Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Sea Kings

The last time Michael Stark (real name) reviewed a script for me was the Freeman/Willis action project, "Red." Well Michael is back again with a script by screenwriting legend William Goldman. There was a time when Goldman sold every piece of paper that came out of his typewriter. And some of those were grocery lists. As for Michael, he's no chopped liver either. He sold a couple of specs to Hollywood a decade ago, then up and left. Only recently, after finding Scriptshadow, was he inspired to start writing again. Hey, that's why I started this thing. To get you guys writing dammit. Now sit down, read this review, then read the script. You can work on your script some other time. :)

Genre: Swashbuckler
Premise: Basically Butch and Sundance as buccaneers.
About: Unproduced William Goldman script from 1978. Sean Connery and Roger Moore once attached. Part one of a three-picture deal with legendary producer, Joseph E Levine. None got made at the time. Goldman, Hollywood’s Go-to-Guy for over three decades, did not get work for five years after that.
Writer: William Goldman

William Goldman

Okay, Shadow Poppets, Professor Stark has set the Hollywood Way Back Machine to 1978, a simpler time when screenwriters were no longer mere schmucks with Underwoods, but yet to command the hyper-inflated, paychecks of the Shane Black Era. It was an age when Scribbler Gods like Robert Towne and William Goldman walked the Earth and our planet was a much better place for it.

William Goldman, for those born after the Bruckheimesozoic Period, was the master craftsmen behind Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men, The Princess Bride, Magic, Marathon Man and Misery. In those frontier days before Syd Field nailed his 95 theses on the studio doors, Goldman’s published screenplays and autobiography, “Adventures In The Screen Trade”, were the only compasses out there for us young scripters. He was, for many of us, our first mentor.

According to legend, The Sea Kings would have teamed up Sean Connery and Roger Moore as the famed pirates, Blackbeard and Bonnet, a rather neat, doubled Bonded hook if they had pulled it off. Unfortunately, this swashbuckler never set sail because the producer, Joseph E. Levine, financed all his movies out of his own pocket. By the time this script was budgeted, movies just became too expensive (damned cattle salaries) and Levine refused to go begging the studios for assistance.

I’ve always wanted to read this script. Thanks to loose lips, Xerox machines and Script Shadow’s vaster than the Vatican’s network of spies, I finally got my hot little mitts on it! For a fan, this was like finding buried treasure.

But, alas, like the Legend of Curly’s Gold, some treasures were meant to stay buried. I ain’t saying The Sea Kings is bad, it’s just not the perfection I expected from one of my idols. It’s kinda like a bootleg album: quite good -- great maybe if you are an obsessed collector -- but probably left unpolished, unproduced and unreleased for a reason. And, like much of the other works of art in Script Shadow’s storehouse, who knows what draft I’ve even read.

I had pretty sky high expectations for Goldman tackling the sea-faring genre. Wouldn’t you? Hell, the man wrote The Princess Bride, one of the most romantic, quote worthy, fantasy, adventure flicks of all times.

So, why am I disappointed? Well, the first real spot of action scene doesn’t take place till 30 pages in. The first sword fight doesn’t happen till page 52. And, the first wench doesn’t even appear till page 60. Now, pages 100 – 132 are totally golden and magnificent and redeems the earlier flaws, but one wishes Richard Lester had given Goldman some Musketeering notes for the first two acts. There just really needed to be some more swashbuckling!

Okay, remember that this is 1978. The language of both film and screenwriting was different back then. Goldman didn’t employ the shorthand we’ve since grown accustomed to. He uses long, long paragraphs to describe the main characters, their ships and all the geography around them. There are so many historical sources referenced, you wonder if he’ll eventually resort to Ibids and Op. cits at the bottom of the page.

He uses almost a whole page to describe our first encounter with Blackbeard. I know this breaks all the rules your books and teachers and script coverage services have taught you. I don’t care. I totally ate it up! I’m not gonna reprint his intro here, so, please, download the link and at least get to page 4. Yup, it’s way too much information. Today, the young tots who wrote Medieval would merely have said: “He was a bug fucking dude with a big fucking sword and a fucking big beard.” Goldman is a wee bit more classy. Such were the 70s.

