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Walking the Plank When You Have No Other Choice

January 4th, 2009 · 7 Comments

Cutthroat Island (1995)
Written by Michael Frost Beckner & James Gorman and Raynold Gideon & Bruce Evans and Susan Shilliday (uncredited) and Robert King and Marc Norman
Directed by Renny Harlin
Produced by Carolco Pictures/ Forge/ Laurence Mark Productions
Running time: 119 minutes

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In the waters surrounding Jamaica of 1668, pirate Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) – daughter of buccaneer Black Harry Adams (Harris Yulin) – escapes the latest attempt by authorities to capture her. Rowing out to rejoin her father aboard his ship the Morning Star, Morgan discovers her uncle, the nefarious Dawg Brown (Frank Langella), has commandeered the vessel and forced Black Harry onto the edge of the plank. Dawg seeks Black Harry’s fragment of a treasure map their father divided and left each of his three sons. Morgan’s efforts to rescue her father come up short, but before he dies, Black Harry reveals to her the location of his piece of the map: his scalp.

Morgan assumes command of the Morning Star and sails to Port Royal, where she seeks a Latin translator to decipher the clues on her dead father’s scalp. Meanwhile, pickpocket William Shaw (Matthew Modine) is arrested trying to lift jewels from polite society and is sold into slavery. Morgan rescues him from the auction block as naval authorities led by Governor Ainless (Patrick Malahide) fire on them. The crew of the Morning Star locates Morgan’s other uncle and obtaining the second map fragment – which Shaw discovers inside a barrel of moray eels – narrow the location of the family fortune to Cutthroat Island. A typhoon, double crosses, sword duels, a naval battle and a monkey complete the tale.


Production history
In the late 1980s, producer Jon Peters optioned a book by John Carlova titled Mistress of the Seas. It was based on the incredible true life adventures of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 18th century women who disguised themselves as pirates to take to the high seas, where they became intimate with their captain, “Calico” Jack Rackham. By the summer of 1993, Peters had enlisted Paul Verhoeven to direct the torrid tale. Entertainment Weekly quoted an unnamed source as saying, “What he had in mind was a sex film that, oh, by the way, had a couple of ships in it.” Geena Davis and Harrison Ford were interested, but Columbia Pictures – wary of a big budget sex film – pressed Verhoeven to focus on a conventional love triangle between two male buccaneers and Anne Bonny. Davis reluctantly dropped out and Mistress of the Seas never made it out of the harbor.

In the estimation of Mario Kassar – owner of Carolco Pictures – Columbia’s interest in pirates legitimized a rival swashbuckling script he had in his pocket titled Cutthroat Island. Written by Michael Frost Beckner & James Gorman, the project was one of two lavish period action pictures Kassar intended to produce. The other was the highly anticipated Crusade, with Arnold Schwarzenegger signed to play a knight carrying Christ’s cross back to Rome (with Paul Verhoeven navigating the journey). Carolco had spared no expense producing lavish fare from Total Recall to Chaplin, The Doors to Basic Instinct, many of them hits, but by the end of 1994, the company was $43 million in debt. Kassar made the decision to cancel Crusade – writing off $13 million in pre-production costs – and bet the fate of Carolco on Cutthroat Island.


Renny Harlin – director of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger – committed to Carolco’s pirate movie, and after a rewrite by Raynold Gideon & Bruce Evans, Michael Douglas accepted a $13 million offer to star as William Shaw, a gambler who falls into servitude to pay off a debt. Geena Davis – who had recently married Harlin – was not a fan of the script, but once Douglas came aboard, she agreed to play Morgan Adams, a bookkeeper who seduces Shaw into the company of her fellow pirates. While Douglas was finishing Disclosure in Seattle, Harlin and Davis brought in screenwriter Susan Shilliday to bolster the female lead. Douglas got a look at the changes and was not happy with what he saw. “They had a hard time searching for who Shaw was. I just was not comfortable with the part. The combination of not seeing it on the page and not knowing where it would go. I was feeling uncomfortable, and I wanted out.”

Geena Davis would later refute the notion that Michael Douglas got cold feet because a leading lady was upstaging him, but admitted that once the star dropped out, Cutthroat Island should have folded. “I, of course, assumed the whole project would be canceled. It was all based on Michael Douglas’s being in it. To my horror, I learned not only would they not cancel, but that I had a legal obligation to go ahead, unlike Michael. I tried desperately to get out of this movie.” A senior executive at Carolco later told the New York Times, “We knew that if we shut it down it was certain Chapter 11. If we made the film, there was at least some chance we could survive. It was a classic case of going forward when you have no other choice.”


