Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant likes Nate and Hayes knowing that nobody else seems to. Friends working in the trailer business in 1983 told me it was a dog; when it reached the theaters reviewers were unimpressed. I think I was given a flat VHS around 1985, with a bunch of other tapes someone didn't want. The movie was violent but not too gross (outside of a few decapitated heads) so I was allowed to show it to the kids. We liked the straightforward storytelling, the music and the actors, and it became a family favorite.
Today Nate and Hayes shows its weaknesses but I maintain that it's still a good movie and a great pirate picture, undemanding adventure stuff. The script is no gem but a few bright moments shine through, and the spirit of play-acting can be infectious. It's quite a bit like those old Burt Lancaster sweat & muscle adventure movies from the early 1950s - lots of running, jumping and clobbering bad guys with blunt instruments.
Captured and sentenced to death by colonial Spaniards, "Bully" Hayes (Tommy Lee Jones) recounts his adventures as a South Seas freebooter to a journalist. Hayes used to be partnered with Ben Pease (Max Phipps) until Pease became a "blackbirder" (slave trader) and blamed his crimes on Bully. Bully delivers young missionary Nathaniel (Michael O'Keefe) and his bride-to-be Sophie (Jenny Seagrove) to his parents' mission, but returns with the intention of wooing the bride for himself. Instead he finds that Ben has raided the island, enslaved its people and kidnapped Sophie. Bully finds young Nathaniel marooned on a reef in the middle of nowhere, and the two set out to free Sophie and put an end to Ben Pease's piracy.
In Byron Haskin's His Majesty O'Keefe Burt Lancaster's adventurer starts a private South Seas empire by defeating a local villain, the loutish Bully Hayes. William Henry Hayes was a real 19th century pirate born in Ohio who started with smuggling, did some slave trading work and also filibustered -- a fancy name for using armed force to seize or region for profit or political gain. Nate and Hayes rethinks Bully as a romantic rogue in the Errol Flynn mold. His reputation as a slaver is a slur and a lie, although he runs plenty of other illegal scams. The movie is an attempt to re-launch the pirate picture after a long absence and many failures; Savant thinks this one works at a juvenile action level unappreciated in 1983. It's true, by the time the last act comes up the movie has regressed into a series of action scenes. Kids love that.
Tommy Lee Jones is a great Bully Hayes. Re-dubbing has given him a few unwelcome 007-like quips but otherwise he's a charming character who shows good humor as well as a strong romantic bent for the beautiful leading lady, Jenny Seagrove's Sophie. Sophie is betrothed to one man but clearly pines for another and the undeveloped triangle becomes something of a Saturday matinee version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Although Bully was a-fixin' to steal Sophie outright, the two competitors soon adopt an old-fashioned truce: First rescue Sophie, and then let her decide which one she wants. Yes, the movie is fundamentally as simpleminded as the wonderful old Republic thriller Fair Wind to Java with Fred MacMurray as an adventurer sailor. Does every movie have to have a cynical world outlook?
The production design is simple and elegant, and the actual South Seas locations make for beautiful and relaxing vistas. For its last act the movie introduces an iron-plated German gunboat as a plaything for the cartoonish Count Von Rittenberg (Grant Tilly). As Bully has supposedly emasculated Ben Pease at some point in the past, the ship's big cannon becomes an, uh, compensating device. Pease has the best lines while happily turning Sophie over for a sacrificial roasting, or giving the Count grief for his numbskull mistakes in battle. Naturally, Bully's pirates save the day with swordsmanship and old-fashioned moxie.
Although produced by Paramount with a script assist from John Hughes of Pretty in Pink fame, Nate and Hayes is basically a New Zealand production. As such it has a refreshingly non-P.C. attitude. The dangerous natives are savages through and through, and there are no 'diversified' positive role model characters of the kind that clog up modern genre pictures. Adventurers like Bully and knaves like Ben Pease are just small-time operators in an area where Spanish and German Imperialists are competing for power and influence. When the queen of a hostile tribe announces her plan to double cross our heroes, Bully's first mate Mr. Blake (Bruce Allpress) notes that European business practices (cheating, double-dealing) have spoiled these simple people, who now have no qualms about taking Bully's goods while trying to chop off his head in the bargain. There's a strong influence of Indiana Jones in the many chases, frightening booby traps and gruesome killings. The action-oriented dialogue is strictly matinee stuff: Supposedly dead Sophie screams and runs away, leaving a startled Ben Pease to remark: "You just can't trust a woman, even to stay dead!"
Michael O'Keefe is good in some scenes, weak in others and in general doesn't quite hold up his end of the triangle. We don't believe he's much of a missionary but his conversion to seeking piratical vengeance is believable enough. For every good dialogue exchange there's a clunker line reading or an insipid smile. If he weren't the Luke Skywalker substitute, Michael could just get himself killed and leave the field open to Tommy Lee. Previously seen as the beautiful Marina in Local Hero, Ms. Seagrove is a vision with clear eyes and a pleasant charm, just the dreamy partner to have on a South Seas adventure. She plays an excellent damsel in distress and puts up a good fight when necessary. Only when the action finally runs out of fresh moves near the end does it look like she's playing party games. The finale is a not-too-creative lift of the old rescued-from-the-gallows gag.
Paramount's DVD of Nate and Hayes is a plain-wrap item with a beautiful enhanced transfer. Audio is clear for Trevor Jones' beautiful score, including a stirring pirate flourish that gets repeated a few times too often. Cinematographer Tony Imi's camera work and the direction of Ferdinand Fairfax (Danger UXB) are fine, with only a scene or two that rely too heavily on close-ups.
There are no extras. Nate and Hayes may have a poor reputation in the states, but in the present flurry around Pirates of the Caribbean, it's an immensely enjoyable action & romance title.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nate and Hayes rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (English 2.0, French mono)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 8, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson