19 September 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: NATE AND HAYES (1983)

In determining which films deserved a slot in the "Hughes as Screenwriter" portion of this blog's John Hughes retrospective, my initial thought was that Nate and Hayes would be the first title that it made perfect sense to skip over. It was the first Hughes screenplay that was written in collaboration, with David Odell (whose career swung from the peak of The Dark Crystal to the deep, dark valley of Masters of the Universe), from a story Odell adapted solo from an idea by producer Lloyd Phillips; this is already enough to knock us out of anything resembling auteur territory. It was also Hughes's third feature released in 1983, which meant that there was no real chronological value to taking a look at it.

At this point, mind you, I knew nothing of the film but its title, a miserably anonymous thing that could describe anything from a sleek crime thriller to a bittersweet love story to a weightless dramedy about suburban pre-teens getting into scrapes in the 1960s. There is, in fact, virtually no genre that could not support a movie titled Nate and Hayes. However, the actual Nate and Hayes just so happens to be a pirate movie, and from the moment I learned that, it was all over. A John Hughes pirate movie was just too damn weird an idea to resist, even though I was sure deep down in my heart that this was a "John Hughes" movie insofar as Hughes was paid for a weekend of script doctoring and polishing up the dialogue.* And so, here we are.

The film opens at the end, with dread pirate "Bully" Hayes (Tommy Lee Jones) on the losing end of a battle with the soldiers of this or that Pacific government, leading into an extended flashback that takes us back a year and a half to the time when Hayes found himself involved in an adventure with two island missionaries, Nathaniel Williamson (Michael O'Keefe) and his fiancée Sophie (Jenny Seagrove), who are captured by Hayes on their way to a new posting. After he deposits them there, they are shocked to learn that he is one of the most notorious slavers and murderers and general bad sorts to be found in those seas, but an even worse pirate is about to make his presence known: Hayes's former colleague, Ben Pease (Max Phipps), who kills everyone on the mission except Sophie, whom he steals to sell her into bondage. He fails to note, as does the woman, that Nathaniel has managed to survive, and the missionary quickly falls in with Hayes and company on a mission of rescue and revenge.

Taking a quick peek again at the 1983 release date, and if your suspicion is that the mission of rescue and revenge ends up being an attempt at copying the '30s serial mentality of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I congratulate your fluency in the world of '80s genre filmmaking. In fact, it is frequently noted by the impossibly tiny minority of cinephiles who are even aware that Nate and Hayes exists, that the film shares a positively eerie number of similarities with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which came out less than a year later and could not possibly have been influenced by the pirate movie, although the fact that both are Paramount productions is suggestive more than it ought to be. These similarities, most prominently a rope bridge scene that would smack of plagiarism in any other context, and a big mechanical human sacrifice machine lowering a young woman in a white gown into burning death as a crowd of ooga-booga type natives looks on chanting, are certainly worth noting (for that matter, they're both appallingly violent for PG rated films, and one can imagine a different universe where Nate and Hayes was a hit and led to the creation of the PG-13), but it's probably best not to make a big deal of it: all those damn wannabe Indiana Jones movies were drawing on the same tradition of matinee adventures as were the proper Indiana Jones pictures, and a bit of cross-pollination was undoubtedly inevitable.

(On the other hand, Nate and Hayes bears an even more marked resemblance to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl than it does to Temple of Doom, particularly the ending, and this is suggestive. But there are only so many ideas floating around, and some things just naturally fit a pirate movie).

Leaving all that behind us, Nate and Hayes is not a good film. But it's also not a terrible film. Class Reunion, to stay in the John Hughes family, is a terrible film: watching it feels like a punishment. Nate and Hayes is an extremely broken film, and that is a different thing. It is dysfunctional in ways that are almost as compelling and watchable as it would have been if it had no dysfunctions at all.

Some of it is just poor, shoddy writing and directing (it was helmed by Ferdinand Fairfax, a first-time feature director with virtually no experience before or after 1983 in anything other than British television): the fact that it takes 40 minutes until Nate and Hayes join up to chase Ben Pease is one of the most gaping problems - a 2.5 hour Pirates of the Caribbean movie can get away with that kind of slow build (though, arguably, it shouldn't), but at 99 minutes, a solid two-fifths of Nate and Hayes has been used up before anything terribly kinetic happens. It's all establishing characters and a couple of sub-sub-Raiders setpieces until that point, and there is just no damn excuse for something as frivolous as a pirate adventure to be as boring as that.

Once things kick in, though, Nate and Hayes becomes so spectacularly wrong that it's hard to take your eyes off it: the wild mismatch between Jones's twinkle-eyed, beardy "I'm in a period picture and isn't that fun?!" acting and O'Keefe's massive inability to be anything other than a superficial '80s actor with feathery hair - the sudden imposition of a sexual rivalry between the two men in defiance of anything resembling human behavior - the bizarre plot point in which Pease teams up with a German naval officer (Grant Tilly) in command of an experimental coal-powered submarine. It was this last one that made me give up even trying to resist the movie, for what it's worth, for although it "fits" - Bully Hayes and Ben Pease were actual South Sea pirates active in the 1860s and 1870s, a time when submarines were old news - the world of the pirate movie simply does not allow for that kind of technology without disrupting the generic integrity of the plot, not to mention that the German connection makes the whole thing feel like an unutterable hybrid of Errol Flynn and Das Boot.

Anyway, the film has no idea how to be a pirate movie and a contemporary sensibility (which may be the sole residue of Hughes's involvement in the project) keeps nudging in without ever being successfully grafted onto the material - even the title font makes it look more like an action film than a period picture - and other than Jones, nobody in the film gives more than an adequate performance, and the characters are drawn without enough distinction to make them stand apart as more than "Nate, Hayes, and Hayes's crew, one of whom is a samurai". It is a disastrously unsteady film, and like every other pirate movie between the end of Hammer Studios' experiments in the genre and the first time Johnny Depp swanned into the scene, it was a complete bomb. I will admit to finding it kind of amazing - no pirate movie can be so bad that I outright hate it - but it's a mess, and more to be studied as the sort of thing to avoid than respected as a forgotten gem that needs a new audience. But boy is it ever hard to turn away.

3 comments:

james1511 said...

Not that I'm a Hughes connoisseur, but I'd never heard of this either. I fear I must try and find it somehow.

Mr. K said...

Now I want you to review the Hammer pirate films (maybe for a Summer of CAPTAIN Blood next year). At the very least, NIGHT CREATURES is sort of a horror/pirate hybrid (for at least the first half).

javi75 said...

Since analogue broadcast died and digital terrestrial tv arrived to Spain, there are three times more for-free tv-channels available, most of them miserably cheap, and now suddenly all of them need lots of movies to show and fill their time-slots, and apparently they use whathever they can get their hands on for a cheap price, and they usually repeat them ad nauseam for a while (I admit the up-side of this has been, some big studio movie classics have come back to tv for anyone to watch at reasonable hours of the day after many, many years of old movies being "banned" from tv).

And so it came to pass I've half-watched this movie like three times already, for the last few months. Of course I had no idea Hughes was connected to it, although I remember I managed to watch the main credits once. I usually love the homage-to-serials stuff but this looked so uneventful and old-fashioned in a bad way, that I confess I didn't get that vibe, and the movie couldn't hold my attention for more than a few seconds each time, although the first time I was certainly, properly shocked at watching a young Lee-Jones and O'Keefe doing a pirate movie together. I had never heard of this movie before either.