"I take orders from the Octoboss."


June 24, 1983

Later than 1983, but not that much later, I watched MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL over at my friend Jerrod’s house, and it was the funniest thing I ever saw. You know – they make this clip-clop sound with coconut shells instead of riding horses, and the guy sings “and his penis—“, and there’s fake credits in the middle, and there’s a killer bunny. It’s a really funny movie, and I was a young boy at the time, so it was a mindblowingly funny movie. At some point later I saw MONTY PYTHON AND THE LIFE OF BRIAN and I liked that one even better. As a teenager I tried watching the show for a bit, and I think I liked some of it, but it didn’t stick. It was those two movies for me, and I’m okay leaving it at that, and otherwise only following Terry Gilliam’s career. So add “the various Monty Python guys” to the list of “things that were huge in 1983 that were just a little bit before my time.”

YELLOWBEARD is a pirate comedy starring Python’s Graham Chapman, who’s a wild man in this one instead of the straight man like in those other ones. The movie opens on a Spanish galleon, with Cheech & Chong playing (in reverse order) the Inquisitor Nebulosa and his primary stooge (credited as El Segundo). Nebuloso plays with gold coins chanting “I am the richest man in the world!,” and then tells his underling to bang his head against the floor as punishment for questioning his right to keep the treasure for himself as “god’s representative.” He does it willingly, saying “Muchas gracias!

But their ship is raided by the notorious pirate Yellowbeard (Chapman) and his crew. Yellowbeard greedily refuses to share the spoils with his partner Moon (Peter Boyle, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE), saying “Hands off!” and shutting a treasure chest so hard it chops off one of his hands.

After that brief origin story for his nemesis, a narrated scroll tells us about Yellowbeard “killing over 500 men in cold blood. He would tear the captains’ hearts out and swallow them whole. Often forcing his victims to eat their own lips, he was caught and imprisoned for tax evasion.”

Well, that’s how it’s written on screen. How it’s narrated is, “He was caught and imprisoned… for tax evasion.” Reading ahead made me laugh, hearing it killed the joke.

But now we have the premise: while imprisoned for 20 years at “Her Majesty’s Prison St. Victims For the Extremely Naughty,” Yellowbeard never gives up the location of his hidden treasure, despite torture from the authorities and not-so-subtle nudging from fellow convict Gilbert (Marty Feldman, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN).

Yellowbeard works as a parody of an old timer with fucked up issues trying to push his backwards ways on the new generation. Instead of trying to brag about a scary bad guy he is, he just complains about everyone else not being like him. While on dead-body duty in the prison he complains about prisoners these days being a bunch of wimps, dying during torture. “When they stretched me on a rack for a couple o’ years I didn’t go around dyin’ all over the place! Pathetic. Takin’ the easy way out like that… You won’t catch me dyin’. They’d have to kill me before I die.”

He’s not the romanticized type of pirate – he’s an absolute monster, played as a curmudgeon. One of the running gags I’m wary of bringing up, because it’s a subject that’s generally agreed now not to be something to joke about. Because he’s a pirate they often talk overly casually about rape. His wife Betty (Madeline Kahn, PAPER MOON – easily the MVP of the movie) comes to visit him in prison to tell him he has a son.

“Do you remember just before you were arrested we were havin’ a cuddle?”

“I was rapin’ ya if that’s what ya mean.”

“All right. Sort of half cuddle, half rape.”

Later, when lying to the police about fugitive Yellowbeard visiting her, she pretends to suddenly remember who they’re talking about. “Oh— someone did pop in and rape me.” If making light of such a horrible topic is upsetting to you, definitely avoid this, because it comes up repeatedly. But I have to admit, the way Kahn delivers this stuff is funny.

When Betty tells Yellowbeard about “the fruit of his loins” he says, “Ya madwoman. I haven’t got fruit in m’ loins. Lice – yes, and proud of ‘em!”

His son is 20 year old Dan (Martin Hewitt), who she hid from him because “I wanted him to be brought up like a gentleman and not a pirate.” When Yellowbeard expects his son to have killed 500 men like he had at that age, she says, “Well, he’s not quite so extroverted as you.”

