directed by Mel Damski
(Orion, 1983)

Have you had enough Johnny Depp for a while? Are you in the mood for a pirate with a little more experience under his swordbelt, a man who takes an old-fashioned sort of pride in raping and robbing and who, if the circumstances are right, will force men to eat their own lips?

Then you need to set sail with Yellowbeard.

Yellowbeard is the monicker used by Graham Chapman's fierce and mighty captain in this classic seafaring movie set in the golden age of piracy. As Yellowbeard, Chapman -- best known for his work with Monty Python's Flying Circus, particularly as Brian in Life of Brian and Arthur in The Holy Grail -- chews scenery with such gusto you expect him to bite through ship's planks and maybe a palm tree or two. He is hale and hearty, greedy to a fault and ruthless in his pursuit of enough Spanish gold to make him the richest man in the world.

The story is simple but fun, and the cast is pure comedic delight.

Yellowbeard had stolen the rich treasure from El Nebuloso (Tommy Chong) and his faithful minion, El Segundo (Cheech Marin) years before, but was captured and imprisoned by Britain's Royal Navy. Imprisoned for 20 years, he finally escapes and goes after the treasure, but only after learning his cuddle-hungry wife Betty (Madeline Kahn) tattooed the map on the head of their 20-year-old son Dan (Martin Hewitt).

So Yellowbeard, Dan, the drunken Lord Lambourn (Peter Cook) and the curious Dr. Gilpin (Michael Hordern) set off for the treasure, pursued by British naval commander Clement (Eric Idle) and his aide, Mansell (Nigel Planer), as well as the vengeful Bosun Moon (Peter Boyle) and his sidekick Gilbert (Marty Feldman). John Cleese does a wickedly funny turn as Harvey "Blind" Pew, and James Mason plays Capt. Hughes with a surprisingly straight face. Other roles, many brief, feature Susannah York, Spike Milligan, Beryl Reid, Kenneth Mars and even David Bowie.

It's a strong cast, and some people complain they are underused. Don't believe 'em. Chapman in particular roars through the movie with bloodthirsty enthusiasm; the man was a true comic genius.

This movie is mostly about silliness and meaningless fun, with only a thread of a plot holding it together. Critics who dismiss it as nonsense miss the point. It's rough and unpolished, and even funnier for it. Yellowbeard is a laugh riot, and it deserves to be pulled from the shelf and enjoyed at least once each year.

by Tom Knapp
9 September 2006

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