Revisiting Cutthroat Island, the Feminist Pirate Movie That Failed

The 1995 movie Cutthroat Island has the dubious honor of at one point holding the title of biggest Hollywood flop. As the Guinness Book of World Records explained in honoring the film, it cost roughly $100 million to make but earned back only $11 million worldwide. Green lit during the girl power boom of the ’90s and starring Geena Davis as a pirate who galavants around in search of buried treasure, studio executives obviously had faith that a woman could not only lead an action movie but make it successful. How could such a theory go so wrong? Is it because women can’t be pirates?

I set out on a journey across the high seas to find out.

Having never heard of Cutthroat Island before my roommate suggested we watch it after paging through HBOGo on a recent Sunday night–with a laugh, I might note, like she evilly knew what she was suggesting–I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for. I assumed it’d be a bit like Romancing the Stone – ridiculous but very very good. But soon after the movie began, I realized my mistake and began to search for more intel on this swashbuckling hellscape. I quickly dug through the facts, theories and rumors about what contributed to this sinking ship (a pun used, unsurprisingly, in many headlines after the movie’s release).

The first foreshadowing: Michael Douglas pulled out of Cutthroat Island when he found out his role as leading man wouldn’t be as prominent as Davis’s. (After that, many other Hollywood stars reportedly turned the part down too.) The movie also lost a producer, money was spent frivolously, and the script was downright bad, requiring an expensive rewrite. The fact that director Renny Harlin had married Davis right before making the movie added a sort of dark twist to the whole thing. (Davis, when she was doing press for the film: “Renny has been working on Cutthroat Island practically our whole married life. It was actually wonderful to have something to work on that we both cared so passionately about.” Harlin: “When we were at home, we would be rehearsing while we were in bed or brushing our teeth or whatever. We’d be talking about the movie. It was an incredible privilege to be able to do that.”)

All that effort on the part of Harlin and Davis didn’t matter; the movie was pulled from U.S. theaters after two weeks and the production company behind Cutthroat Island (also responsible for Showgirls) declared bankruptcy shortly after the movie came out. “Part of the disappointment is that we deliberately made that movie PG and it was beamed at younger audiences,” Davis told The Dallas Morning News in 1996. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if girls could see a woman being a pirate and swashbuckling?’ It was one of those things where it fell through the cracks. There were 10 million other movies opening that day and for whatever reasons, the audience we targeted was not informed they were supposed to go.”

Shockingly, when the film came out, Roger Ebert gave it three stars. This is shocking not only because of how badly it did at the box office, but because most other reviewers at the time were very unkind to it. Cutthroat Island hasn’t aged well either; when Nathan Rabin revisted it in 2008 he wrote that it “resurrects the moribund pirate movie, just to bury it all over again. It runs the gamut from workmanlike to dull to egregiously awful.”

How could this be so? Geena Davis plays a pirate and she did all her own stunts! Well sometimes, a bad movie is just a bad movie, even when you want it to be otherwise.

We start off with Pirate Lady aka Geena Davis in bed with a man who is supposed to be sexy but is just Wig.

He wants to kill her! God, a one night stand can take a turn for the worst really quickly.

Luckily, Pirate lady has a trusty monkey – plus she stole the part of Wig’s gun that makes it go BOOM. Actual dialogue: “See? I took your balls.” Why she’s a pirate with an American accent remains unclear.

Oh, I figured out where all the money went.

FYI horseback riding in water is very difficult, signed a woman who was forced to do so during a trip to Greece by her younger sister and found it very difficult.

Okay so, to explain the plot as I understand it so far: Pirate Lady was sexing a man who turned on her, but quickly had to run away because shit has gotten real with Pirate Daddy (her actual father, not some sex partner who is not Wig who makes her call him daddy).


BTW that other pirate is Frank Langella, who is looking preTTY good, even though he does say a really gross thing to his brother: “Come back on board. I’m going to split you wide open.”

Pirate Lady manages to get her father away from the clutches of this anchor and swim him to shore without dying. Unfortunately, the lessons she learned during her weeklong lifeguarding program were in vain: he father dies soon after. As his last dying wish, however, he asks her to shave his head in a very creepy voice. [Note: this will become important later.]

CUT TO: Weird men in wigs.

Wow, we’re definitely supposed to take these dudes seriously.

Oh look it’s Matthew Modine! Hello sire. That wig also looks terrible on you. Luckily you can tell that this will not be Matthew Modine’s look for long.