It becomes a mismatched father and son adventure after snooty Secret Service Commander Clement (Eric Idle) orchestrates a plan to encourage Yellowbeard to escape (in a coffin) in hopes they can follow him to his treasure. Yellowbeard, Betty and Dan do indeed plan an expedition. Dan has to go because Betty destroyed the treasure map and tattooed it to his scalp, and he convinces his dad that if his head were severed it would “putrefy.” They find a way to travel on a boat in disguise and secretly change the ship’s course at night to get to the island where the treasure is buried, which is also where El Nebuloso has a fortress. Meanwhile, Gilbert was secretly working as an informant for Moon, who helps him escape so they can chase after Yellowbeard as well.

There’s some swashbuckling, some mutiny, lots of interrogation, and sword fights around a pool of acid (not safe). The basic approach is to use a normal and serious-seeming pirate adventure plot, plus a rousing adventure score by John Morris (who did most of Mel Brooks’ movies, including THE ELEPHANT MAN, which nabbed him an Oscar nomination), as a vehicle for lots of silly characters and funny dialogue. Unfortunately once they get to the island in the last half hour they make the rookie mistake of acting too much like we might care about who wins the sword fights, or about Dan’s love for Nebuloso’s daughter Triola (Stacey Nelkin, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), or about him becoming a pirate and finally making his father proud. Dan and Triola kind of seem like the human characters in a Muppet movie, which isn’t as cool in a movie with no Muppets.

The script is credited to Chapman & Peter Cook (BEDAZZLED) & Bernard McKenna (Doctor in the House), and it’s helmed by Mel Damski, a TV director (M*A*S*H, Lou Grant) making his theatrical feature debut. I’m afraid he doesn’t have the visual panache of Gilliam, or the benefit of fantasy elements like Gilliam’s movies (or the later, much funnier CABIN BOY). I didn’t get a whole lot out of YELLOWBEARD but I must confess that I watched THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS to review earlier in the series and I didn’t even feel like writing about that one. YELLOWBEARD is at least consistently kind of funny. It has lots of dumb little jokes I found at least mildly amusing: there being a little kid in the prison (uncommented on), Yellowbeard not understanding the concept of having his hair and beard cut as a disguise (“That looks nothing like me!”), all the members of a naval frigate crew being “responsible for discipline” and “preventive punishment,” including one named “Mr. Prostitute” (Greta Blackburn, also in CHAINED HEAT that summer), who’s a beautiful blond woman with a very fake painted on mustache, Gilbert holding Moon’s hook-hand right after he’s accidentally held it over the fire.

In its original conception, this might’ve been a much cooler, or at least more novel, movie. The idea came about when Chapman and Cook were having dinner at Trader Vic’s with The Who drummer Keith Moon and motherfuckin Sam Peckinpah (!), and Moon said they should all do a pirate movie together. I’m unclear if Peckinpah ever took the idea seriously, but this would’ve been the ‘70s, since Moon died in ’78, so he might’ve been busy with CROSS OF IRON or something. (His last movie, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, came out a few months after YELLOWBEARD.)

Moon was originally going to finance and star in the movie, but got too sick, so Chapman took over the role. At some point the singer Adam Ant was cast as Dan, but it took too long to get off the ground, so he quit. They replaced him with another singer, Sting, until the producers insisted they needed someone in the cast to appeal to Americans, which to them meant an up and coming American actor doing a British accent, like Martin Hewitt.

A week and a half before YELLOWBEARD’s release, The Police put out their fifth album Synchronicity, which sold over 8 million copies in the U.S., won three Grammy Awards, was voted Album of the Year by Rolling Stone readers, spawned five hit singles, and spent 17 weeks at the #1 spot on the Billboard charts, interrupting the reign of Thriller. So I could be wrong but it seems possible that Sting at that time appealed more to Americans than a guy who had only been in one other movie, even if it was starring with Brooke Shields in Franco Zeffirelli’s ENDLESS LOVE.

