PIRATES. Polanski’s Comedic Metaphor Of the Red Revolution?

This year marks the 38th anniversary of the premiere of “Pirates.”


8 June 2024

PIRATES. Polanski's Comedic Metaphor Of the Red Revolution?

I first watched it in the cinema as a kid, and it left an unforgettable impression on me. Watching it again after many years did not disappoint me, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth viewing that it struck me!

Pirates, written and filmed during the existence of the Soviet Union, it is a movie with a key – a story about the October Revolution camouflaged from Eastern European censorship! After a successful mutiny and taking over the ship, Frog hoists a pirate flag on the mast – traditionally black with a skull and crossbones. But since the flag waves in the rays of the setting sun, it takes on a RED hue. The crossed bones substitute for the missing sickle and hammer. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Why else is the captain named RED?


That’s enough about the symbolism, but let’s get back to the plot. A Spanish galleon representing civilization, commanded by aristocrats, takes aboard two outcasts: Captain Red and Frog. Both end up below deck, where they learn that the ship is carrying the famous golden throne of the Aztec ruler. This is when Captain Red gets the idea of a revolution, sparked only to seize the priceless treasure amidst the chaos. (By the way, doesn’t it remind you a bit of There Was a Crooked Man…?) Remember how in The Magnificent Seven, one of the gunmen, fatally wounded, couldn’t believe till the end that they fought not for money but to defend the villagers? Dying, he keeps asking his companion: – But it was for the gold, right? Meanwhile, in Pirates, it was always about the throne from the start. Just like the Bolshevik revolution was also solely about the throne, the Tsar’s throne, understood as gaining power over the entire state.


Red plots an intrigue, leading to an upheaval where the motley crew, with no respect for anyone or anything and merely cannon fodder, elevates Red to power over the ship. If not for Frog (more about his “Polish roots” later), Maria-Dolores would have shared the fate of many Russian (and not only Russian) aristocrats (and not only aristocrats).

Captain Red reveals himself as a red, delivering a victorious, familiar-sounding speech:

Comrades! Providence has allowed us to save this ship from your degenerate masters. I hereby take possession of it on behalf of the brethren sailors and assume command over it.

Pirates Walter Matthau Cris Campion

From this moment, the throne along with the ship is taken over by the Red Captain, and the power over the life and death of the overthrown aristocracy – by the sailors, delighted with the turn of events, the maritime equivalent of the working-peasant class. Doesn’t cutting out the tongue of the kidnapped Dutch lawyer for ransom reflect how the workers’ and peasants’ power could utilize the qualifications of the intelligentsia? And the elaborate games with the aristocracy on the pirate island? Everyone can try to find more nuances. I consider Pirate one of Polański’s best films and at the same time one of the most underrated.

The director disappointed me when, asked about his favorite film, he pointed to the merely decent The Pianist. I hoped he would mention Pirates if only out of defiance. After the financial fiasco of the venture, the loudest complaints were that the specially built galleon, which consumed most of the budget, was not visible on screen. It’s impossible to agree with this absurd opinion – the galleon appears repeatedly, in full splendor, majestically cutting through the sea waves. For me, Pirates belongs to that rare group of costume films where the viewer, based on the fragments presented on screen, can imagine what this fictional world looks like beyond the frame.

Pirates Walter Matthau Charlotte Lewis

Polański simply missed the right time with it. He was 30 years late compared to the era of The Crimson Pirate, and 20 years ahead of the renaissance initiated by Pirates of the Caribbean. And against their background, Polański’s genius is evident, having created a deeper, more mature film with magnificent set design, whereas during the screening of Pirates of the Caribbean it’s impossible to shake the feeling that they were filmed on a green-box in one of the Hollywood studios. This sterility of locations, resulting from the use of computer textures, did not allow me to imagine what the world at that time might look like beyond the frame. I didn’t have such a problem with Polański’s film. Just as in Rosemary’s Baby he showed only the eyes, and the viewers saw the child, here too the imagination filled in what the camera couldn’t show. And it’s not just about the visual side, but the imagination of the customs prevailing in the depicted world. We are mostly on the ship, but we are aware that somewhere far away lives the King of Spain, elsewhere the hated English, Dutch merchants, or inhabitants of other islands.

Pirates Walter Matthau Cris Campion

Finally, a small Polish accent. Already in The Fearless Vampire Killers, Polański added a touch of Polishness in the form of Sarah humming The Spinner in the bathtub, and in Pirates he couldn’t resist this temptation either. Jean-Baptiste’s nickname is Frog (Żaba in Polish). Where does this nickname come from? Could it be from the French pronunciation of the first two syllables of his two names: Ża-Ba? A wordplay intended exclusively for Slavic-speaking nations, all of which have experienced communism.

Words Hitori Okami



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