1968’s Blackbeard’s Ghost is an all-ages comedy based on a 1965 Ben Stahl novel which stars Peter Ustinov, Dean Jones, and Suzanne Pleshette. Robert Stevenson directed the film which A Walt Disney Production released on February 8, 1968; the 250th anniversary of the 1718 death of the real-life Blackbeard the Pirate (Edward Thatch aka Edward Teach).
Blackbeard’s Ghost tells the story of Godolphin College’s new track coach Steve Walker (Dean Jones) who arrives in Goldolphin, Maryland to coach a decrepit team. There, he finds an evil gangster named Silky Seymour (Joby Baker) trying his best to swindle Blackbeard’s descendants, known as the Daughters of the Buccaneers, out of their inn.
The beautiful and single Professor Jo Anne Baker (Suzanne Pleshette) tries to help the Daughters, and when Steve spots Jo Anne, he falls for her. Things are complicated when Steve accidentally conjures up Blackbeard’s (Peter Ustinov ) ghost; a ghost only he can see and hear.
Steve finds the only way to get rid of Blackbeard is to break the curse the pirate’s wife, Aldetha, placed on him a couple of centuries earlier. To do that, Steve, Blackbeard, and Jo Anne must win a track meet, defeat Silky Seymour, and save the Daughters of the Buccaneers from their mortgage.
Blackbeard’s Ghost is the second of three Disney pairings with Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette; the first being The Ugly Dachshund (1966), and the last, The Shaggy D.A. (1976).
Dean Jones does an excellent job playing the good-natured coach with principle. He never wants his team to cheat to win, and even when Blackbeard does cheat, Jones’ character quits for what he believes in. Jones is the perfect straight man to Peter Ustinov’s Blackbeard. He exudes the forthright nature that Walt Disney likes in his actors on the big screen. His chemistry with Suzanne Pleshette is always wonderful.
Suzanne Pleshette is a great straight woman in her own right. While many might remember her more for her six years on The Bob Newhart Show, Pleshette is a joy to watch in any role she plays. As Professor Jo Anne Baker, she easily holds her own opposite any actor in this film; even when she’s observing Jones act with an invisible ghost. She and Jones have such a great rapport, it’s easy to see why Disney paired them in a number of films.
Joby Baker plays Silky Seymour; your typical mustache-twirling bad guy of the day, even decked out in all black. Baker does his best with the part given. Even though his character is one dimensional, he manages to deliver a pretty good portrayal of an evil mobster while keeping the mood fairly light. This is a Disney family comedy after all.
The real star of this film is Peter Ustinov as Blackbeard. Known for the many films like Spartacus and Billy Budd, Ustinov steals the show. He is to Blackbeard what Johnny Depp will be to Captain Jack Sparrow in future Disney films. Both men so embody their character and the spirit of the film, that you can’t imagine anyone else portraying the character. Ustinov’s witty and playful in this film—even vulnerable at times—while still maintaining all the bad traits of a Disney anti-hero. Dressed in that awesomely-made pirate outfit, you never think you’re watching anyone but Blackbeard himself.
The film itself runs 106 minutes. It’s a well-paced flick for the whole family that you’d expect from Disney. I will say this film seems a bit more adult oriented than kid oriented. In fact, there aren’t any children in the film that I can recall. The film takes place at a coastal college town. However, kids will enjoy Blackbeard’s antics enough to keep them entertained. Although the character is an alcoholic, the seriousness of that is downplayed in this film.
I will say that for a 50 year old film, the special effects hold up really well. Sure there are moments when the green screen use is evident, and outdated. However, Blackbeard driving the car through town, the driverless motorcycle bit, and slap stick casino fight are an excellent use of special effects that holds up today. The true highlight in this film takes place at the Broxton Relay track meet. The invisible Blackbeard picks up a Godolphin College pole vaulter as he vaults. Ha runs with Gudger Larkin in the relay, and manages to throw objects great distances for the team. These effects are flawless in their execution for the day.
The ending, of course, is a true Disney fairytale ending, and we know how they all end; the good guys win, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. However, knowing that doesn’t tarnish from the joy the film brings. It is the perfect ending to this film.
End of the day, Blackbeard’s Ghost is a Disney gem that is as enjoyable today as it was 50 years ago when it was released. MHM gives this film a High Five for the whole family! Watch it today.