TBT: Yellowbeard (1983)


This is one of those films that I watched so much as a kid that there is a screen-burn of it imprinted on my eyeballs. And Yellowbeard (1983) is also one of those films that in retrospect had REALLY decent costumes considering it was spoofing every pirate flick ever made with an ensemble cast that was entirely comprised of the most famous comedians and comic actors of the 1970s and 1980s. Seriously, the IMDB page reads like a who’s who of late-20th-century British and American comedy.

In short, there’s no legitimate reason why the costumes in Yellowbeard should be as good as they are, other than they were designed by Stephen Miles, who has worked on some of the best historical flicks in the last three decades. Yellowbeard appears to be his only head costume designer credit, however he’s worked on many Frock Flick favorites such as Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, The Madness of King George, and Cranford mainly as assistant designer and other assistant and supervisory roles. I find that interesting, because based on his body of work, he’s got the chops to be main designer. Maybe he just likes the background work better? Whatever the case, Yellowbeard is a solid example of how costume can work in a historical flick without resorting to dumbing it down for laffs.

I consider this the mark of a good frock flick: the whore is actually wearing all the appropriate layers under her stays. My bar isn’t very high, obviously.

Honestly, straight-up serious dramas do enough dumbing down of costuming for the entire genre of historical flicks. You’d think there would be a higher standard all around for historical dramas, but then again, if there were, we wouldn’t have this website. So, on that note…

Graham Chapman as Captain Yellowbeard.

Madeline Kahn as Betty, Yellowbeard’s love interest (in her mind, anyway). Nice stays.

A better shot of those stays.

Oh, and did I mention David Bowie is in this film? Because David Bowie is in this film.

Peter Bull in his last role, as Queen Anne.

Peter Cook and Beryl Reid as Lord and Lady Lambourn.

Susannah York as Lady Churchill (yes, THAT Lady Churchill).

Eric Idle as Commander Clement. Looking pretty fine in a that wig, gotta say.

The incomparable Marty Feldman, also in his last role, as Gilbert. And Peter Boyle as Moon.

I mean, Cheech and Chong are even in this film.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re in the mood for surrealist British comedy with an incomprehensibly extensive cast of famous people of the era, then definitely give this a watch.


Do you remember Yellowbeard too?


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

19 Responses

  1. Katie

    I love this as a minimum standard for historical costuming in a movie ‘the whore is wearing all the appropriate layers under her stays” May I propose that we call this ‘The Lorraine Test’?

  2. Angie Wilson

    I watched this movie once and found it really funny.

  3. Frannie Germeshausen

    Cheech and Chong make amazing-looking Spaniards. What a cast!

  4. Barb D

    I saw this in the theater when it first came out. I don’t remember much. Substances may have been involved. I guess I’ll have to watch it sober.

  5. mmcquown

    Oh, yes! I thought at the time that the costumes seemed far above average, but I was too busy laughing to take closer note.

  6. SarahV

    Madeleine Kahn! Be still my heart! That woman was a comedic goddess amongst us.

  7. Terry Towels

    I’ve been trying to find this movie. I saw it in the theater when it came out, but couldn’t remember the name or date. All I could remember was Marty Feldman. Thank you! And costumes!

  8. Damnitz

    I have to admit that I never believed that there would be a fan of that movie. I saw it last year. Even if the costumes were OK, I had the impression that many of the actors like John Cleese only appeared to help Chapman that the movie would be possible, which was in other regard mostly just not funny enough and was spoiled by the fact that many scenes were just too long and the jokes were running out of steam.
    It’s interesting to see how much work went into the film, noticing the different locations. As a fan of swashbuckler films I observed a massive change during the 1960s regarding the production of these films. Many productions from the US were mostly produced in studios, using even the very similar if not the same construction for the deck (even if the ship should be a lot bigger, when seen from a distance (mostly a very poor model which did not make any sense at all)). But since the Italians and Spanish captured the genre (as they did with the western and sandal film) they changed the look of the ships and harbours to “real” ships, although these “ships” were mostly looking ridiculous.
    Nevertheless I always had the feeling that the end of “Yellowbeard” with the scene in the ship’s cabin is the most funny thing in the whole film.

  9. Cat Maguire

    Always loved this film, and on re-watch, thought the costuming was better than average for this type of film…. Mu husband even made a yellow beard reference last night and was surprised I picked up on it… Geeks loving geeks…LOL. Love this film for its entertainment value….and David Bowie!