01. October 2005 · Comments Off on Terry and the Pirate Movie · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not, Military, That's Entertainment!

OK, Ok, I probably will go to see Serenity, and maybe The Corpse Bride, in the near future, should I have a couple of free days between temp assignments. (Yes, still job-hunting, still temping— this month at a corporate behemoth so huge that it has— I kid you not— a Starbucks concession at each end of the building. It’s even more boring than the overnight TV boardshift, and the daily commute is a killer; I hate it already, thanks for asking – but it is a paycheck)

With Hollywood on this graphic novel/nostalgia/action flick/remake kick, I continue to be ever more amazed that the great adventure comic strip, Terry and the Pirates hasn’t gone all big-screen on us in the last couple of years. Sure, sure, there was a brief movie-serial version, as well as a radio show, at the very height of it’s popularity during WWII, but I’ve always believed that Terry had the potential to knock the socks off Indiana Jones as far as cliff-hanging, non-stop adventure in exotic places, featuring a studly two-fisted hero, and gorgeous, strong-minded women of occasionally ambivalent moral principles. Throw in the bright teen-aged kid sidekick— the Terry of name, and add lashings of lost gold mines, Chinese warlords and freedom fighters, mercenaries of every nationality, colonial officialdom whiling away the afternoon on the verandah with a gin sling and the ceiling fan whirring overhead, pilots and sailors, thieves and bratty kidnapped children, freelance relief workers, glamorous globe-trotting debutants, and the distant rumble of Japanese expansionism across the Far East – oh, what Stephen Spielberg could make of this, if he hadn’t gone all high-toned and meaningful on us, to lofty to meddle with good-humored intrigue, glamour and adventure.

That was always Milton Caniffs’ thing; that and a drop-dead wonderful artistic sensibility. I remember that Steve Canyon, his follow-on strip to Terry & The Pirates was still being carried by the LA Times when I was in grade school. The sheer visual style of that strip, meticulously detailed, complex, almost cinematic, was artistically the most eye-catching thing in the color supplements on Sunday, even though I couldn’t force myself to be interested in the characters and plots. It wasn’t a kid’s comic, I sensed— it was something for grownups— and by the time I would have taken an interest in it, Steve Canyon was gone from the papers. The hero was a military pilot, and like the original GI Joe doll, and like much else military and of the cold-war era, fell out of general favor during the Vietnam War.

I can’t say I discovered Caniff’s most famous cartoon predecessor to Steve Canyon when doing historical research in the CSUN newspaper archives, since I already knew of it: Mom had been a fan, like just about every kid in the late Thirties, and there were excerpts in various books about the comics, or media that I had run across, one way or the other, but when I started my history project, I had a chance to read the whole run of Terry, over a decade’s worth of daily newspapers, starting in 1935. It was cartoonish and kind of sketchy, early on, but in about 1938 or so, Caniff hit an artistic stride and it just got better and better. The Dragon Lady, the beautiful Eurasian gang-leader turned freedom fighter— was she an ally? Sometimes she was, and there was this love-hate thing she had going on with the ostensible hero, soldier of fortune Pat Ryan. And then there was the mysterious torch singer, Burma, a blond bombshell and fugitive from the law — for what was never made quite clear, but her signature tune was the St. Louis Blues. Then there was the lovely Normandie, hounded by bossy relatives into marrying someone other than Pat, and the dashing Raven Sherman, fearless doer of good deeds in the dark world of war-torn China. Raven earned a small footnote in the history of the comics for being a major character and dying in the line of duty, thrown off the back of a truck during a hairbreadth escape. (The daily panel of this is entirely wordless.) Fans turned east for a moment of silence and mourned, and Caniff got black-edged notes on the anniversary for years afterwards.

The death of a fictional character occurred a bare two months before an event in real time that shook up the real, and the created world— the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Curiously enough, Terry had fans in Japan during the 1930ies, and in deference to American neutrality, Japanese forces were referred to only as “the invaders” up until that point, even though Caniff’s natural sympathies were with the long-suffering Chinese nationals. After Pearl Harbor, all neutralities were off. The character of Pat Ryan shifted off-screen; Mom always said that Caniff had written him into Singapore in early 1942, and the real-life fall of the city put Pat into a corner, while Terry— the kid who had grown up over the last six years of the series— joined the Army Air Corps and took center stage as far as adventure and romance was concerned. Caniff had always done a lot of research for the strip, and with a military angle, he acquired even more. Like a proto-blogger, he took tips, suggestions and corrections, and carefully read what news coverage of the Far East generally was available. One account has it that he was questioned once by the FBI, because a story-line he had concocted for the Terry strip— suggested by a mention in an obscure newspaper story— came altogether too close to an actual classified wartime operation.

The difficulty of doing a proper Terry movie is— aside from the intellectual rights to it all— is the one that would send the PC set screaming in the opposite direction. That is, the fact that some of the major Chinese characters, besides the Dragon Lady herself, would just not past muster today, not without changing them beyond recognition or eliminating them entirely. Big Stoop, the mute and fearless giant might be able to pass muster, but the comic relief, fractured- English-speaking cook and houseboy Connie – oh, dear, how to turn that 1930ies pigs’ ear stereotype into a proper 21st century politically correct silk purse? That would be a challenge to whoever would want to take it on – and seeing how Hollywood is doing with portraying our enemies in this war, I would assume it is one they are not up to accepting.

Pity— Terry and the Pirates would make a very nice movie. I’d pay money and go to it in the theater, which is more than I can say for most of the drek out there, these days.

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