They did manage to get David Bowie in a surprising one-line cameo as a dude paid to swim around wearing a shark fin to scare Betty into talking. He was on vacation in Mexico after finishing his album Let’s Dance, and he hung out with Chapman and Idle on the beach, so they convinced him to come in one day and shoot that.

Feldman died of a heart attack on location in Mexico, having filmed all but his death scene, which was completed by a double, of course. It was also the final theatrical movie for Peter Bull (Queen Anne) and Spike Milligan (Flunkie). Chapman did a few more things before his tragically young death in 1989, but the only other theatrical release was STAGE FRIGHT, in which he wasn’t credited.

YELLOWBEARD was a poorly reviewed flop, like THE PIRATE MOVIE before it and NATE AND HAYES after it. It opened in 11th place, well below the week’s other new releases PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and THE SURVIVORS. (The first two I’m skipping because I’ve already reviewed them, and the third I just didn’t want to watch, but it is from the director of PRIME CUT, so… I don’t know. If anybody’s a fan, let me know.)

Idle and John Cleese (who plays a blind man whose other senses are so strong Betty asks him to “keep an ear on the bar” at her tavern) both felt YELLOWBEARD was among their worst films. Damski went on to direct for some pretty good ‘90s TV shows (Picket Fences, American Gothic, Nowhere Man, Early Edition). Other notable works include BLOOD RIVER (the made-for-cable Ricky Schroder western based on an old John Carpenter script), EVERYBODY’S BABY: THE RESCUE OF JESSICA McCLURE, and LEGENDARY (the WWE produced drama starring John Cena, Patricia Clarkson and Danny Glover).

America’s favorite son Martin Hewitt later admitted that after “starting at the top” with ENDLESS LOVE his career was “sort of a downward path,” and that he would’ve cast Sting over himself. He did manage to be in a fun slasher movie, KILLER PARTY (1986) before several DTV thrillers. He retired from acting in 2003, owns a home inspection business, and enjoys surfing.

tie ins: Believe it or not there was a novelization written by Chapman and his partner (both in writing and life) David Sherlock. In 2005 it returned as Yellowbeard: High jinks on the high seas!, along with the screenplay, photos and a behind-the-scenes foreword.

There was also a 45-minute making-of documentary called Group Madness: The Making of Yellowbeard, which aired on NBC before Saturday Night Live. It’s director, Michael Mileham, went on to direct my favorite Mimi Lesseos vehicle, PUSHED TO THE LIMIT (1992).



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20 Responses to “Yellowbeard”

  1. File under “Not really a success, but I still kind of enjoy it,” along with Terry Jones’s ERIK THE VIKING.

    I liked THE SURVIVORS when I saw it but that was almost 40 years ago, so I dunno.

  2. Wow, the first Summer of 83 movie I haven’t seen!

  3. I wouldn’t say it’s “the worst” or “a worst” comedy I ever saw, but every time someone points at MOVIE 43 and asks “How can so many funny people and great actors can make something unfunny?”, chuckle and say “Hey, at least it’s still funnier than YELLOWBEARD!”

    The movie was here by the way released as MONTHY PYTHON AT SEA, however I don’t think that Chapman sued, unlike Terry Gilliam who was obviously against the re-naming of his solo debut as MONTY PYTHON’S JABBERWOCKY.

    All those Python solo movies make one thing clear: These guys were some kind of comedy Voltron. Pretty good on their own, but only able to achieve greatness when they were together. Gilliam did the right thing and tried to develop his own style, but the weakest parts of JABBERWOCKY are those that feel like he still tried to give the audience a bit of what they expect from a former Python member. Honestly, I never got into FAWLTY TOWERS and A FISH NAMED WANDA was only mildly funny to me, so Cleese didn’t really cut it either IMO. Jones had a hand for interesting fantasy concepts, but ERIK THE VIKING is a mess and I don’t know how much of his original script is in LABYRINTH. I never saw any of Palin’s travel documentaries or Idle’s RUTLES movies, but I give Idle credit for being a very underrated songwriter and delightful social media personality.

