Sky Pirates

(aka Dakota Harris, Colin Eggleston, Australia, 1986)


“The Ark has been Raided and The Stone Romanced. Now Let the Real Adventure Begin”. The video slick for Sky Pirates – not to mention its alternative title of Dakota Harris – indicates blatantly enough the popular American successes of the ‘80s it is trying to emulate, albeit on a much smaller budget.


The adventure genre has always been an extremely elastic one, and Sky Pirates joins an international host of post-Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) projects drawing in an eclectic set of plot elements and atmospheric devices from the horror, thriller, war and romantic comedy genres (amongst others).


Alongside many ‘80s adventure films (whether about Indiana Jones, Biggles, Allan Quartermain or Buckaroo Banzai), Sky Pirates shares a jokey attitude towards heroism (John Hargreaves as Lt Harris climbs onto a plane wing while declaring he is afraid of heights); spectacular scenes of violence ranging from the brutal to the comic;al a nostalgic attitude towards old Hollywood values and stereotypes (Meredith Phillips plays a faintly discernible mixture of feisty Hawksian woman-in-uniform and sultry Hitchockian heroine); and a quasi-Nazi evil villain (Max Phipps) trying to get his hands on the “ultimate power” (perhaps an unconscious or veiled symbol for nuclear energy). A special touch of Mad Max-influenced Australian Gothic is added in the scene of Bill Hunter (lord of a punkish Central Australian community) playing Russian Roulette with Harris.


The story moves around a ground deal, on planes, trains, automobiles and boats, back and forth from Australia to Bora Bora. Discharged for military insubordination from the army (making him the archetypal, law-enforcing loner), Harris teams up with Melanie (Phillips) and tracks her father, a priest (Simon Chilvers) from the “Australian Institute of Theology” (?) who is on the trail of the separated pieces of a powerful mystical tablet.


At every turn Harris does battle with Savage (Phipps), who wants the tablet’s power – presumably, to rule the world. As in Raiders, the final climax momentarily unleashes the force of the tablet (burning Savage to a frazzle) in order to maintain a cosmic status quo: the tablet dormant below the earth, humans looking after their own business above. Harmony of the spheres!


Predictably, Sky Pirates suffers by comparison with Steven Spielberg’s adventure epics, given their kinetic direction (Colin Eggleston delivers little on the promise of his impressive 1978 Long Weekend) (1), vivid characterisation, lavish sets and special effects.


However, if we choose to see Sky Pirates in, say, the tradition of Italian exploitation cinema with its rip-offs of box-office formulae like that engendered by Raiders, then we can take an appropriately Surrealist delight in the pulp poetry of its sudden, arbitrary transitions (two characters simply die off-screen early on), cheap effects (a plane superimposed on a map signifies a journey), and erratic fluctuations in technique and style (including the bizarrely grotesque death of a cleaning woman down an elevator shaft, handled in the excessive manner of Dario Argento).


More particularly, one can see in the film’s crazy patchwork (scripted by “Ozploitation” veteran John D. Lamond [died 2018]) of myths and legends old and new – Easter Island statues, The Sea of Lost Ships, Aladdin’s Cave, the Bermuda Triangle, the Moai, the Titanic, the Kennedy assassination, the first moon walk, Ayer’s Rock – a spontaneous popular culture correlative to contemporaneous modernist masterworks like Raúl Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum (which shares with Sky Pirates, Spielberg’s and Lucas’ films that queasy fascination with the source of a primordial “secret power”).


Ultimately, Sky Pirates is not a particularly accomplished film in any conventional sense. But it is far from negligible as a ramshackle Pop Cinema curiosity, perfectly suited for the fragmentary viewing connoisseurship of the video/digital age.



1. Colin Eggleston died in 2002 as he was preparing a trilogy financed and set in Europe – and slated to feature Jean-Pierre Léaud as its enthusiastic star. I thank Eggleston’s son, Toby Reed, for this information.

© Adrian Martin February 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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