of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,
Pirates of the Caribbean:
Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates
of the Caribbean: At World’s End
are not really about pirates at all. Pirates existed
of course, and still do, but there were never
really squid-faced men or hammerhead shark-faced
men. Skeletons are not sword-fighters in real
life. This is the stuff of movies. And movies,
particularly Hollywood movies, are what these
films really are all about.
The elite, who condescendingly believe
it is always their job to write a prescription
against populist taste, hated Pirates
of the Caribbean from the beginning. In
this case, their skepticism was not totally unwarranted.
There was something backwards in the great-movie-makes-fun-
ride equation, and when marketing potential trumps
cinematic value with such obviousness, you don’t
have to be part of the elite to feel you are being
Rush vs. Johnny Depp.
Confidence among Disney’s
shareholders must have grown once Jerry Bruckheimer
signed on as producer, but what about us movie-lovers?
Was there any reason to feel anything other than
resentment toward all this?
For me, as the various talents climbed aboard,
Disney seemed perhaps not so cynical after all.
The Mask of Zorro
may be the best adventure movie of the 1990’s.
Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer could do no better
than to hire Zorro’s
writers. Johnny Depp’s attachment brought
another sign this was sailing in the right direction,
as he is probably the biggest star whose career
choices never seem motivated by greater fame.
The excellent choice of Geoffrey Rush as the villain
hinted Depp would have a formidable foe.
However, potential can turn to poison as expectations
begin to rise. There was hope in my heart and
skepticism in my experience. I wanted this to
be good, but I knew they didn’t make them
like they used to.
A swashbuckling adventure with
pirates on the high seas should have a little
bit of old Hollywood. Sadly, the imagination and
wit of old Hollywood seems at times a lost language.
Studios are desperate to cater to the young. As
a result, there is no support for anything perceived
as old. To make something that can squeeze into
a column of films alongside The
Sea Hawk, Gunga Din,
The Prisoner of Zenda
or Raiders of the Lost
Ark is an overwhelming task for today’s
writers and directors. We would just have to wait
Depp and Orlando
Bloom about to steal a ship.
There was one specific unforgettable
moment when I knew The
Curse of the Black Pearl had the rare brilliance
I had been hoping to see return from Hollywood’s
past. Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom need to steal
a ship from British occupied Port Royal. To get
to the ship without being seen, they add weights
to their ankles and stroll along the sea floor
with an upside down row boat over their heads,
which traps enough air for them to breathe. Once
they get on the ship, they can’t make ready
for sail without a crew. The British see them
stealing the ship and race over in a sea-ready
vessel. As the British board, Depp and Bloom swing
out to the other ship and sail away. It’s
a thrilling sequence, full of zany intelligence,
which has become common among films written by
Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.
When first setting out to accomplish
the task of turning a Disney ride into a Disney
movie, Elliott and Rossio* must have looked for
a central idea, something to hang a story on.
What should Black Pearl
be about? One thing known of pirates is that they
all revel in the pleasures of the flesh. Lusting
for Earthly pursuits unites them. What if we write
a movie, Elliott and Rossio* must have asked themselves,
about pirates who are missing their flesh? They
can no longer feel the thrill of rum, women and
gold because they are only dried bones. Cursed
to skeleton form, they are vengeful and long for
a return to human feeling. Thematically, that
is what The Curse of
the Black Pearl is about.
Nighty as sea-villain Davey Jones.
With the success of the first one,
two sequels were immediately greenlit. Elliott
and Rossio became even more ambitious. Dead
Man’s Chest and At
World’s End would essentially become
one very large movie, spinning a story with multiple
twists and turns and introducing themes of love
and morality, death and resurrection. The title
Dead Man’s Chest
does not refer to long lost Aztec gold. Embittered
sea-villain Davey Jones is a dealer of souls,
with a heart literally missing from his chest.
He is a threat to all those who sail the high
seas. The East India Trading Company wants the
heart so they can gain power over Jones and Jack
Sparrow wants the heart because, once upon a time,
he sold his soul to become captain of the Black
Pearl and now, he has a debt to pay. Caught between
both sides and forced into joining the race are
Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner. Jack has obtained
a magic compass, which points to whatever one
wants most, which he uses to try finding the heart.
