On My Shelves: Pirates of the Caribbean




"You're forgetting one thing, mate: I'm Captain Jack Sparrow."

       Once upon a time there was a rather cheesy amusement park ride called "Pirates of the Caribbean". Disney had constructed this ride to capitalize on the image of pirates that it had, itself, helped to create, swashbuckling rogues who were perhaps not quite as blackhearted as they would like you to think, and certainly not very much like the real thing. This was certainly a slight foundation on which to build a movie, and I myself have never seen the ride (never having actually been to a Disney theme park at all). My only prior exposure to it, in fact, had been a sequence in the Clive Cussler novel Iceberg in which Pitt chases down the villains of the novel through the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.


     So one can imagine that I was doubtful, to say the least, when I heard that Disney had produced a movie based on the theme park ride, doubly so because pirate films had been dead for years, with Cutthroat Island putting a final bullet in the genre's head (I am one of the few, apparently, who not only saw the movie but liked it, because it lost titanic amounts of money) and I didn't see what was likely to revive it.


     In a sense, I was right; the pirate movie genre still seems to be basically dead.


     Otherwise, I was dead wrong.


     Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the most successful, and fun, movie franchises since the original Star Wars trilogy. The runaway success of the first movie took everyone, including Disney, by surprise, so the peculiar mythology built up in the second and third movies requires a bit of mental shoehorning to work really well with the first, but this, and other offenses against common sense, are made up for by the exuberant energy with which the movies are infused. When I had watched Cutthroat Island I had felt there was one obvious element missing that would have catapulted it from a decent pirate movie to something awesome, and I figured out what was missing at the point where the heroes… (rot-13 encoded in case anyone's planning on watching Cutthroat Island and doesn't want to be spoiled; to decode, cut-and-paste the gibberish into the window available at www.rot13.com and click "cypher")


     …svanyyl ernpu gur snoyrq gernfher naq qvfpbire vg'f nf infg nf ehzberq, yvggrerq jvgu gur fxryrgbaf bs gur qrnq. Ng gung cbvag V npghnyyl rkcrpgrq, va zl thg, gur fxryrgbaf gb trg hc naq hf gb unir n ybiryl zbqreavmrq irefvba bs gur vzcbffvoyr fjbeq onggyrf va zbivrf yvxr Wnfba naq gur Netbanhgf be Gur Tbyqra Iblntr bs Fvaonq. Gur cvengr zbivr, V sryg, arrqrq n gbhpu bs gur fhcreangheny, be cbffvoyl zber guna whfg n gbhpu.


     That is, of course, exactly what Pirates of the Caribbean did, and the resulting movie was hugely successful (over $600 million on a $140 million budget).


     A vast portion of this, of course, comes from Johnny Depp's signature performance as the more-than-half-mad pirate named Jack Sparrow. ("That's Captain! CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow!") Depp was originally expected to play his role much more straight, but instead chose to play him over-the-top and 'round the bend in a manner apparently inspired by Keith Richards; this was directly referenced later, when Richards himself played Jack Sparrow's father.


     Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the great characters of cinema, period. A conflicted, contradictory man, Jack Sparrow is nigh-unpredictable, driving towards his goal (to regain command of his ship, the Black Pearl) on an erratic and sometimes incomprehensible course, through actions that at first will make sense only to him.


Yet he is neither entirely mad, nor entirely ruthless. Sparrow's great weakness, really, is that he is not a pirate at heart – not the sort of pirate that Barbossa and many others are, anyway. He doesn't really want to hunt down other ships and pillage and plunder his way across the seven seas; it's made clear that what he wants to do, really, is "go thataway" – move freely and unhindered throughout the world, going as and when he likes. The Black Pearl is a symbol of that freedom, the fastest ship in the world and one of the most formidable; no one can catch her and damned few can outfight her.


This does cause Sparrow problems, because he actually doesn't like killing people for no reason, and turns out to have some twisted sympathy for others. He's certainly ruthless at times, but his choices often seem to have a long-term effect very different from their short-term purpose. In the end, he's shown to make the right choice even when this doesn't ostensibly suit his goals.


Does he intend everything that happens? Well, that's one of the major questions of the series, asked in-universe more than once: "Do you think he … plans it all out, or is he just making it up as he goes along?" Jack Sparrow is indeed more than a bit off-kilter and hard to predict… but he seems perfectly aware of this and of its implications to the genre he's in. "You're insane!" "Good thing, too, or this would never work."


Jack Sparrow, of course, would not be able to be so amusing a character if there weren't others around to be effective straight men and foils, and for any of them to be remembered at all on screen with Sparrow their actors needed to be pretty formidable as well.


Fortunately, a number of other actors were selected who could rise to the occasion. The main villain of the first film and one of the primary characters in the third, Captain Barbossa, is played with scenery-chewing relish by Geoffrey Rush. Barbossa is a pirate, more than willing to rape, kill, and plunder his way across the sea at first (he mellows just a tad over the series), and this ruthlessness gave him the edge over Sparrow, allowing him to take the Pearl away from its former master.


Kiera Knightley puts in a stellar performance as Elizabeth Swann, cloistered but courageous and capable daughter of the Governor of Port Royal who ends up in the middle of supernatural piratical doings through no real fault of her own. Swann's character is allowed to develop and strengthen throughout all three of the original films, and Knightley's ability to project her character with less bombast but more presence allowed her to remain onscreen with Depp and Rush gnawing on the cardboard everywhere and still be remembered.


Orlando Bloom's Will Turner is the straight man and hero to counter the villainous Barbossa and serve as foil and occasional prod of conscience to Jack Sparrow. The actor better known as Legolas was, fortunately, also up to the challenge of being onscreen with Depp at his most manic, and Will Turner's earnestness provided a much-needed relief from the headlong lunacy of Jack Sparrow.


These movies are pure excitement, pretty much from start to finish, with just enough pauses in between to let you catch your breath. They're some of my favorite films – I've watched each one of them several times and all three (I haven't seen the fourth) have Crowning Moments of Awesome as well as Crowning Moments of Funny, sometimes managing to do both at the same time.


I cannot praise these three films highly enough. This is the kind of entertainment I want to see when I pay to go to a theater, and the kind of entertainment I so rarely get. 




Your comments or questions welcomed!