Before Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), pirate movies were considered to be box office poison and with good reason. High profile efforts like Yellowbeard (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and the most notorious of them all Cutthroat Island (1995) were financial flops. In 1983, Nate and Hayes attempted to fuse the sensibilities of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with the pirate genre to predictable critical scorn and lackluster box office returns. The movie is significant for two reasons: the screenplay was co-written by John Hughes and starred Tommy Lee Jones. Yes, the man responsible for classic 1980s teen movies like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) wrote a pirate movie. I remember when Nate and Hayes came out and the trailers made it look like a fun, action/adventure romp, but for some reason I never got around to seeing it. Decades later, I decided to check it out and see if it was as derivative as its reputation would suggest.
We meet Captain Bully Hayes (Tommy Lee Jones) and his crew hacking their way through a jungle not unlike the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This will be the first of a few nods to that film. They cross a dodgy looking rope bridge (that oddly anticipates Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom by a few months) and arrive in a village populated by spear-wielding natives. Hayes is a cocky and confident smuggler trading rifles for gold. Predictably, the deal goes bad and he barely escapes with his life in an exciting chase sequence only to be caught by Ben Pease (Max Phipps), a rival now working for the Spanish who charge him with treason. He is thrown into prison where he recounts the story of how he got there.
Hayes is taking a young missionary couple – Nathaniel (Michael O’Keefe) and Sophie (Jenny Seagrove) – to an island mission somewhere in the Pacific Ocean where they plan to get married and convert the local natives to Christianity. Hayes is smitten with Sophie who invests the money she inherited from her dead father in his “trading company” unbeknownst to Nate. Unfortunately, on their wedding day the mission is attacked by a ruthless gang of slave traders led by Pease. They burn the village to the ground, kidnap Sophie and leave Nate for dead. Hayes rescues him and together they devise a plan to rescue Sophie.
Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t have matinee idol good looks and this works in his favor as Bully Hayes. The actor’s rugged features are a good match for his character. The actor tempers his trademark stoicism with a mischievous roguish glint in his eye. Hayes may have disreputable standing, but meeting Sophie awakens good tendencies within him. Jones is a physical actor and he uses that quality effectively in Nate and Hayes to play a man of action. The actor is also smart enough to realize that he’s starring in a pulpy genre movie and adjusts his approach accordingly by playing Hayes as an unrepentant adventurer as he says at one point, “I never flew the skull and crossbones, but I have sought pleasure and profit all my life at sea without regard for any man’s law.”
Michael O’Keefe plays Nate, the uptight missionary who learns to loosen up once he hangs out with Hayes and his crew. It’s a thankless role that the actor commits to fully, but doesn’t succumb to simple caricature. Nate isn’t an idiot; he’s just naïve and quickly learns a thing or two about the world under Hayes’ guidance. Jones and O’Keefe play well off each other, their characters start off loathing each other and then bond over confronting a common foe and achieving the same goal. At times, it looks like the two actors are having a blast playing heroes in a pulpy action/adventure movie in the way they exchange good-natured looks while pursuing the bad guys.
The casting of Hayes’ crew is spot-on. They really do look like a group of grungy buccaneers out for a good time and to make some money, not above killing anybody that gets in their way. Ferdinand Fairfax’s direction and Tony Imi’s cinematography is a little on the flat side, giving Nate and Hayes a made-for-television quality with the occasional cinematic flourishes, which is a shame because the pirate movie is a genre crying out for flashy style as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise demonstrate so amply.
David Odell wrote a screenplay entitled Savage Islands, which he based on an actual Pacific pirate in the 19th century. Jeffrey Katzenberg greenlighted the film over at Paramount Pictures with Tommy Lee Jones cast as the pirate. According to Odell, as they were in pre-production building ships, director Ferdinand Fairfax wasn’t happy with the ending of the script. Odell rewrote it several times but Fairfax “couldn’t decide what he wanted.” John Hughes owed the studio a commitment and they sent him a copy of the script. He did a rewrite in three weeks, transforming a 105-page script into a 250-page one, and then left the project. A week before principal photography began the filmmakers were not satisfied with Hughes’ revisions and, according to Odell, tossed them out. Odell handed in another draft and went off to work on Supergirl (1984). The filmmakers were still unhappy with the third act and Fairfax rewrote it himself.
Nate and Hayes received mostly negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it one out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is a loud, confusing, pointless mess that never seems to make up its mind whether to be a farce of an adventure.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Ferdinand Fairfax, the director, allows the actors to strain for comic effects that aren’t there.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas felt that the movie “could easily have been terrific … But Nate and Hayes drowns in excessive violence and Trevor Jones’ loud, bombastic score.”
At the end of the day, Nate and Hayes starts off as an extended riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark and then mutates into a pirate movie that plugs in all the right elements: fist fights, gun battles, chases, swordfights, angry natives, a lovely damsel in distress, dastardly villains, and loveable rogues – what more could you want? Nate and Hayes is saved from being simply another genre exercise by Jones’ appealing performance. The obvious comparisons to Indiana Jones probably hurt the movie’s commercial prospects, but over time it has aged surprisingly well, coming across as a lean, swashbuckler as opposed to the unnecessarily overstuffed, plot-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Helford, Ross. “A Conversation with David Odell.”