    My point however is: I don’t think any of the pythons ever did something as bad as Chapman with YELLOWBEARD. (Not counting paycheck acting jobs.)

    That said, I do remember laughing a lot at the absurdity of THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, but now I’m kinda scared of revisiting it. It’s been a good 20 years since my last time.

  4. Most of them did at least one excellent “solo” project IMO, my favourite being Palin and Jones’s RIPPING YARNS series (OK, not strictly “solo” I guess). Jones also became a pretty good children’s author.

    ERIK THE VIKING has rivals BLADE RUNNER for the number of cuts that have been released BTW, despite it not even really being a cult movie. To my knowledge, there’s;
    . The original, longest version that I believe was only released in UK Cinemas in 89 and hasn’t ever turned up on Home Video
    . The five minutes shorter cut that was released internationally in Cinemas and 89, that I think was on the US VHS release and has fairly recently been released on Blu-ray
    -The five minutes shorter still cut that was released on UK VHS and has since seemed to become the “standard” version
    – The truly svelte 75-minute “Director’s Son’s Cut” that Jones and his son put together in the mid-00s

    Also my middle school had a bunch of ERIK THE VIKING screenplays in a stock cupboard. I have no idea why.

    As for YELLOWBEARD. Errrr… I’ve seen it! More than once. Ummm…Cheech is pretty funny in it!

  5. This film is a genuine curiosity. As noted, it has a cast of great comedy talent, but much of the dialogue is also line-for-line hilarious: I still use “prawn of my loins” and “I’m not interested in your jewellery, cloth eyes!” from time to time. And yet, it really is genuinely awful. I think the question is one of tone, which is ultimately mean and nasty. Now I have nothing against mean and nasty, in their place, but here they work against the comedy. There’s also that uncomfortable feeling that these rich celebrities had more fun making it than I have watching it.

    Of course, Python was always mean and nasty, as perhaps befits a group of young men who’d, for the most part, survived Britain’s public, i.e. private, school system and Oxbridge, while only narrowly missing conscription. Python was definitely not before my time, and at that time it was must-see TV. And yes, much of it was funny, and has influenced British and global comedy for the last 50 years, but some of it was just creepy and scary and mean. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

    HOLY GRAIL remains brilliantly funny to me, but the last time I watched LIFE OF BRIAN, which was, incidentally, banned when first released by the local council where I lived, I think I laughed twice.

  6. Yeah, I sounded more negative about the Pythons’ solo projects than I meant to (Haven’t slept good in a while due to a heatwave, so let’s blame it on that), but the point that I wanted to make was: They are all talented people (although not equally), but they very obviously needed each other to produce greatness, unless they tried to not be pythonesque at all.

  7. Yeah the Python+ (or Python-?) films like this and ERIK definitely feel “off” somehow, they obviously have different ambitions to HOLY GRAIL or MEANING OF LIFE or even LIFE OF BRIAN but they end up feeling stuck awkwardly between two stools, I don’t even like TIME BANDITS all that much honestly (but I do like JABBERWOCKY, go figure). An exception is Jones’ WIND IN THE WILLOWS, which is not a classic, and there have been much better on screen versions of the story, but it’s a pretty decent quirky 90s kids’ film (unlike ERIK, which is nominally based on one of Jones’ kids books, but starts with a “funny” rape and pillage scene!)

  8. “Fawlty Towers” is a John Cleese project and it’s a classic. Very funny, you should definitely watch it, Vern. Also, Cleese wrote, directed and starred in “A Fish Called Wanda”.

    Palin has a good career as a dramatic actor. “G.B.H” miniseries is some of the best TV I have ever seen.

  9. Republican Cloth Coat

    June 23rd, 2023 at 9:40 am

    Whoah. Are you going to do The Meaning Of Life next? I’m curious about your take. I do love that movie, but because it’s most like the TV series. Which is not a selling point, it seems. And it is both aggressive and shaggy. But it does go for broke in a “let’s do what we can” way.

