated on the Hudson River in New York in the early 19th century. I highly recommend Pirate Women by Laura Sook Duncome for a full rundown of female pirates who should have movies made about them. But the passive heroine waiting to be rescued by the pirate hero was certainly the fictional norm, even though a character like Arabella Bishop in Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood shows a bit of spark in her character.
Contemporary press spotlighted the complexity of Cutthroat Island’s action sequences, even as they were condescending about a female action star, “’You have to put the stars in danger,’ says Harlin, the affable Finnish action mechanic who pulled the same stunts on people he wasn’t sleeping with in Cliffhanger (Sylvester Stallone) and Die Hard 2 (Bruce Willis) ‘Audiences are so sophisticated these days. They pick up on stunt doubles right away’ …’Of course,” Harlin admits, ‘we use very sophisticated stunt technique these days. We can now digitally erase the safety structures that protect the stars through these events.’ In other words, you don’t see the safety harness, the guide wire, the mechanized pulleys and wheels and motors that make it all possible. ‘It was fantastic,’ says Harlin in a burst of enthusiasm. ‘We’re both child-like, and this offered us a chance to do stuff that was unbelievable. We had a great time. I actually pushed her harder than anyone else in the cast’” (Baltimore Sun).
Why is Matthew Modine styled so much to look like the director, Renny Harlin?
In spite of his sunny outlook, Cutthroat Island set a record for the costliest flop in Hollywood history to that date. The estimated final budget was 70 million 1990s dollars, and domestic box office was only about $11 million. (Or $115 million vs $10 million). The script was in development for five years, with multiple re-writings and re-castings. Michael Douglas was supposed to be the male lead, but wanted equal screen time, and disapproved of the fact his leading lady was the director’s wife. As you can imagine, Matthew Modine was rather far down the list of replacements (after at least Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes) so the male lead role was further miniaturized. The sets and costumes were constructed at great expense in Malta, so scenes were cut, and crew members were fired. “Not content with mere storyboards, Harlin has scale models built of all his action sequence locations. Then he literally plays with the elements, trying to map out a strategy. ‘It has to be very meticulously done. I’ll take dozens of still photos from the models and try to find the right angles to frame the action. Then we make detailed drawings. Then we have to decide which order to film the individual shots and build the equipment for each one.’ For example, he says, there were three different carriages built for the escape sequence. ‘We built one for fighting, one for driving and one for destroying. Our carriage budget was very high’” (Baltimore Sun).
Reviewers, well aware of all these problems scented disaster and were quick to pounce. The film only ran two weeks in theaters. Geena Davis’ career stalled, Modine’s career was stymied and Carolco, who had produced Terminator 2 and Total Recall went bankrupt. One reviewer carped “Cutthroat Island proves too stupidly smutty for children, too cartoonish for sane adults, and not racy enough for anyone who regards Ms. Davis (playing Morgan Adams) in a tight-laced bodice as its main attraction” (Zhanial). “She never seems smart or athletic enough for the demanding role of Morgan, the pirate captain” tsk-tsked the Independent.
But, the film sank, not because of the movie itself, but the intricacies of Hollywood financing. “When the film entered pre-production, Carolco was on a straight course towards the obituary pages. The company was already deep in debt when it began producing the pirate flick in 1994. Carolco executives needed at least one big hit for the summer of 1995 to stay solvent. As 1994 began the company had Cutthroat Island and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Crusade as potential saviors. But it is impossible to produce movies without cash-flow and Carolco had none. By the spring of 1994 it was clear Carolco could not afford to have both movies in production at the same time. Carolco had already been forced to sell its $20m interest in the dreadful Showgirls so the company abandoned Crusade and placed all its faith in Cutthroat Island, taking a $13m loss on pre-production and Schwarzenegger’s contract. “We knew from that point if we lost Cutthroat Island as well bankruptcy would be inevitable,” says a senior executive close to the company. “If we made the film, there was at least some chance we could survive.” (independent.co.uk)
“They had to make this movie,” Geena Davis told Premiere magazine last month (nb: March 1996) “The company was dead. Everybody knew that one way or another, this was their last movie.” Carolco pre-sold the film to foreign investors like Japan’s Pioneer Electric Corporation, Canal Plus of France, Rizzoli Editore, of Italy, and the French bank Credit Lyonnais promising a massive return which never materialized. Davis was blamed for her “demands” which amounted to a refusal to make the film about a male pirate captain. Sets were built in Malta were then rebuilt to the director’s specifications when he arrived. Filming on the water was in Thailand, where the technical demands were great on the inexperienced technicians, and much of the cast and crew suffered from bouts of heat exhaustion and food poisoning. In a gesture worthy of Erich von Stroheim filming Greed, or maybe Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now, “Harlin flew in horses from Austria, carpenters from England, stunt men from Poland. In the interests of saving the movie and Carolco, Harlin ordered 2,000 costumes, 309 firearms, 620 swords, 250 daggers and almost 100 custom-made axes” (independent.co.uk). Full sized replicas of the sailing ships were constructed. And there was no old-style Hollywood mogul to slam shut the checkbook. Ironically, the chairman of Carolco, Mario Kassar, was the person who began paying stars absurdly inflated salaries in the 1980s. He created the system which would ultimately destroy his company: Carolco went bankrupt six weeks before the film opened.
