Yellowbeard was the realisation of Graham Chapman’s long-standing desire to film a comic pirate romp in the style of Robert Newton’s celebrated Long John Silver. The movie tells the story of the infamous pirate Yellowbeard, whose 15 years in prison (for tax evasion) have done little to dampen his appetite for larceny, lechery and lunacy.
No one knows where Yellowbeard has buried his considerable booty, but the petulant Mrs Betty Beard (Madeline Kahn) has the solution – she tattooed the treasure map on their young son’s head just minutes after his birth.
What ensues is a cacophony of misguided treasure hunting, with Yellowbeard (Chapman), his young son, Dan (Martin Hewitt) and their cohorts being chased by the greedy first mate (Peter Boyle) and his bumbling assistant (Marty Feldman), the British Navy and their informer Blind Pew (John Cleese), poor Mrs Beard, and an outrageous cult led by Cheech and Chong.
The inspiration behind the film was The Who drummer Keith Moon, who suggested they produce a swashbuckling adventure comedy yarn. Chapman envisaged Moon himself as the wide-eyed Captain Yellowbeard but these plans were curtailed by his early death in 1978 – the Moon connection made it to the film via Peter Boyle’s character name.
Legendary Monty Python saviours Handmade Films declined to back the project so Orion financed the production on condition a couple of other Python stars were written into the film. Consequently, a reluctant John Cleese appears as an unforgettable blind beggar and a more enthusiastic Eric Idle revels in his role of pontificating naval clap-trap.
The completed film is a badly-written, rambling mess despite an array of stellar British comedy actors, a distinguished cast of thespians, a reasonably sized budget and even cinematic heritage in the shape of the ship from Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).
There is a general feel of desperation to the humour, bad taste for bad taste’s sake and reams of unconvincing gung-ho action. John Cleese once called Yellowbeard, “One of the six worst films made in the history of the world.”
Marty Feldman died of a heart attack during location shooting and is given his own dedication at the end of the film.
Captain Yellowbeard/de Dotterbart
Lord Percy Lambourn
Mrs Betty Beard
Harvey ‘Blind’ Pew