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The decline and fall of Roman's empire

Walter Matthau in a poster image from Roman Polanski's "Pirates."

CANNES, FRANCE -- The great galleon Neptune rides high in the old yacht harbor, attracting thousands of gawkers who admire its weathered timbers, its 18th century riggings and its bizarre 20-foot figurehead. But Roman Polanski's "Pirates," the movie that used this ship as a prop and location, sank on launching at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

It was another sad chapter in the decline and fall of a talented man who has lost control of his career. "Pirates" is not a Roman Polanski movie like any other you may have seen; not like "Chinatown," "Tess," "Macbeth" or certainly "Rosemary’s Baby." If it is anything, it seems to be more of a simpleminded children's film starring Walter Matthau, of all people, as a pirate named Captain Red.

Polanski says the movie was inspired by memories from his childhood in Krakow, Poland, when he went to see "The Adventures of Robin Hood," with Errol Flynn, and his heart thrilled to the images on the screen. Later, during his days in Hollywood, he went again and again to the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland. He decided that he wanted to make a swashbuckler like those in his memories.

He also, let us be frank, wanted to make a movie - any movie. Polanski's last film was "Tess," which was released in 1979. It made a star of Nastassja Kinski. Since then, she has gone on to have a busy career in more than a dozen movies. Polanski did not direct one more frame, until "Pirates." Since "Tess" was filmed in 1976, nearly a decade was lost.

When I interviewed Polanski here the other day, we talked of the satisfaction of the stage, his "first love," and about how he had directed himself in "Amadeus" in Paris and Warsaw. But when Polanski was riding high as one of Hollywood's filmmaking stars, could he have predicted that he would spend eight of his most productive years appearing in someone else's stage play?

He talked with venom of the movie industry's dealmakers: "I may give up the cinema. I don't like wheeling and dealing with agents and lawyers and stockbrokers, and that's what the cinema has become. Ten percent film, and 90 percent deal. They take advantage of you. They see how much you like a project and take a perverse satisfaction in making you unable to complete it. It's their subconscious desire for vengeance against the artist. Movie executives suffer because they are unable to make movies without what they call `talent' - the writers, directors, stars. It would be so simple for them if talent did not exist."

This was in the middle of a long, hot afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival, where his movie had premiered the day before. He was doing a lot of press. We spent 45 minutes or so in the suite at the Carlton Hotel, where he drank mineral water and took phone calls from (a) a friend in Paris who wanted to throw a party for him, (b) the film's sound mixer, in London, and (c) Cannon Films, which will release "Pirates" in the United States, and wanted to know if he was interested in being interviewed by the BBC.

Polanski is now in his early 50s, but still has the Soviet look and the Beatles haircut he brought to Hollywood in the 1960s. He was the first of the great Eastern European directors to make it big in America, and if things had been different, he might still be on top of the industry today - as Czechoslovakia's Milos Forman is. There is irony in the fact that Forman directed the Academy Award-winning film version of "Amadeus" while Polanski was touring in the stage version.

But American success was not in Polanski's destiny. He is haunted today, to the point of pain, by yet one more repetition of the litany of his tragic story - how his wife and unborn child were murdered by the Manson family, and how his own reputation was destroyed when he was charged with having sexual relations with a minor. Since fleeing the United States to avoid being sentenced on that charge, he has lived in Europe - an exile on the continent of his birth. At the press conference after his film screening, there were the same old questions, designed almost to bait him: Did he have any plans to return to America? What can he say?

"Pirates" was at least a chance to work at something. He finished the screenplay, he said, right after filming the dark violence of "Chinatown." He wanted to do something light. But he could never put the deal together, maybe because a costume swashbuckler looked too complicated to the money men. Dino de Laurentiis was interested, then he backed out. The project went to Paramount and United Artists, and to several independent producers, who all eventually dropped out.

