Pirate films aren’t as ubiquitous as westerns, but they’ve been a key part of Hollywood adventure films for just as long. Between the high seas action and swashbuckling anti-heros, audiences can’t resist a good pirate movie.
Whether you’re celebrating International Talk Like a Pirate Day or just looking for a fun popcorn adventure, here are some of the best pirate films Hollywood has to offer:
Muppet Treasure Island
When Robert Louis Stevenson published his novel Treasure Island in 1883, he practically invented the entire pirate genre, including such staples as treasure maps, buried treasure, peglegs, parrots, and “X marks the spot.” The novel has been adapted countless times and in nearly every medium, so it was natural for Jim Henson’s Muppets to tell the story in their own charming way. Brian Henson, Jim’s son, directed this musical adventure comedy, which featured live-action stars Jennifer Saunders, Billy Connolly, and Tim Curry as Long John Silver.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Disney executives weren’t sure what to make of Johnny Depp’s one-of-a-kind performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in a movie adapted from a theme park ride, but once the original Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl became a monster hit in 2003, what they thought didn’t really matter. Depp’s performance instantly minted a new iconic character, and earned him an Academy Award nomination. The film and its four sequels set a high standard for incredible special effects and epic filmmaking, and have earned several Oscar nominations in addition to Depp’s.
If you’re looking for a romance from Hollywood’s Golden era, this is the pirate film you want. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly teamed up for Vincente Minnelli’s 1948 musical romance, which tells the tale of a woman who dreams about the legendary pirate Macoco. A traveling singer falls in love with her and poses as the pirate to win her heart.
Waterworld, the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release in 1995, takes place in a dystopian future when the ice caps have melted and all of Earth is covered in ocean. The villains of Kevin Costner’s action epic are a mix between classic pirates and apocalyptic oil-slicked Mad Max villains, raiding what little remains of civilization from weaponized jet skis and the Exxon Valdez to pirate and plunder food, gas, and fresh water. Hopper relishes his role as a futuristic pirate, giving maximum intensity in his performance and even sporting an eyepatch.
Errol Flynn is the definitive Robin Hood for many cinephiles, but for many he’s also the definitive pirate. In fact, Captain Blood, directed by Michael Curtiz, was Flynn’s first Hollywood role. Captain Blood is one of several adaptations of the 1922 novel of the same name, and tells the story of an enslaved doctor and his fellow prisoners who escape imprisonment and become pirates in the West Indies. The 1935 film made stars of Flynn and his then-unknown romantic lead, Olivia de Havilland, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Produced and based on a story by Steven Spielberg; director/producer Richard Donner and screenwriter Chris Columbus paired for this family adventure comedy, now a modern classic and launching pad for familiar faces like Josh Brolin, Sean Astin, and Martha Plimpton. The story focuses on poor kids from Oregon who attempt to save their homes from foreclosure with an old treasure map that takes them on an adventure to unearth the long-lost fortune of One-Eyed Willy, a legendary 17th-century pirate.
Master director Steven Spielberg was also able to indulge in the pirate genre through the meta sequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Hook’s plot concerns a middle-aged Pan (Robin Williams), who is forced back to Neverland to rescue his two children from the clutches of stereotypical pirates led by Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook. Bob Hoskins makes a memorable impression as Hook’s first mate, Smee, and the film includes numerous high-profile cameos, including Glenn Close as the bearded pirate, Gutless. Everyone delights in chewing as much scenery as possible, which made the pirate antics all the more fun.
Captain Phillips is most certainly not a popcorn movie, but rather the harrowing true story of real-life pirates who, to this day, prey on tankers containing millions of dollars of cargo. Paul Greengrass directs Tom Hanks as the captain of the Maersk Alabama, who was taken hostage for days along with his crew. The film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Barkhad Abdi, who in his first role ever, improvised the now-infamous line, “I’m the Captain, now.”
Treasure Island (1934)
Since this list began with a Treasure Island adaptation, it might as well end with one, and a great one at that. The black-and-white film was directed by Oscar-winner Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz) and starred Jackie Cooper, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore. While the special effects aren’t quite as sharp as today’s CGI, you’ll still find all the thrills that come along with a solid pirate adventures.