Grade:  B+
Rated PG (see below)

Pirates of the Caribbean fans who are looking toward the future and wincing at the prospect of Margot Robbie replacing Johnny Depp might find some comfort in looking backwards. I didn’t know it until I watched this all-region Blu-ray import, but the 1976 pirate movie Swashbucker was an obvious influence on Disney’s theme-park-ride-turned-film-franchise. 

The first third of Swashbucker has the same comic tone and breakneck action of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. The basic premise for the opening scene is here too:  Drums beat as a pirate is about to be hanged. But then a pirate ship comes around the corner, a pirate captain swings onto the hanging platform to rescue his second in command, and as they escape you almost expect one of them to say “You will always remember today as the day you almost caught . . . Nick Debrett, who sails with Captain Ned Lynch.”

Elements of the basic premise and structure are here, too. The kindly and fair governor of Jamaica has been deposed by an ambitious man and now is imprisoned. His daughter would have been as well, had she not fought and escaped. After that the three main characters who interact and drive the film are Jane Barnet (Genevieve Bujold), Nick Debrett (James Earl Jones), and Ned Lynch (Robert Shaw)—just as Disney’s films would depend upon the triangle of Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and Jack Sparrow.

Like Elizabeth Swann, Jane Barnet is no passive woman-in-distress. She wields a sword, she mixes it up in a fistfight with an annoying common woman in a tavern, and she insists on taking down the man who imprisoned her father and rescuing him before he’s to be executed. Then there’s a somewhat bumbling officer named Major Folly (Beau Bridges), who obviously inspired the character of Norrington.

At some point the crew finds themselves inside a prison, where they eye a sleeping guard and his keys. It’s not a dog, but a monkey who brings them the key . . . just as Barbossa’s monkey will fetch things for him in other Pirates of the Caribbean scenes.

A couple of comic-relief crew members are featured here as in Pirates, with comedian Avery Schreiber (famous at the time for his Doritos commercials) and Tom Clancy playing the parts. Even the ease with which these pirates put themselves right in the midst of soldiers will remind fans of the Disney Pirates films, and one very dramatic action scene (sorry, no spoilers!) will call to mind some of the bigger action stunts in the later franchise.

There’s more fun here, too—like seeing the voice of Darth Vader and the man who played King Jaffe Joffer in Coming to America as a much younger leading man, and an equally young Anjelica Huston as part of the new governor’s entourage, or watching Geoffrey Holder (famous to audiences of the time as the “Uncola” 7-Up pitchman and to a later generation as Daddy Warbucks’ bodyguard in Annie) wield more knives than a Bond villain. Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond, Young Frankenstein) is cast against type as the new bad governor, decked in black and, speaking of Mel Brooks, playing with toy ships in a bathtub with a boy-toy who also doubles as a Bond-like torturer with sharp metal finger attachments.

While some of the crew vocalize how they would give anything to have an hour with Lady Jane, Ned Lynch is clearly in love with her and that prompts Nick Debrett to say, “Would you give up your life?” Despite a PG rating at the time, there is brief nudity in this—a body double, no doubt, for Bujold that we see from a distance diving naked from the ship, and then a shot as she swims underwater that shows a woman’s bare backside. Ned rows out to her, but don’t expect this pirate to be after booty. A perfect gentleman, he tosses her a dress and says, “It’s a lot easier to get off a ship with no clothes on than to get back onto a ship with no clothes on.” Watching this film, I recalled how Depp said Disney wanted him to play the part wearing a traditional pirate shirt unbuttoned to the waist, but he wanted to do something different. Good call. Originality helps to make a film good, and Swaskbuckler had a lot of original moments.

Apparently good pirate movies come along once every two decades. In the ‘30s the big one was Captain Blood, but it wasn’t until the late fifties when swashbuckler fans got another in The Crimson Pirate. Then this Swashbuckler in the late ‘70s, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl a few years past the late ‘90s. If you want to add this title to your collection you’ll have to go to eBay, though. Swashbuckler is only available as an import right now—so be sure to confirm it’s all-region and will play on U.S.-made Blu-ray players. But the quality on this release is quite good, video especially.

Entire family:  Maybe (if they watch the Pirates of the Caribbean films)
Run time:  101 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  16×9 widescreen
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0
Studio/Distributor: Excalibur Media
Bonus features:  C-
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Rated PG for some violence and gore, brief nudity, profanity, drugs, and smoking

Language:  2/10—I can’t remember specific incidents, but there are several, plus a limerick contest that features some ribald language

Sex:  3/10—Aside from the nudity already mentioned, Lady Jane’s sexuality is highlighted during a swordfight with the captain (nothing shown), and “whores” and pirates are in frequent jovial and convivial embrace (again, nothing shown)

Violence:  3/10—Quite tame, actually, compared to today’s films; the most violent depiction involves the boy with the metal finger appendages; people get killed, but it’s all bloodless, even when Holder’s character is tossing knives into people, which makes it more like “hitting the target”

Adult situations:  3/10—For a pirate movie, just about everything is an adult situation; here there’s some smoking, some drinking

Takeaway:  Clearly an inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean, Swashbuckler feels richly detailed, right down to the crowing rooster aboard the Blarney Cock, the punning name for Irishman Lynch’s ship