Since the rousing success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, “critics have raised Cutthroat Island from the bottom of the ocean and re-evaluated it, especially from a feminist perspective. In fact, the female pirate in Cutthroat Island differs from her 1950s predecessors and constitutes an important step in the characters’ development from the second wave films to Disney’s postmodern movies. In Cutthroat Island, the female protagonist clearly steps in for the typically male hero of the genre and thus questions the genre’s normative sex/gender dichotomy” (Zhanial). She demolishes the stereotype of earlier female pirates of the post WW II 1950s pirates in that she consistently fights her own battles and she’s shown to be physically superior to her male counterparts, the only one capable of defeating the arch villain. This evokes the moment when Rey picks up the light saber to fight Kylo Ren, a moment I had been waiting for throughout the Star Wars saga.
In 2016, Matthew Modine reflected on the reputation of the film, and how it negatively affected his career. He resolved not to read the reviews while staying at a hotel for a promotional tour. “But when Modine woke up, the papers were all there anyway. “They were all outside my door,” he continues. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll read one of ‘em.’ And it was horrible! And then I picked up another one of them and it was more horrible! And then I thought, “There’s got to be one that’s good. And it was just one after the other that was horrible, horrible, horrible. And I went downstairs to have breakfast and I felt like everybody in the café was looking at me going like, ‘Oh my God! The walking dead,’ you know.” (ew.com).
But, as traumatic as it was for him personally, he now says, “You know, it’s funny because a lot of people say ‘Oh, Cutthroat Island is horrible.’ And I say ‘Did you see the film?’ And they said, ‘Well, no, actually I didn’t see the film.’ And then if you see the film you see that it’s actually a really fun pirate movie, that Renny Harlin did a good job. There are things that don’t work in the film that I feel critical about — which I don’t need to discuss now —but overall, it’s a fantastic film. And I think it’s as good as the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And you just wonder why one worked and another one didn’t. Was it just the wrong moment? Were we just too early?” (ew.com).
In previous films with female pirates, their masculine cross dressing leaves them uncertain of their sexuality and eager for male instruction. Morgan knows how to code switch between genders and exploits it to her advantage. She can act as a man and use a sword without being punished for it. Modine needs to be rescued by the female pirate and is grateful for her assistance, with no need to humble her or mansplain her role in pirate society. And the happy ending is not that she renounces her bold life for romance. Whether that choice indicates the wan hope for a sequel, since Carolco was already bankrupt, is unknown.
At the time, reviewers felt this film indicated that the pirate genre, unable to reconfigure an old genre with contemporary meaning, was headed for Davy Jones’ Locker. Time has shown that a female action hero is exactly of this early 21st century moment. Referencing themes and scenes from Treasure Island and Captain Blood, it fuses the historical swashbuckler with the action-adventure film, using the 1980s-90s template which updated the action blockbuster. With its humor and love for the massive action sequence, is a clear precursor to Disney’s blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Nobody has more fun in this film than Frank Langella as the villain, Dawg.
Needless to say, most of the negative reviews were by men, who didn’t want a movie with a female pirate captain. Sound familiar? Female actors have chafed against wan girlfriend and wife roles since the dawn of the movie era. But, when the man plays the subordinate role, critical knives were sharpened. The women who review the film in retrospect have quite a different attitude. Laura Sook Duncome, writing in 2017, says, “Yet, Cutthroat Island, behind all the awful jokes and the strange plot, offers something sorely missing in the Hollywood pantheon: a female action hero. Geena Davis reported did her own stunts for this film and there are a lot of them. She fights with swords, swings from chandeliers, jumps through windows, rides horse back and jumps off cliffs, to name a few. After watching countless men perform these stunts in countless actions films, there is something viscerally positive about watching a long-haired, undisguised woman do the same. Morgan conceals a large collection of weaponry in her garters, she flirts with men to disarm them before she attacks them. She is, in short, a woman who uses every tool in her considerable arsenal. Unlike Anne Providence (NB: Anne of the Indies) repressed and hated femininity, Morgan’s femininity is just one more asset she uses to win” Duncome 221).
“Cutthroat Island still manages to be entertaining in spite of everything, and that includes its overlong running time. It’s about pirates! There are sword fights! And cannons! And treasure chests full of gold doubloons! A swaggering Geena Davis is delightful, and Frank Langella—the only person in the cast who seems to be winking at the camera—is clearly having a good time with his oversized character, despite whatever chaos was going on behind the scenes. And did I mention the trained monkey? If you didn’t know the whole backstory, you’d never, ever guess that this bombastic, eager-to-please pirate adventure was a financial disaster that became a show-biz punch line. It’s definitely worth a re-watch, matey.” (Cheryl Eddy writing for gizmodo.com).
Postmodern Pirates: Tracing the Development of the Pirate Motif with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean by Susanna Zhanial, Pirate Women: The Princesses Prostitutes and Privateers by Laura Sook Duncombe, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1995-12-25-1995359060-story/ (this link is not active) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/the-vanity-that-led-to-a-100m-bonfire-1304053/, https://ew.com/article/2016/04/19/matthew-modine-cutthroat-island/, https://io9.gizmodo.com/legendary-pirate-flop-cutthroat-island-isnt-perfect-bu-1829088636