  10. I’m a pretty die-hard Python fan. I remember watching this and not quite being able to figure out what went wrong. Some of the jokes feel very Pythonesque, the cast is obviously (mostly) top notch, etc. I think part of it is that they do the very 80s thing of framing the silly comedy around a plot which could mostly be seen as a “serious” pirate movie. As Vern mentioned, these types of movies almost always have a fairly serious, grounded climax which we as a comedy audience just don’t give a shit about. I think that whole “serious-ish plot in a low brow comedy” also really hurts the comedy. When the jokes sort of rely on the type of silliness like the aforementioned “Mr. Prostitute”, contrasting them with a fairly limp swashbuckling tale just makes none of it work in my opinion.

  11. I also prefer Life of Brian to Holy Grail. Maybe the religious satire is just more biting to me or maybe it’s the narrative whole Vs sketches, or that I happened to see Life of Brian first.

  12. THE STRANGE CASE OF THE END OF OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT, CLOCKWISE, A FISH CALLED WANDA, ERIC THE VIKING, NUNS ON THE RUN and SPLITTING HEIRS more or less flopped everywhere financially, except for England and Scandinavia. I’ve heard various English comedians say (but this could of course be at press conferences in Scandinavia) that it’s because the humor is somewhat related. YELLOWBEARD went straight to VHS here, and BARON MÜNCHAUSEN would never be everyone’s cup of tea. In the 80’s English TV and movie humor were mostly sort anarchistic, with a lot of slapstick violence and strange setups happening to regular people. Try the THE YOUNG ONES, COMIC STRIP, EAT THE RICH, WATER, WHOOPS and APOCALYPSE! as examples.

  13. Sorry pegsman, I don’t know about the others but A FISH CALLED WANDA was a huge hit both in the US and internationally. A quick search shows it was the 7th highest grossing film of 1988. I saw it twice in the theater with different large groups of friends. It was hilarious. Unlike YELLOWBEARD.

    I’m with those who prefer THE LIFE OF BRIAN as it does a better job stringing skits into a narrative. THE HOLY GRAIL and THE MEANING OF LIFE have some huge laughs but a few slow bits where BRIAN is pretty consistent even when it slows down. And after The Crimson Permanent Assurance opened MEANING I was set for whatever Gilliam would do later.

    Sorry you didn’t have a good time with THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, Vern. Like most of Steve Martin’s work I find it endlessly entertaining especially as part of his earlier “silly” stuff like THE JERK. It’s got some killer one-liners, though my favorite involving a brain and a gorilla I won’t repeat here given the sensitivity of the locals 😂😂😂

  14. grimgrinningchris

    June 25th, 2023 at 5:33 pm

    Yeah. What world did Wanda flop in? It made over 20x it’s budget in theaters.

  15. NUNS ON THE RUN wasn’t a WANDA-sized hit in North America, but it did well for a British indie film.

  16. I’m sorry, guys, WANDA kind of snuk in there. Of course it was a hit everywhere. I might have been thinking of PERSONAL SERVICE, directed by TERRY JONES, but who knows now..?

  17. Or…you may have been thinking of FIERCE CREATURES, the follow up which reunited the central Quartet (Cleese, Curtis, Kline, Palin) from WANDA hoping to replicate it’s success, but didn’t.

  18. Am I a bad person because I prefer FIERCE over WANDA?

  19. Regarding Dtroyt’s comments, I usually prefer a comedy that’s more in an advanture realm to have a kind of serious plot that maybe we can care about. Holy Grail is awesome but that’s what you get when the movie is just a hanger for jokes…classic, yes, but at the end I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been disappointed by the climax.

    Princess Bride shows you can do both, and the newers Dungeons and Dragons as well. I’d call both of them essentially comedies at heart. The proble with Yellowbeard is just that it’s fariyl terrible, neither the comedy nor the drama works.

  20. I like FIERCE CREATURES. It’s not the funniest movie in history, like Cleese obviously believed he was making. But it works.

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