Budgeted at $65 million, Cutthroat Island was set to film on the Mediterranean isle of Malta. A crew had been assembled and as of the spring of 1994 was on location building sets. As of July, Harlin was still in Los Angeles searching for someone to replace Michael Douglas. Jeff Bridges, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Keanu Reeves, Ralph Fiennes, Kurt Russell, Michael Keaton and even Charlie Sheen were offered the part. All passed. In a memo intended to pump up his crew, Harlin wrote, “When the casting concerns have been resolved and I arrive in Malta, I want to see the most spectacular and eye-popping sets, the most interesting and unusual props, and especially weapons and special effects that leave the audience gasping in awe and stunts that no one thought possible before. No sequence or setting that you’ve seen in movies before is good enough. Any idea that has been previously used has to be reinvented and cranked up 10 times.”

The casting merry go round stopped at Matthew Modine when the wholesome actor accepted the role of Shaw. Though Modine’s fee was a $12 million savings over Michael Douglas, screenwriter Robert King had to be brought in to reconfigure Cutthroat Island in one month as a vehicle for Geena Davis. Six weeks before principal photography was to begin, Harlin arrived on location. Production delays had spiked the budget to $80 million and the script was still considered unworkable. Script doctor Marc Norman was added to the payroll at a cost of $800,000. His job entailed being rousted at 1 am, driven to the set and using a legal pad to write whatever scene was being filmed that morning. Norman recalled, “I was the guy in Malta stuck with trying to make that work. I did get paid well. But it was really hell.”


By the time Cutthroat Island commenced filming October 1994, the film’s balance sheet included some 2,000 costumes, 309 firearms, 620 swords, 250 daggers and at least 100 axes. Several dozen horses needed for a carriage chase had to be flown from Hungary with their grooms at double the cost due to EU regulations that prohibited the transport of animals in boats. Two full sized pirate ships were constructed at a cost of $1 million each, one of which caught fire during filming, forcing production to shut down for three days. Wrapping second unit photography off the coast of Thailand in March 1995, Harlin was confident he could meet a release date of July 4. The director confided to Variety’s Army Archerd: “The smartest thing I ever did was to go to the tank in Malta. All the complicated stuff was controlled. I can’t image doing it on the ocean where you can’t control waves, winds, currents. It would have been impossible.”

Deciding the film was not ready, Carolco pushed Cutthroat Island back to December. MGM/UA – intending to spend $30 million to distribute and market the picture – downgraded to $18 million as the release date neared. Once critics weighed in, word of mouth went from dismal to worse. Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “So Cutthroat Island proves too stupidly smutty for children, too cartoonish for sane adults and not racy enough for anyone who regards Ms. Davis in a tight-laced bodice as its main attraction.” Desson Thomson, the Washington Post: “It takes a two-hour act of will to keep facing the screen during this moribund movie. Every cliffhanger is enough to make you a cliff jumper.” Todd McCarthy, Variety: “Younger teen audiences might be carried away by the escapades up to a point, but there is little flair or grace on display, as the sheer effort of capturing the tumultuous doings on camera is all too apparent. No one in the film seems to be having much fun, and the effect is contagious.”


The cost of producing, marketing and distributing the film totaled $115 million. Its box office take was $10 million in the United States, $4 million overseas, grosses which officially made Cutthroat Island the biggest commercial disaster in movie history, the first film to lose $100 million. Carolco – which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection a month before the film was even in theaters – lost about $47 million in the debacle. The rest of the loss was divided among the overseas distributors Kassar had pre-sold the film to: Pioneer Electronic Corporation of Japan, Canal Plus of France and Rizzoli Editore of Italy. The I.R.S. was at the front of the line to collect $15 million in unpaid taxes, claiming that Carolco concealed profits through its tangled deals with overseas corporations.

In an interview with IGN FilmForce in 2001 – three years after he had filed for divorce from Geena Davis – Renny Harlin offered his post mortem on Cutthroat Island. “We had an essential flaw, which maybe wouldn’t be such a problem today, but in those days, a female heroine in sort-of a young boy’s fantasy action movie just didn’t gel. Certainly the movie has flaws, but on the other hand, it has some pretty big production values and pretty fun action sequences that I think – in the right atmosphere with the right marketing and so on – could have turned out much better. At the same time, you have to realize that you can’t succeed every time and – even with the best intentions – we make mistakes and things don’t work out so great.”


While Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World would engage audiences with its character pathos and historical detail – and the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks would at least offer up buckets of intense audience appreciation – Cutthroat Island is like a Mad Lib filled out by a mental defect who can’t get enough pirates in his life. Every single cliché of the swashbuckling genre is on display here – a monkey, a plank, a peg leg and a treasure map appear within the first 10 minutes – but what’s missing is even one scene that rises to the spectacular edict laid down by director Renny Harlin to his crew. Instead of reinventing and cranking up the genre by ten times, it doesn’t even feel like anybody bothered to wake up and hit the fucking snooze bar.

The only aspect of Cutthroat Island handled with any feeling of conviction are the explosions, which is what the movie lives and dies by. Though Geena Davis would go on to be a semifinalist for the women’s Olympic archery team in 1999, it’s painful to watch how disinterested she is at being an action hero. The wry, brainy and at times very sexy ingénue is just about laughable as a pirate. Her chemistry with Matthew Modine is non-existent, the action choreography clumsy and the seven writers who drew a paycheck seem to relish their work like it was slave labor. The location scouts and visual effects technicians earned their lunch money at least, while the high throttled musical score by John Debney probably has more fans than this wreck of a movie does.

© Joe Valdez


Debacle on the High Seas”. By James Sternhold. The New York Times, March 31, 1996.
Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops. By James Robert Parish (2006)

Tags: Drunk scene · Father/daughter relationship · Sword fight

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Jan 5, 2009 at 8:36 am

    I had completely forgotten everything that went on behind this movie. And, I still have never seen it.

    Great story!

  • 2 Adam R // Jan 5, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    “screenwriter Robert King had to be brought in to reconfigure Cutthroat Island in one month as a vehicle for Geena Davis.”

    That sentence is the failure of “Cutthroat Island” in a nutshell — who wants to see a Geena Davis vehicle, or for that matter Matthew Modine? If there was any kind of star power, there was a chance moviegoers would care, but having Davis and Modine on the poster ended any chance for box office success.

    Great post Joe, this is an awesome series.

  • 3 Daniel // Jan 5, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Lol, what a nightmare! Who knew such a bad production would lead to such a fascinating review. Great work!

    Never a good sign when the best part of a movie is the explosions.

  • 4 Burbanked // Jan 5, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    @Adam R: I’ll agree with you about Modine, but I think this failure owes more to the material than Davis’ lack of star power. By ’95 she was known primarily for THE FLY, BEETLE JUICE, THELMA & LOUISE and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN – the majority of which could arguably be classified as her “vehicles”. She was certainly a big enough star, but I remember seeing these posters and trailers and thinking “Davis? Cool. Modine? WTF?” (a phrase I made up in 1995, BTW) (that one, too)

    I think the true lesson of this film is clear: don’t get married to Renny Harlin.

  • 5 Flickhead // Jan 7, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Poor Geena… it was all downhill after Angie.

  • 6 Cindylover1969 // Jan 7, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    “the high throttled musical score by John Debney probably has more fans than this wreck of a movie does.”

    We can safely strike “probably” – not only has Debney’s music (which got a soundtrack CD at the time) subsequently been issued as a two-disc album with the complete score plus an alternate version of “Carriage Chase” and demos, but he’s one of the few participants whose career was in better shape AFTER the movie than before it…

  • 7 Joe Valdez // Jan 7, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Jim: Cutthroat Island is definitely one of those cases where the story behind the movie is much more interesting than anything that made it on screen. I am here to endure some degree of pain so you don’t have to. Thanks for commenting!

    Adam: Your visitation and approbation of this series means a lot. That said, I think this movie could have been a hit with Geena Davis & Matthew Modine if the material had been good, if you’re heard word of mouth way in advance of its release about what an exciting movie this was. As it turned out, Cutthroat Island did not deliver the goods and couldn’t have drawn a crowd no matter who was in it. Just my opinion there. I do not work for Carolco.

    Daniel: And you know, the explosions weren’t even that good! The fire in this movie was far from Backdraft quality. I think boys maybe 8-12 might be entertained by this, but why bother when you can just put Captain Blood in the DVD player. Thanks for commenting!

    Alan: When will these screen actresses learn that marrying a director never ends well. Instead, they should follow Cate Blanchett’s lead and marry a writer, preferably writers who write about movies on This Distracted Globe. I am thinking of Rosario Dawson while I issue this piece of advice in particular.

    Ray: I believe you have a valid case. Geena was at her best when playing the best friend: Fletch, The Fly, Accidental Tourist. She was truly the Judy Greer of the late ’80s and I would have liked to see her do a lot more work in that pool.

    Cindy: Honestly, I’m not at all familiar with John Debney’s work, but was aware that is score for this movie had won him quite a few fans. Debney and the monkey may have been the only participants in Cutthroat Island whose career was in better shape afterwards. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your Debney ardor with the class!

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