Pirates of the Caribbean

I have been vilified—though not by anyone sensible—for saying that Daredevil is the best superhero movie ever made.[1] So I am rather reluctant to write this piece. Could my reputation as a vitriolic curmudgeon survive my saying that Pirates of the Caribbean was the best movie ever?

I have never been to Disneyland. I can however, think of much worse things to base action movies on than popular theme-park rides. Thousand page long linguistically inspired three volume novels, to take a random example. Theme park rides and action movies have a good deal in common: both are basically sequences of thrilling set pieces between which the viewer is propelled at break neck speed whether he likes it or not. Pirates of Caribbean appears to have taken some of the theme-park tableaux and come up with a plot to string them together.

This approach is particularly well suited to the pirate theme. Piracy is much more about imagery than narrative. Filmmakers and illustrators love to draw pictures of pirates: the jolly roger on the horizon, the division of the spoils on the beach, walking the plank. But what do these wonderfully romantic characters actually do? Chase down a ship; steal its cargo; live a wild life on the proceeds; chase down another ship, repeat until hanged. Not actually very interesting. Treasure Island, the best pirate story ever written[2] is set in the murky aftermath of a pirate voyage: no-one actually does any pirating. Every one knows Howard Pyle's pirate illustrations, which probably did more to define the pirate ethos than any other single work but, who ever read the story they originally illustrated? Douglas Fairbanks quintessential Black Pirate is little more than a sequence of piratical set-pieces, a moving pastiche of a Pyl picture book with almost no pretense at having plot. A silent film can get away with this kind of thing: a modern film can't.

To it's credit, Pirates of the Caribbean manages to take much of what we expect from pirates—swashbuckling rigging swinging, sinister people who say 'Ahaar' with a reasonably straight face, boarding actions, kidnappings, maroonings—and squeeze them into a movie which makes sense. (For sufficiently low values of sense.) Good Wil Turner is the foundling son of a pirate. He loves Elizabeth Swann, the governor's daughter. Jack Sparrow is a pirate. He lost his ship to Barbossa, who is also a pirate. Wil's father was on Barbossa's ship. Sparrow wants revenge on Barbossa for marooning him. Barbossa kidnaps Elizabeth in mistake for Wil. Wil wants to rescues Elizabeth from Barbossa. Barbossa wants to kidnap Wil because he needs his father's blood to lift a curse. Norrington loves Elizabeth. Elizabeth pretends to love Norringtton. Everyone chases everyone else around the Caribbean. They live happily ever after.

Wil is to some extent looking for his dead father. He is disappointed to find out that his father was a pirate. So, when he discovers that, although he was a pirate, he was nevertheless an honorable pirate, Wil does to some extent experience a 'therapy' moment. But, despite being pulled out of the sea as a foundling in the opening moments of the film, he makes no serious attempt to turn into the Hero With a Thousand Faces. At no time does anyone assert that you should always follow your heart and that you can do anything if you try. For this, if nothing else, much thanks.

There were times when I thought that the film was going to collapse under its own weight: it became too much about itself, about Sparrow and the curse, and not enough about…well…just pirates. But three hours of people in ear rings saying 'aha!' to parrots would not have been much of a movie. Perhaps the idea of pirates is so elusive that you can actually capture it better in a fairground ride than on the screen. .

 

I went into the film having resolved not to allow my enjoyment to be spoiled by any historical anachronisms I happened to spot. In fact I spent more time being surprised by the film's authenticity than annoyed by its silliness. It was of course very silly indeed, but it was silliness being executed by someone who had taken the trouble to research the setting which he was ignoring.

Examples:

1: When Sparrow bribes the harbormaster, he chucks down a handful of coins that look very much as if they might really be Pieces of Eight.

2: The action starts in one real place, Port Royal, and shifts to another real place, Tortuga, which really was pirate stronghold. Okay, I wouldn't have represented Port Royal as a respectable English colonial outpost: I like the imagery of it as the Wickedest City in Christendom; and I imagine Tortuga more as a buccaneer encampment than a seventeenth century underworld, but….but that's not really the point, is it?

