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Film / Cutthroat Island

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Cutthroat Island is a 1995 pirate movie starring Geena Davis and directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin. It was released on December 22, 1995.

In 1668, female pirate Morgan Adams (Davis) and her educated slave, William Shaw (Matthew Modine), are on a quest to recover the three portions of a treasure map. The treasure is hidden on the mysterious Cutthroat Island. Unfortunately, the final portion is held by her villainous uncle, Douglas "Dawg" Brown (Frank Langella). Her crew is skeptical of her leadership abilities, so she must complete her quest before they mutiny against her. This is made more difficult by the efforts of the Royal Navy from Jamaica under the command of the self-serving Governor Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) to end her piratical career. On her ship, Morning Star, Morgan starts the voyage to Cutthroat Island.


The film also stars Maury Chaykin as John Reed, Stan Shaw as Mr. Glasspoole and Harris Yulin as "Black" Harry Adams.

Cutthroat Island has gone down in history as one of the biggest Box Office Bombs of all time; in the same league as the likes of The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, and Ishtar. It wasn't that the film failed to sell tickets. It earned $10 million in the United States market alone, the 108th most successful film of its year. But when your budget is closer to $115 million, do the math. The film's failure effectively led to the closure of Carolco Pictures (who went bankrupt six weeks before the film's release). The film is thus regarded as one of the last whose failure actually destroyed the studio that produced it. The film also killed the bankability of the pirate genre, which wasn't revived until Pirates of the Caribbean took off. Although it dented their careers at the time, Davis and Harlin both seem to have gotten on more or less okay in the long run. Screenwriter Robert King also managed to recover, having co-created The Good Wife.


This film provides examples of:

