The most intriguing factoid to emerge from “Pirate Tales” is that these guys weren’t all bad. In fact, they weren’t all guys. The likes of Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and Grace O’Malley looted and pillaged between the 16th and 18th centuries, sure, but their conquests also helped lead to the establishment of trading companies and shifted the balance of power among the world’s nations.
In other words, they may have been bloodthirsty, lawless goons, but they were evidently also misunderstood social crusaders. The eye patches? Oh, they were just a fashion statement, silly!
Daltrey serves as our very own pirate storyteller, portraying William Dampier, a 17th-century pirate who left behind a detailed journal that makes him something of an Anne Frank of the savage-beast set. He gets to dress in all sorts of pirate get-ups, whip swords and say stuff like, “The pirates were very democratic, with their own Bill of Rights!”
We are led through a virtual who’s who of seagoing murderous rampagers, bolstered by illustrations, voiceovers, running commentary from pirate historians (we can only imagine what social outcasts these folks are) and, of course, the invariable slew of battle reenactments from 1580 onward.
Bottom line: These were not nice people. Henry Morgan and his men would do something they called “wolding,” a form of torture in which they tied a thin cord around a victim’s head and then tightened it until he spilled the beans. They would rape and hang children. After four hours of this, even watching the Pittsburgh Pirates play baseball seems unsavory.
Writer-director Kevin McCarey pulls off an intelligent, densely detailed documentary/dramatization that’s too heavy on the re-creations and more than a bit too long — even spread out over two weeks. Scholarly though this may be, pirates just aren’t that interesting. Besides, if we want to see vigilantes in action that badly, most any convenience store will do.