3: The practice of marooning was depicted in all its authentic historical sadism. Robert Louis Stevenson gives us the idea that pirates exiled their foes to more or less fertile islands: Pirates of the Caribbean shows them putting people ashore with no water and giving them a gun with a single bullet with which to shoot themselves. Jack escaped from his island and kept his single bullet in order to shoot Barbossa, who marooned him: a cool image which sounds as if it should have a historical antecedent but probably doesn't

4: Where Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks are content to represent sea battles as montages of ships firing cannons at each other, these pirates say things like 'We have a lower draught than them, let's make for the shallows': not a text book on naval tactics, I grant you, but it has some point of connection with the way a sea battle might actually have happened.

5: The 'cursed treasure', is a blatant mcguffin--Barbossa's pirates need to find every piece of the gold they stole in order to lift their curse, and the last piece is, of course, in Wil's possession. But it connects plausibly well with 'real' pirate lore: it's the 'treasure of Cortez' and it has brought down the vengeance of the Aztecs 'heathenish gods' on the people who stole it.

6: Jack and Elizabeth are made to walk the plank at one point. Even when I was a kid, the idea of 'walking the plank' as a means of execution made no sense to me. Why was it crueler than just throwing you overboard? Why would the victim walk, rather than just being thrown in the sea—what did he have to lose? It isn't in Johnson-Defoe's History of the Pirates which is most nearly contemporary source of pirate lore which we have. It isn't in Treasure Island. It may not be in anything earlier than Peter Pan. And do you know what? I didn't mind at all.[3]

Does authenticity matter in this kind of movie? Actually, yes. The outrageousness of Johnny Deep's character is such that he needs a basically believable world to interact with. Elizabeth and Governor Swann are broadly believable characters; most of he English red-coats are more or less plausible and more or less competent. Jack stirs up the world, but we feel there is a real world there to be stirred.

 

The film's big problem was that it lacked a really good villain. Wil is the complete and utter goodie, who ends up becoming a pirate for purely noble reasons. He is a swashbuckler, the default Hollywood pirate from Douglas Fairbanks onwards. (He borrowed his pencil moustache from Westley in the Princess Bride, who in turn got it from Errol Flynn. This is a little unfortunate, because it reminded me rather forcibly how very inferior the sword-play in Pirates of the Caribbean is to that in Princess Bride—although not being able to live up to the official Greatest Swordfight Ever Filmed is nothing to be very ashamed of.) His historical archetype is Bartholomew Roberts.

By the way: is Orlando Bloom's performance as Wil Turner the only time on record when the actor's name is more far fetched than the character's?[4]

Wil is contrasted with Sparrow, the depraved-satanic-reveling-in-his-own-evil role so successfully played by Blackbeard in 'real' life. Sparrow, (and presumably the Disneyland waxwork he's based on) is pretty obviously based on the classic 17th century woodcut of Blackbeard. Except that, after the first few scenes it becomes clear that Sparrow has a heart of gold: you can't imagine him doing anything really evil. (Admittedly, according to some people Blackbeard himself never committed any actual atrocity either: he created a persona and lived on his reputation.) The Wil / Sparrow team isn't so much 'marriage of convenience between hero and depraved villain' but 'amusing paring of heroic stuffed shirt with slightly naughty rogue.' Johnny Deep's performance is, of course, absolutely wonderful, although one does wonder where he found that accent: do Yanks really imagine Brits sounding like Australians with bad colds? His lines carry the movie, when they could have so easily ruined it. But still, the Sparrow character isn't really about anything. You can't imagine him really running a ship or organizing a raid. He's the classic movie trickster, aware that he's in a film and wondering whether it's the one he was meant to be in.

You have Norrington the swarve Redcoat officer to whom our heroine is supposed to be making a marriage of convenience, before finding that she has two separate piratical suitors. But Norrington isn't up to the villain role—he is a thoroughly decent chap who you feel sorry for, and who does the decent thing in the end. (Would the movie have been helped if he had been a Titanic style rotter, we ask ourselves?)

