19 June 2023

Riverina Rewind: When 'the boy from Wagga' took on the pirates in a box-office shocker

| Michelle Maddison and Chris Roe
Start the conversation
Pirate movie scene

The Boy From Wagga, Bill Kerr, hamming it up in The Pirate Movie. Photo: Supplied.

This week, something a little different from the Museum of the Riverina and a moment in cinema with a link to Wagga.

In 1982, The Pirate Movie was released worldwide. Filmed entirely on location in Australia (Melbourne and Sydney), the film starred young American actors Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol in the lead roles.

The idea for the musical was conceived by veteran Australian actor Ted Hamilton to capitalise on a resurgence in the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan and the star power of Atkins, who had filled out a loin cloth opposite Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon.

Kevin Kline was playing the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway, and would soon appear in a movie adaptation, and swashbuckling pirates were back in vogue.

READ ALSO Riverina Rewind: When Wagga joined Australia’s first ‘contingent’ and fought for Britain in ‘Soudan’

But what does this have to do with Wagga?

Believe it or not, The Pirate Movie starred our very own Boy from Wagga Wagga, Bill Kerr, as the “very model of a modern Major General”.

While many will remember Bill for his more serious roles, including in The Dam Busters, Gallipoli, Razorback and The Year of Living Dangerously, he also had considerable musical theatre experience.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1922 to Australian parents, Bill famously grew up in Wagga, where he flourished into an accomplished young actor.

After serving in the army during World War II, Bill moved to the UK, where his star steadily rose on radio, television and in film.

After returning to Australia in 1979, he was active on the Australian stage, performing to critical acclaim in My Fair Lady as Alfred Doolittle, so turning up in a Gilbert & Sullivan spoof wasn’t too much of a surprise, especially considering his comedic roots.

READ ALSO TEDxWagga Wagga is a chance to celebrate the region’s best ideas on a global stage

Rather than a straight retelling of the G&S classic, the movie was a tongue-in-cheek parody in which a modern ’80s girl is knocked unconscious at a pirate-themed local carnival and launches into a fantasy about being trapped in a world full of pirates. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities for Christopher Atkins to prance about without a shirt!

Reviews were beyond terrible and the movie bombed at the box office.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film languishes at a lowly 9 per cent, with one critic declaring: “The film doesn’t work as either a musical or an adventure flick or a romance (it just doesn’t work). It’s packed with tedious, forgettable songs and overly cartoonish characters, along with corny jokes that might appeal to dim-witted children.” Ouch!

Pirate movie poster

A box-office flop, The Pirate Movie became a cult classic on VHS. Photo: Supplied.

The Pirate Movie is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson’s book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.

But in the end, The Pirate Movie got the last laugh and has gone on to become a cult classic, something that Bill reminisced fondly about during a visit to the museum in the early 2000s.

So sit back and enjoy this short clip. And turn the volume up!

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Riverina news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riverina stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.