The Sea Kings is a tale of two buccaneers. Blackbeard, the notorious menace of the high seas and Major Steed Bonnet, who turned to piracy pretty much out of misplaced romanticism, a near death experience and simple boredom. Give a rich guy a beautiful but mean wife that withholds sex and constantly degrades him, no doubt he’ll buy an eye patch, build a ship and head for the Barbary Coast too. Now, according to legend that was exactly the reason Bonnet turned to the Pirate’s Life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem too believable. Sometimes truth is too far damn whimsical then fiction.

Today, all action movies start with a nice set piece to get the blood pumping and the sphincters kept on the seats. Although we get a mystical money shot of Blackbeard’s empty ship scaring a trading vessel into surrender by his terrible reputation alone, the first action sequence doesn’t come till the second act when the sea sick novice Captain Bonnet actually commits his first act of plundering.

Bonnet’s beginner’s luck is simply amazing as he takes down five ships pretty much in a row. Then, he tries to steal some Pirate’s Booty away from Blackbeard himself. The Beard spares Bonnet’s life for no better reason than pure whimsy. For a pirate that was pretty historically cruel, this doesn’t ring quite right. But, Black, tired and broke, sees a way to turn a profit off his pesky new competitor, thus the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Sea Dog Mentor and Sea Dog Protégé.

They become fast friends like Butch and Sundance or Michael Caine and Sean Connery In The Man Who Would Be King. They get along splendidly. Too splendidly perhaps. I mean, Blackbeard was a total, psychopathic badass. There would have been more tension if we really believed that Black could turn on his new best friend at any moment. Thus, our first missed opportunity at some really high stakes.

Both pirates are just a bit too cute. Cuter than Captain Jack Sparrow. Cuter than Geena Davis in Cut Throat Island. Cuter than Graham Chapman in Yellowbeard. Cuter even than Jean Lafoote’s Cinnamon Crunch. I imagine pirates to be far more treacherous, lecherous and fugly.

Black’s Fence in none other than the Governor of North Carolina and we are given another detailed history lesson about colonial life with again too many Ibids and Op. Cits. Blackbeard may be a ferocious buccaneer, but he’s not the hottest businessman, so Bonnet saves his ass as they auction off their stolen goods and even helps get his buddy laid later that night by posing as a pastor. There is blue skies, clear sailing and zero tension till an aside mention that the colony of Virginia has put a bounty of the Beard’s infamous head. AHHHH, we finally spy in the distance the black flag of conflict!

The boys stay a wee bit too long on dry land and when they finally return to the Atlantic near page 80, they kidnap some rich Virginians and must return to those hostile shores to collect their ransom. Here, we get some much needed swordplay and Blackbeard’s scorpion and Frog betrayal of Bonnet.

It is this betrayal and Bonnet’s subsequent revenge that makes the last 30 pages of this script so action-packed and awesome. If the whole picture had that kinda juice. I would have given Sea Kings an impressive rating. Or, as it was 1978, a few shots of Jacqueline Bisset walking the plank in just a T-shirt might have worked too.

I guess I would have liked a little less high jinks on the high seas and a lot more Captain Blood. Thankfully, Goldman would get the mixture perfect a few years later in The Princess Bride.

How perfect?

“Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... “ Peter Falk, The Princess Bride

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

So, what did I learn? I love to do research. In the old days, I would camp inside the New York Public Library and order many rare, out of print books that took weeks to arrive. Now, with Wikipedia, I have everything I need in the matter of seconds. Seems kinda unfair, but I can now write period pieces in less than a century.

Research is fun, but don’t knock that inkwell over all your pages. We don’t have to know why pirates swabbed their desk so often or what kind of wood was used for someone’s wooden teeth. Goldman’s factuals would be great in a novel and totally a coup for the set designer, the costume maker and the DP, but it really bogs down the script’s readability.