Nate and Hayes (1983)
Dir. by Ferdinand Fairfax
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Michael O’Keefe and Max Phipps
Nate Williamson, a young Christian missionary, is traveling with his fiancée Sophie to his new post in the South Pacific. When the mission is attacked by slavers and Sophie kidnapped, Nate teams up with the ship captain who ferried them to the island, a disreputable pirate named Bully Hayes, in order to rescue her. In the process, they run afoul of the forces of Imperial Germany, who are attempting to make an alliance with the native inhabitants of the region.
I have absolutely zero recollection of the first time that I saw this movie. I’m assuming it was something my parents rented, as it’s a little too obscure for the basic cable I was watching at the time (we didn’t have HBO or anything until I was in high school). However, I do know that we bought our VHS copy of it from the local video store, Video Junction, when they went out of business in 1998. A good number of the less-known films from this project so far came from that particular sale. It was unavailable on DVD for ages, so I probably hadn’t seen it in almost 20 years before this viewing.
As discussed a couple time so far on this project, the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of those watershed events in the history of cinema. Like Star Wars before it and Die Hard later in the decade, it seemed like every production company in Hollywood suddenly had its own swashbuckling adventure movie in production. For Nate and Hayes, they tried a different time period than a lot of the other Raiders clones. It’s a pirate movie, but pirates of the South Seas in the 1870s rather than the more familiar Caribbean pirates.
Speaking of which, while this movie fails at being an Indiana Jones ripoff, it actually manages to play like a Pirates of the Caribbean ripoff instead, albeit one that came out twenty years before the movie it’s copying. It’s got almost the exact same plot structure: a naïve young man has to team up with an older, more worldly pirate to rescue his loved one from the pirate’s sworn rival. The young man is initially hostile to pirates, but after several adventures with his impromptu mentor, including a visit to a rowdy pirate port, he ends up becoming one himself. At the end, the pirate is captured by the authorities, but is rescued from his execution by the young man, now very much a swashbuckler himself.
Now, that’s not to say that it’s a good pirate movie, either. Sure, the movie definitely has its moments. Tommy Lee Jones is actually pretty fun as Bully Hayes, but he and his rival (played by Max Phipps) seem to be the only ones not just going through the motions in a movie that has surprisingly little actual swashbuckling in it.
The best sequences are the bookends at the beginning and end of the movie. The former is the sequence that’s most clearly taken from Raiders, as Bully and his crew trek into the middle of the jungle before attempting to sell guns to the island’s natives. The deal goes south, and Bully and company end up having to run for their lives, including a scene on a collapsing rope bridge that actually beat Temple of Doom to it by a year. The ending, of course, is the aforementioned escape from hanging, with Nate disguised as the reverend administering last rites, and his wife Sophie as a pistol-packing nun.
The rest of the movie largely consists of a lot of banter and misunderstanding between Nate and Hayes that the writers obviously intended to be funny, but which mostly falls pretty flat. There’s a subplot involving the German attempt to build a base for its new ironclad vessels that is a lot smaller than I remember, and ends a lot more perfunctorily.
The South Pacific location also opens the movie up to a major source of criticism that the first Indiana Jones movie mostly manages to sidestep: the portrayal of its non-white characters. Even the most clearly “good” character, the missionary Nate, still has a very patronizing attitude towards the indigenous people he encounters, who are portrayed as children in need of instruction (one even refers to the elderly heads of the mission as “Big Man God and Momma Jesus Christ”).
The villainous tribes fair even worse. The female leader of the group that Hayes attempts to sell guns to is treacherous and greedy, and gleefully shoots one of her own people to test out the rifles. And the king of the island that the Germans are attempting to buy (by offering severed and shrunken heads) rebuffs their attempts until they offer him Sophie for use as a human sacrifice.
At one point, Nate is allowed a righteous speech against slavery, but Hayes stops him with an equivalent of “now’s not the time”, and the subject is never broached again, despite the multiple people other than Sophie that were abducted and sold by the villain Pease. It doesn’t help knowing that the real Bully Hayes whom Jones’s character was based on actually was the human trafficking blackbirder that the movie character denies being.
This movie has a small cult following, and it’s one that I remember enjoying back in the 90s. While I definitely found it to have its moments this time around, I couldn’t help but notice all of the significant flaws this time around. It definitely doesn’t help the narrative of pirate movies being box office poison pre-Pirates, as the movie totally bombed when it was released. The setting is pretty unique for a pirate movie, however, and if they could punch up some of the action and remove some of the negative stereotypes it could make for an interesting remake at some point.
-Nate and Hayes was released as Savage Islands everywhere but the US, in case any non-American readers are confused by the title.
-The movie was actually filmed on location, and was one of the first New Zealand-produced movies to get released in the United States, well before the breakout of NZ cinema in the 90s with The Piano and Heavenly Creatures.
-Seriously, Tommy Lee Jones with a beard and full head of hair just seems wrong to me. I’m so used to his later career roles as the grizzled veteran that seeing him young is just a little incongruous to me. It’s like Patrick Stewart with a wig on, or Wilford Brimley without his mustache.