In days of yore, the West Indies were ruled by Europeans who held the population in a vice-like grip, which made them very unpopular and the pirates who stood up to them quite the opposite. One such pirate was Red Ned Lynch (Robert Shaw) who would dress in scarlet and was the finest swordsman in the Caribbean, always with a cheery grin as befitting his roguish demeanour. One of the cohorts from his ship The Blarney Cock is Nick Debrett (James Earl Jones) who has been captured by the cruel governor Lord Durant (Peter Boyle) and sentenced to death; as he stands with the noose around his neck and Durant's underling Major Folly (Beau Bridges) about to give the word, a familiar sight rounds the coastline...
You'll be pleased to learn that Nick escapes his fate when Ned unleashes a barrage of cannonballs in the general direction of the military, because that's the kind of movie this was, one of those nostalgic items of the nineteen-seventies that sought to update a classic genre or even an individual work to a more modern style. In effect, this often meant rendering them a lot more crass, and so it was with Swashbuckler which dirtied up the faces of the celebrated Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster pirate flicks then set sail on a course for... well, on a course for a complete flop, as pirate movies tended to be for a long time from this decade to the nineties.
You could look at Roman Polanski's costly Pirates or Renny Harlin's even more costly Cutthroat Island for more evidence of how the genre had been dragged down with what passed for humour and action, but was actually rough and crude no matter how much cash had been thrown at them - The Pirate Movie was its own entity - but it was Swashbuckler which had set the template adhered to with baffling faith until Johnny Depp pulled the whole kit and caboodle up out of the mire with his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, adding a hefty dose of outright fantasy to fashion a series of samey but - finally! - lucrative blockbusters that reclaimed piracy from those previous underachievers (Captain Phillips was a horse of a different colour). And yet, this disappointment had its fans.
Maybe it's the near constant roars of laughter from the buccaneers that won them over, but if you like movies which sound as if three quarters of the cast had been dosed with generous nitrous oxide rations then you'd be well suited to appreciating Swashbuckler, which at least appears as though someone is having a good time. One of the most distinctive laughs in showbiz, the one belonging to Geoffrey Holder, was utilised as well, indicating if it was enough to make him chortle then it was only polite to join in, except that for much of the time it felt as if you were not in on the joke. One character barely cracking a smile was overthrown governor's daughter Jane Barnet, played by a dour Geneviève Bujold who is Shaw's reluctant love interest in the story, and also got to bless the movie with a nude swim because these were the days when studios could get away with such things in a PG-rated effort.
Other near the knuckle elements were based around Boyle's villain, for whom getting just about everything he wants but the pirate captain's head on a pole has apparently turned him into a jaded pervert. He surrounds himself with people he can either victimise, such as the Major, or those who can indulge his baser desires such as, er, having his back waxed while he delights in watching his lute player run blades attached to his fingers down the chest of a hapless victim. This aspect of sexual sadism is a very strange inclusion for a film you would assume was aimed at family audiences, they don't exactly go into pitiless detail but it is clear Durant and his coterie (including a silent Anjelica Huston) truly get off on being twisted, which adds a layer of texture to what might have been more effective if they decided to play this far more straightforward. The plot, such as it is, is relegated to excuses to get the cast carousing or fighting, and the swordplay is not bad at all given we can see the actors really are performing it, but that making merry wasn't too infectious. Repetitive music by John Addison.