When he wrote the screenplay with Gerald Brach, Polanski said, he sensed the time was ripe for a return to old Hollywood blood-and-guts fantasies. When "Star Wars" came out, he knew he had been right, but then all of the other "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" pictures came out, and Polanski was still stalled, until at last a Tunisian producer, Tarak Ben Ammar, came up with the money. Polanski constructed the $8 million ship Neptune in Tunisia, and shot almost the entire picture on it.

Seen on the giant screen of the Palais des Festivals, with the modern surround-sound system, "Pirates" looks and sounds like a great old swashbuckler, but it doesn't move with joy and confidence. It doesn't have the carefree abandon of the great old Hollywood entertainments, and, worse, it lacks a strong story with conflicts we care about. Matthau bangs around on a wooden leg and curses and schemes, but there is no compelling plot drawing us from the beginning of the movie to the end. "Pirates" is basically the record of the elaborate production design.

Costume epics are nightmare productions, almost by definition. Every detail has to be right, and it is the director's job to force his will upon the details so that the movie lives and breathes despite the dead weight of the props and costumes. "It takes more than patience," Polanski said. "It takes a very high pain resistance. There is sheer suffering, mental and physical. To make a costume picture on a sound stage is bad enough. To do it on the deck of a galleon is terrible.

"I thought of building part of a boat, and also using models, and interior sets. Then we decided it was easier to just build the whole boat. The boat is the set. Fine, except that it must also float, and the sails had to be unfurled, and taken up and down, and behind us was the canopy of sky, which would be blue in one shot and cloudy in the next. The wind comes from nowhere, and first you see the town in the background, then the sand, then the sea. Nothing matches between one shot and the next."

He stood up and walked to the window, looking out across the harbor to where the Neptune rode at anchor.

"And then you have to think about the beards, and the swords, and the wigs! The wigs and the wigs, and Walter's wooden leg. And if there was to be an explosion, then you think about the beards and the wigs and the leg and the explosion and the wind and the sky, and it drives you crazy. And then, if you finally succeed, people think you had a lot of luck.

"It is easy to be perfect when no one disturbs you. On the sound stage, you control everything. So you can be patient. On a boat, however, providence may have other plans for you."

I was amazed, I said, to see Matthau playing a pirate. The casting seemed somewhat unlikely.

"When the picture was at MGM/UA, they wanted an American star. They gave me a list of acceptable stars. One of the names - you're not going to believe this - was Eddie Murphy. I love Eddie, but not for a pirate. Matthau was down toward the bottom of the list, but I could imagine him as Captain Red, and I think he works out fine. I always thought that Walter had the face for a pirate, but not the body. And one day, I realized the easiest thing to do was simply get a talented costume designer."

With Matthau's heart condition, though, how happy was he to jump around on a wooden leg?

"True, he had heart surgery 10 years ago, a quadruple bypass. But in the scene where he goes to the water, he insisted on doing it himself. For the wooden leg, we handled it many different ways, sometimes with a trick camera angle, sometimes with a double, sometimes with costumes to help."

And he never complained?

"On the contrary, he complained constantly, but he was a real trouper, and he did everything he was asked to do. You must understand that Walter is a terrible hypochrondiac. Everything hurts him; everything tires him; everything is a terrible omen; he loves taking medicine.

"And he is a hypochrondiac not just about himself, but about everybody else. For example, I had a back injury in Tunisia. Well, of course, it's a Third World country, but there are good doctors everywhere. There was a French clinic nearby where I got excellent treatment, but not good enough for Walter. He was constantly on the phone with his doctor in Beverly Hills. And not just his doctor, but his doctor's nurse, and his doctor's secretary, and he is telling the French doctor the advic e of the secretary in Beverly Hills."

By now our time was up, and the doorbell on Polanski's suite was ringing. I said something about hoping it would not be eight years before another Polanski picture, and Polanski said something about the joy of the live theater -- "at least you see who your audience is" - and the interview was over.

The next day, I went to the lunch sponsored by Cannon Films and its mogul, Menahem Golan. Cannon will be releasing the film in the United States. "What did you think of 'Pirates'?" Golan asked me.

"I never know until I read my review," I said.

"It's a nice picture," Golan said. "A family picture, right? Good for the kids."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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