What’s important is that Blackbeard, whoever the hell he was, was definitely the biggest of the badass pirates in a world populated by badass pirates.
Even in those days, the early 1700s, hype always exceeded reality. Pirates were feared, but tavern gossip in coastal communities inflated their stories into mythic proportions. They may have been scurvy dudes with non-existent dental care and sexual diseases you don’t even want to know about — just like everyone else of the time — but they were more than that. They were celebrities with great names like Captain Kidd and Calico Jack. And they operated with impunity from the Caribbean to New York in a decades-long orgy of lawlessness.
Blackbeard had a five-year career, tops, but he had a fleet of pirate ships and nearly 300 men under his command at one time, and he may have been the first media-savvy pirate to understand that the more he could get people to talk about how scary he was, the more afraid they would be of him and less likely to resist, thus guaranteeing him better odds than the average pirate of staying alive over the long-term.
A Pirate’s Life
Let’s just say that, for an actor, playing that guy is a meaty role.
Previous film versions have been wide off the mark of capturing the pirate’s essence by a long shot (presumably fired from a musket). In 1952, Robert Newton played a so over-the-top Blackbeard in Blackbeard, the Pirate that my head still spins thinking about it. Disney made the awful Blackbeard’s Ghost in 1968. In 2006, though, Blackbeard got some overdue respect. Incredibly, at the same time Hallmark released a four-hour miniseries Blackbeard with Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen in the title role, National Geo aired a competing two-hour project, Blackbeard: Terror at Sea. During all these years, he’s appeared in novels, comic books and graphic novels.
Deadwood’s Ian McShane will soon enjoy his own star turn as Blackbeard in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Given his talent, and the film’s reported budget in excess of $200-million, his performance may even become the definitive one, for now (there are always Blackbeard projects in development and books under option).
I have some personal experience with this scoundrel-villain.
Five years ago, I wrote that four-hour Hallmark film version of the famous pirate’s life, titled simply Blackbeard.
Here’s the true story part.
If you read through the Internet, you’ll find more than a few people just slamming the miniseries for its abandonment of the historical record, relative to its title character. As one commenter stated on the Netflix site: “Why can’t they take the exciting and fascinating facts of Blackbeard’s life and demise and make a script out of it instead of this drivel?” Right on, I thought!
Then, of course, I realized that I had written this man’s “drivel.” I swelled with pride, then deflated with self-loathing. This pretty much defines the life and career expectations of a working Hollywood screenwriter.
The story of how the son a history teacher and a trained journalist ends up writing a miniseries distinguished by its lack of adherence to the, ahem, truth may be worth telling.
Setting Sail on the Open Seas
You see I wrote an entire 34 page outline for a version of the true story. After my previous Hallmark miniseries, The Poseidon Adventure, had aired Thanksgiving week on NBC, I’d been approached by the same production company to do a pirate miniseries.
While the debate went on as to possible life stories or book properties to base a series on, I started reading about Blackbeard. His was a brutal and violent life but clearly a more nuanced one than ended up eventually portrayed in what became the film version of my screenplay. And the new Disney version isn’t likely to be any more accurate than any of the other previous film portraits. Why should it be? The entire Pirates franchise is awash in supernatural happenings and twisted historical datelines.
In any case, a script was commissioned based on the title and some cool incidents I’d thrown around about the real Blackbeard, a pirate named Edward Teach whose reign of terror in and around North Carolina lasted a very short but intense 17 months beginning in the 17th year of the 1700s.
I went home elated to be a grown man about to be paid to write a pirate movie. I bought a collection of books about Blackbeard specifically and piratical acts in general. The more I read the more I liked what was emerging about the Blackbeard story.
I was particularly taken by the idea that the real Blackbeard was in a very complex relationship with the local citizens in North Carolina. He was treated the same way Southerners would treat Jesse James a century and a half later. Teach could rob you on the open seas, it appeared, and show up in town and get treated with respect and admiration. So I wrote an outline where the first half dealt with his piracy and fight with a British Lieutenant Robert Maynard, and the second half had a long sequence where Blackbeard, weary of the sea, tries to start his life over on land after marooning his arch rival on an uninhabited island hell.
My executives said, basically, where are the parrots, the peg-legs and, for God’s sake, what were you thinking to write an entire outline with no buried treasure in it? Thankfully, my outline did include mutiny, ship-boarding, and deserted islands, or I would never have been given a second chance to fix these perceived mistakes.
As it turned out, the decision the producers made to shoot it in Thailand continued the process. Thailand, of course, looks nothing at all like North Carolina. Blackbeard operated out of the Caribbean now, they said. It was an easy change, as the argument made, what difference does it make?
So when the entire second half was turned into a chase for treasure buried by the famous Captain Kidd decades earlier, it also didn’t matter that Blackbeard never really, it appeared, made a play for buried treasure. He was more a “take the ship and whatever is on it is yours” kind of pirate.
That was the assignment, basically: write a good, old-fashioned pirate yarn full of romance, treasure, high seas adventure and swashbuckling. I was told straight up several times to basically stop being a dick for still bringing up anything about the dude from these stupid books I’d been reading. Blackbeard was the name of the film and the name of the main character. Otherwise, everything was fair game.