  • Action Dress Rip: Morgan pulls the skirt off her dress whilst being pursued by guards in Port Royal.
  • And Starring: The opening cast roll ends with "And Harris Yulin as Black Harry."
  • Antagonistic Governor: Governor Ainslee. He is a Smug Snake, and is a major player in the story in order to gain wealth and glory.
  • Beard of Evil: Dawg sports a white beard and mustache who also serves as the film's Big Bad.
  • Big Bad: Douglas "Dawg" Brown, Morgan Adams's uncle, is responsible for all of the danger in the film's plot.
  • Chain Pain: Snelgrave has a chain in the place of his hand. It proves to be his undoing, as he misses one of the heroes with it, and is taken to the depths with the anchor that it got tangled with.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Morgan and Shaw don't trust each other at all, and they have good reason for it.
  • Co-Dragons: Mr. Snelgrave and the unnamed bald First Mate are this to Dawg and act as his main henchmen, whether it be in carrying out his orders to kill someone, acting as reconnaissance (shown in both Spittlefield and later on the title island), or acting as the main officers on Dawg's ship, The Reaper, including overseeing battle preparation.
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: The Treasure Map to the titular island are located in the scalps of Morgan's father Harry and her uncles Richard and Mordechai. Dawg obtains the first piece after killing Richard, while Morgan gets the remaining two pieces from Harry and Mordechai.
  • Dope Slap: Repeatedly to resident Butt-Monkey William Shaw.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Just before the final battle with Dawg, some of the Morning Star crew disguise themselves as Royal Navy officers.
  • Flynning: Shaw does this at first, since he'd never previously learned how to do any serious fighting.
  • Evil Uncle: Dawg, a particular mean one.
  • Famous Last Words: Dawg tells Morgan "You planning to fight me with that little stick?" just before she uses said stick to fire a cannonball at Morgan, sending him out of the Reaper to his death.
  • Handsome Lech: Shaw plays his charm to his advantage to steal from rich women at the ball. He tries his wiles on Morgan, but she's a little too smart to swoon.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Trotter, near the end. "There's no future in the army for me." It's a bit of a weird one, as he's leaving the British military to become a pirate, so technically it's a Face–Heel Turn (from a law-abiding point of view).
  • High-Dive Escape: Morgan and Shaw dive off a cliff to escape from Dawg's men.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: It's kind of satisfying to see that chain-wielding bastard dragged down by the anchor.
  • Human Notepad: One-third of a treasure map is tattooed on the scalp of Morgan's father. After he gets killed at the beginning of the movie, she cuts it off of him and takes it with her, as he'd instructed while dying.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: After Harry is fatally wounded, he tells Morgan that the Morning Star and his crew now belong to her.
  • Ironic Echo: "Hey, I said I would take care of you, didn't I?"
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Morgan does this to a bounty hunter who is after her at the start of the movie. After bedding him, she steals the balls from his pistols.
  • Land in the Saddle: Geena Davis (not her stunt double) races through a building on the 2nd story and somersaults out a window, landing in the passenger seat of a speeding horse drawn carriage.
  • Large Ham:
    • Watch Frank Langella have a whale of a time as he chews the scenery with aplomb.
    • Patrick Malahide as the governor also counts, especially in scenes where he has to berate Trotter.
  • Last Request: In his dying wishes, Harry asks Morgan to shave his head, which includes the piece of the treasure map that he hid from Dawg.
  • Lured into a Trap: Reed leads Shaw to the British soldiers, telling him he's hid Morgan somewhere safe and will take him to her.
  • Made a Slave: "Doctor" Shaw is sold into slavery when he gets caught pickpocketing from ladies at the Governor's ball.
  • Made of Explodium:
    • Dawg's ship explodes spectacularly in the finale. Justified by all the black powder stored in it.
    • When Morgan drops the chandelier on the table at Mordachai place, a barrel (probably black powder) instantly catches fire and the whole frickin' place blows up. Then, about ten seconds later, Mr. Blair and a few Red Shirt show up to blow up the whole place a second time with 17th-century grenade launchers! Things keep blowing up for a minute, including some coffins and a well. With, you know, water in it.
  • The Medic: Shaw becomes the Morning Star's medic after Morgan buys him at Port Royal.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Lieutenant Trotter leads forces of the law in Jamaica.
  • The Mutiny: When Morgan pushes through the storm despite her ship starting to break up, the majority of the Morning Star crew revolts and sets her adrift.
  • Noisy Nature: A particularly jarring example. Among the ambient jungle noises on the small Caribbean island is a distinctly elephantine trumpeting. In the Caribbean.
  • Not the Fall That Kills You: Gravity seems to like Morgan enough to not kill her on multiple occasions.
  • Pirate Girl: Morgan
  • Powder Trail: In the bar, Shaw pulls the tip off a pirate's powder horn. He unbeknownst walks around the bar until he's close enough to the powder kegs, then Shaw lights it up.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "Bad Dawg."
  • Rank Up: After Harry's death, Morgan is promoted to Captain of the Morning Star.
  • Red Right Hand:
    • Dawg, the film's main villain, has a scar around his neck.
    • Snelgrave, one of Dawg's men, wields a chain on his amputated left arm as well as a glass eye.
  • Running Gag: Everyone who sees the map, which was tattooed on Morgan's dad scalp, asks if its pig leather.
  • Seadog Peg Leg: Harry has a wooden peg attached to his amputated right leg.
  • Serrated Blade of Pain: The main villain wields a highly intimidating serrated cutlass.
  • See You in Hell: At the beginning of the film, Dawg's crew asks Harry where his piece of the treasure map is located. Harry invokes the trope verbatim shortly before he drops the anchor attached to him.
  • Shed the Family Name: Dawg was once a member of the Adams family, but he changed his surname to "Brown" due to him being the family's resident Black Sheep.
  • Sibling Murder: Dawg murders his own siblings, including Harry's father, since their scalps contain the Dismantled MacGuffin to Cutthroat Island.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Morgan and Shaw only get along when they are about to jump each other. Give it five minutes, and they'll betray each other again.
  • Smug Snake. Governor Ainslee
  • Soft Water: Apparently falling off a cliff into the ocean just leaves you wet and not dead.
  • Spoiler Title: The track titles for the soundtrack album pretty much tell you the story of the movie.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Reed betrays Morgan and her crew when the Governor gives him the choice to give her up, or be hung as a pirate himself.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Explosions are abound. Every round seems to hit a barrel of black powder.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: The entire soundtrack by John Debney, but most especially the track Main Tile / Morgan's Ride.
  • Underwater Kiss: Morgan gives William a kiss whilst he's pinned behind some crates in the flooded hold to pass him air.
  • The Unfavorite: Morgan's grandfather left a piece of his map to Cutthroat Island to 3 of his 4 sons: Morgan's father, Mordachai, and Richard. He left Dawg out. Given what a sociopathic Jerkass he is it's not all that surprising.
  • Villain Ball: Governor Ainslee could load his own personal ship (A Man-of-war, which out-guns both pirate ships and whose crews loyalty is not in question) with his share of the gold and get out of there. Or he could hang out with an insane pirate, half of whose crew is loyal to their former captain. Who is still missing..
  • Waif-Fu: Morgan. Who at one stage picks up a guy one handed and throws him.
  • We Will Meet Again: After Morgan has Scully and the mutineers forced off of the Morning Star, Scully vows that she will pay what she's done.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: During the escape from Port Royal, the British Navy sees the pirates running away and, in a moment of stunning indiscretion, opens fire on the port, blowing up civilian buildings with reckless abandon (and not landing a single shot, either.
  • You Are in Command Now: With Harry dead, Morgan becomes the captain of the Morning Star and its crew.


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