Back on her ship, Pirate Lady talks to her crew about avenging her father’s death and getting some buried treasure. How will they find the treasure? Oh, just with this scalp map she took from his head after shaving it. Yes, that’s right: A MAP WAS TATTOOED ON HIS SCALP AND SHE TOOK IT. Coolest pirate around.

(Someone please tell me what movie/television show this kid on the right was in because it’s driving me crazyyyyy.)

Anyway, here is Matthew Modine imprisoned after the wig didn’t hide the fact that he’s Matthew Modine/some kind of rake who crashed that wig party.

In all fairness, Geena’s wig does not look good either.

You may wonder why Geena is at the prison pretending to be a Reg Lady when she is really a Pirate Lady. She has come to prison to find someone who reads Latin so she can translate some words on her scalp map. Matthew Modine speaks Latin! So she takes him from prison but they are clearly not who they say they are and some people chase after them.

During this high-speed chase there is a pope or cardinal’s burial. Here are some shots of that.

As I will soon learn, the fight scenes in this movie are all very long and get pretty boring. The best part is when this one is over and Pirate Lady takes her scalp map out of her crotch to show to Matthew Modine.

“Thank you, but I’ve seen one before,” says Matthew, before Pirate Lady literally stabs him in the delicate flesh next to his man meat. “Ouch that’s…tender,” he adds diplomatically. God, true love really can bloom under any circumstance.

Then some other stuff happens; I don’t know guys, this movie was hard to follow in that it was really boring. Basically, in order to get another part of the scalp map, Pirate Lady, her band of merry men and Matthew all head to a dangerous part of town that Frank Langella is in. The most important part of this maneuver is that there are EEEEEEELS in this dangerous part of town.


Frank Langella soon has Pirate Lady by the EEL because he is Frank Langella and not to be trifled with, even by a Pirate Lady, so Matthew Modine devises a plan that includes this wino who is literally getting a drink in the middle of this tense battle scene.

Matthew Modine is just like, oh god you loser…

…but just cause you suck doesn’t mean I’m not going to exploit this moment to create a diversion! Quick thinking, especially given how frightening those EELS must have been.

Because of the diversion they get out of dodge – but unfortunately Pirate Lady is hurt. A bad doctor wants to actually stab her with a hot poker to heal this injury, but since Matthew Modine is both a doctor and a learned scholar of Latin, he is left to handle it. WARNING: The images coming up are both graphic because of blood but also because of sexy times.

Luckily, the removal of thisball makes Pirate Lady want to get something else inside. (Okay, I’m sorry. But the double entendres in this movie are getting to me.)

The face of a woman who is very satisfied…

…Until a clumsy doctor literally prods her in the part of her body from which he just removed a bullet. Sexy time OVER.

Moving on: the pirates eventually make it to this weird cave which contains the treasure. (At no point does it become clear how they are going to get said treasure out of the cliff above an ocean with a huge drop. Hollywood.) There they find [cue horns] THE FAKEST-LOOKING GOLD ALIVE.

Reminder: This movie cost $100 million to make.

After all that, some stuff happens. I think Matthew Modine is kidnapped by the Wigs and also Frank Langella’s pirates because apparently all bad guys are in cahoots together. Pirate Lady reunites with her crew to get him back, thus starting the longest fight scene in the history of cinema. Seriously, it was like 30 minutes long. A friend came over as I was finishing watching it and thought I had lied to her when I’d said the movie was almost over because it was really really not. I thought it was, okay!

Luckily this endless scene brought us a still of Frank Langella looking confused/sexy, so one good thing came of it.

Spoiler alert: Pirate Lady wins this last and final battle! And manages to save the treasure. She suggests to her crew that they “ride the trades all the way to Madagascar, the best pirating trades in all the world.” Dude, everyone is exhausted, let them rest.

Oh look it’s wig man again, except he’s now a pirate with a still very bad wig.

The last line of the movie is “And Mr. Shaw [Note: That is the name of Matthew Modine’s character in this movie, as I seem to have not mentioned it yet.]…I’d like to see you in my cabin. Immediately.”

And then the movie ends, just like that, all that promise gone with it. And I no longer wonder why it’s such a disappointment. I know.

After Cutthroat Island was released, Davis wrote a letter to Entertainment Weekly telling them to never mention her again because of their “mean-spirited, error-filled articles” about the movie. But as she said then, despite the fact that it flopped, she wasn’t embarrassed by the film’s high budget or how badly it did. She was happy that a “film like this one can be on the shoulders of a woman.”

Now we know: Being expensive and bad isn’t just for men. It’s for women too, even if they only get one shot at it.

Images via Metro-Goldwyn Mayer

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