Finally, we have Barbossa, the nominal villain of the piece: the classic literary pirate, Captain Hook out of Bar-b-queue John Silver who says 'A-har' and 'Belay that'. But he's relatively charming, and he seems to treat his crew well, and, most importantly, he is suffering from a curse which cannot help but make us feel a little bit sorry for him, even though we are routing for Sparrow and Wil.

So, despite two sets of pirates and a crew of redcoats, we don't really have any single character who we can thoroughly hate —and this makes some of the fights feel complex, unstructured and aimless. Wait a minute—what are we fighting about again?

 

This may be another built in problem with pirate genre. Pirates are nominally bad-guys, but they are cool. Or rather, they are cool because they are evil. The reason we are watching the movie or reading the book is that we want to be pirates. So the film-makers indulge us, and make the pirates the goodies, more or less: but that takes away the very thing that made them so appealing in the first place. Stevenson makes a good job of portraying his pirates as vulgar and evil, and we are genuinely afraid of Billy Bones and Blind Pugh, but we never quite believe that Silver is a hellbound psycho. (This may be why I'll read he opening section of Treasure Island over and over, but often lose interest after the apple barrel.) And since Gilbert and Sullivan, at least, pirates have become romantic Robin Hoods, whose vile trade sometimes involves the crime of stealing, but who are nonetheless not altogether void of feeling. The very fact that we can envisage a cute pirate like Captain Pugwash shows how debased the imagery has become: we could hardly imagine a kids cartoon about, say, cure hells angels or cute serial killer.

And yet this is what pirates really were: torturers, cannibals, rapists, people who'd cut themselves off from human society and who sincerely believed in hell and sincerely believed that they were going there. We want to be pirates, sure, but not just because of the earrings and the parrots: the real reason is that they represent our dark side and we envy them their liberty to be totally outside of all law. To remove this element—to keep the imagery but not the evil—removes their pirate-ness and leaves us with a ship full of Adam Ants.

Could you envisage Pirates of the Caribbean as a horror film? A town or a ship under attack from pirates, pirates who do genuinely blood curdling things, who we are really afraid of — but who nevertheless, look cool. We would see them only briefly, like the Alien in Alien: — a flag, a midnight raid, some horribly dismembered corpses , a glance at the ship as we go to rescue the governors daughter — who, we really believe, would sooner die than spend another minute with these people. Would those scary pirates keep their pirate-ness in a way that Johnny Deep, in the long run, doesn't?

 

I don't think anything in the film quite lived up to the first 20 minutes, which had me gurgling like I was seeing Star Wars for the first time. The beautifully romantic first scene, the ship coming out of the mist, the little girl singing a romantic pirate song as Wil's life boat appears on the horizon; and the first set piece duel between Wil and Jack in the forge….

…But the rest of the film is such a feast of imagery, silly one liners and pirate cliché that any reservation I feel are not so much down to weaknesses in the film making, but from a sense of being glutted with too much of a good thing….

…Almost exactly 20 minutes too much of a good thing in fact: we could easily have lost some of the final battle with the ghost pirates.

…It's a particular shame that the real climax of the movie, Sparrow's duel with Barbossa and Wil lifting of the curse, got lost in slightly too many fireworks….

….although this is more than redeemed by the outrageous ending, where Wil more or less turns into the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue Sparrow from the gallows.

…and the joke about the Piratical Code being 'more guidelines than rules' is told too many times….

And…

 

Oh, who am I trying to kid.

Pirates of the Caribbean.

Best.

Movie.

Ever.

 

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[1] I admit that this was over-stating the case, somewhat: I had entirely failed to take the 1992 'Captain America' or indeed the 1941 'Adventures of Captain Marvel' into account.

[2] In fact, with due respect to J.K Rowling, the best children's adventure story ever written.

[3] It seems to be a Victorian invention, although it may possibly be a misunderstanding of Plutarch, or someone, who had pirates running down the gangplank in the middle of the sea and inviting a roman citizen to walk back to Rome.

[4] I recall a serial called 'King of the Rocket Men' in which the hero was played by Tristran Coffin.