That, by the way, is pretty much what the first draft reads like and, if you’re up for it, you can get it here, safely and securely.
The film was shot for a very modest budget but, thanks to cheap labor in Thailand and great locations for treasure hunting, it managed to look very much like the Caribbean, not much like North Carolina at all and, for reasons I never fully understood, there were no horses in Thailand so all the horse scenes had to be re-written to accommodate how very scarce horses were. By the way, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides probably spent 40 times the money as Blackbeard did and the miniseries was two hours longer than the Johnny Depp-film. That kind of budget allows you to airlift in entire herds from North Dakota in C-130s if you want. Oh, well…
So, with the production firmly located in Khanom, Thailand, director Kevin Connor and I talked almost every day, and did the best we could to bend the script into a shape where he could actually shoot it with the budget allotted. As we started, my draft of the script hovered at about 230 pages for the four-hour epic. Kevin and I tried to keep it a rousing good story — a little Master and Commander, a dash of Horatio Hornblower, some Captain Blood. And, oh yeah, that Blackbeard character as the bad guy.
Kevin and I have bonded over script conferences between his hotel in Thailand and my office in Hollywood. He would say “good morning” and I would say “good night” when we talked, but it was a respectful collaboration, the kind the Writers Guild would probably wish for all their members. To be paid to obsess on pirates, even if it’s only for a few months, was so freaking much fun, I can’t tell you.
Casting came in: Angus Macfadyen as the Pirate, Jessica Chastain as the Wench, Stacy Keach as the Old Man of the Sea, Richard Chamberlain as the Evil Governor and Rachel Ward as the Hooker with the Heart of Gold.
There were other issues. I remember something about casting Macfadyen as Blackbeard late in the game and having his arrival in Thailand described to me. Apparently, he had decided that Blackbeard would be best played as a stoner pirate and that it would be great if he spoke with a Jamaiican accent and was constantly getting high. By the time he arrived in Thailand, he was told to play Blackbeard as a more traditional pirate or get back on the plane and go home. This is just what I heard.
Whether any of these particular events happened to Blackbeard or not, we knew certain things did happen among pirates and we worked them all in: hangings, walking the plank, treasure hunts, mutiny, sword fights, duels and the clash of good and evil with a love story as a backdrop. We did manage to exercise modest restraint on adding gratuitous “arr matey” or “shiver me timbers,” although I am rather fond of Blackbeard’s penchant in my script for saying “you may lay to that.”
After the Sea Calms
Honestly, given the givens, my version didn’t turn out half bad. Controversy aside, all parties did what they thought was best and did what they did to the best of their abilities. As for my own feelings, this was the movie they wanted to shoot and it was their money, not mine.
When the film aired first in 2006, it got a great review from Laura Fries in Daily Variety, one that made my pirate heart skip a beat. She called it a “feisty original that has a little something for everyone.” Of course, the words that stuck out in my mind were, “Bryce Zabel’s script is high pirate drama laced with a smattering of facts to create a fast-paced and entertaining…story.”
Scott Weinberg of DVD Talk called it “pretty darn watchable” and cited its impressive production design, and concluded that it feels like a “perfectly entertaining Saturday afternoon matinee.” James Plath of DVD Town wrote that he:
…expected a staid and stagey PBS treatment… but what I got was a gritty pirate saga that steered way clear of the romance that characterized the old swashbuckler films. These pirates act like pirates, not dashing, misunderstood noblemen. They’ll punch someone or fire shots in the air just because they feel like it, and when it comes to persuasion they’ll flat-out torture a body…
Okay, then, to put it in a Movie Smackdown! metaphor, it was a split decision at best. One of those double-back-flip compliments to the effect that the viewer thought it was really going to suck but they were pleasantly surprised to see that it didn’t suck nearly at the level they had anticipated.
So here’s the Hollywood joke part of the story.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
After the project’s sprint away from the historical record, Blackbeard aired multiple times on the Hallmark Channel and did quite well, I’m told. I’d been told to write a four-hour script and had done that. It had shot long, was cut to time, and then the decision to air a three-hour, all at once version was reached, rather than two two-hour installments. So another one hour of content hit the floor. While watching it live when it came out, I turned to my wife Jackie and said, “I wrote this and I’m confused about what’s going on.”
Finally, it was set for a wide DVD release and, I believe, that release just happened to coincide with the 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.
When they later released my miniseries in an international DVD edition, they re-titled it. Now they were calling it, Pirates: The True Story of Blackbeard.
I’m not kidding. I about fell over.
History fans posted on Amazon, Netflix and IMDB, among other places, and had a field day pointing out the outrageous reality that a film that called itself the “true” story had so little actual truth in it. Most of them, I have to tell you, blamed the screenwriter for being a Class-A idiot, gleefully pointing out how this moron got it all wrong. To which I humbly say, thank you.
Mercifully, if you go searching for this four-hour piratical alternative universe, you will find that they changed the title back to Blackbeard.
Shiver me timbers.