The needle won’t work for him though because
his thoughts only revolve around himself, so he
tricks Elizabeth into holding the compass with
the belief that the heart of Davey Jones will
reunite her with Will Turner. Elizabeth challenges
Jack at one point about his selfishness saying,
“One day, the moment will come when you
will do the right thing.” Jack responds,
“I love those moments. I like to wave at
them as they pass me by.” But he does come
around finally, staying on his ship in a time
of great danger like a good captain should, but
Elizabeth betrays him, turning selfish in order
to save herself and others. In response, Jack
stings her by simply calling her, “Pirate.”
offered an extraordinary introduction for the
character of Jack Sparrow, gracefully stepping
onto dock off a sinking ship, as the ship was
almost fully submerged. The
Dead Man’s Chest script gave him
another fantastic opening, this time in a coffin
floating in a darkened sea. From within the coffin,
there is a blast of gunfire, killing a black bird,
which had been pecking on the locked lid from
outside. Jack climbs out and uses a dead man’s
bones for oars; the coffin now his boat. This
theme of resurrection would return, especially
in At World’s End
where multiple characters are resurrected from
some sort of death, including of course Jack,
but also Calypso, Bootstrap Bill and Davey Jones
has a moment where his human self returns from
long dead. “It’s not living forever
that counts,” Keith Richards says to son,
Johnny Depp. “It’s how you live forever.”
with the Dead Man's Chest.
Amazingly, the high quality of the
writing holds up for all three films. And throughout
the series there are countless ideas that are
not only inventive but also stunning in their
execution. Not the least of which is the idea
of having a treasure chest with a lopped off beating
heart inside. How fascinating it would be to have
a transcript of that writers meeting. “We
need something to symbolize that love is the greatest
treasure of all.” “Hmm…How about
a beating heart in a treasure chest?” “You
mean a real heart, unattached to anyone?”
“Uh…Yeah.” “Oooh! And
maybe the chest is locked and none of the pirates
can get inside!” “Yeah. Everyone’s
trying to get the key.” “That’s
good. Everyone’s racing around trying to
get this key or the chest so they can get the
heart.” “Got it. Call up Mr. Bruckheimer.
Tell him we’re putting a beating heart in
a locked treasure chest and all the pirates are
racing around trying to get it.”
There are of course many borrowed
elements in these films. The
Captain From Castille, starring Tyrone
Power, for example, has a funny character with
a bulging and phony eyeball, but it takes quite
an imagination to figure out a way to stick a
fork in the eye and hold it up like a meatball.
Organ playing sea-dog, Davey Jones, shares musical
abilities with Captain Nemo from Disney’s
20,000 Leagues under
the Sea. Will Turner strikes a dagger into
a sail and slides down to safety just as Douglas
Fairbanks did in The
Black Pirate from 1926.
The Indiana Jones films were an obvious influence.
One scene between Barbossa and Elizabeth plays
almost exactly like a scene in Raiders
between Marian and Belloq. She is his prisoner.
He tries charming her with food. She slyly covers
a knife from view and then, when she springs the
weapon upon her captor, his previously unseen
henchmen are there, having anticipated her attempt
There was clearly a careful study of Star
Wars. The personality types and motivations
of the three heroes echo the original trilogy’s
Luke, Han and Leia. The bold integration of non-human
characters within live action cinema also seems
inspired by the George Lucas series.
as Will Turner.
The acting is superb throughout.
Geoffrey Rush plays movie-pirate to perfection.
Kiera Knightly’s Elizabeth Swann has the
most dramatic character arc of the trilogy. She
grows from young girl to king of the pirates and
the twenty-two year old actress is especially
electrifying with Elizabeth’s Errol Flynn
speech, leading her pirates to war in At
World’s End. Orlando Bloom does fantastic
work. Without the moral ambiguity and witty lines
given to Jack Sparrow, there’s little Bloom
can do but portray Will Turner with enormous sincerity.
Some complain Bloom is boring but that seems an
unfair comparing of his character to Jack Sparrow.
Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow is one of the
elevating elements that skyrocket these films
so high above the ordinary. The Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences deserves commendation
for having the insight to nominate this performance.
Much has been made of the Keith Richards influence
but to toss Depp’s work off as simple impersonation,
as some in the press have, is hardly an observant
view. It is a uniquely physical performance for
modern films. Jack Sparrow’s inner world
is expressed with broad facial expressions and
when he runs, it is with hands and arms dangling
in mid-air like a boozed up puppet having just
escaped his master. More Charlie Chaplin than
Keith Richards, Depp offers a character always
on a high wire, expected to fall at any moment.
And yet, as if he amuses some deity, Sparrow always
manages to survive. Despite such clowning, there
is not an insincere moment to be found. It’s
a truly phenomenal performance and so unlike the
work of any other major actor today.
away from hungry cannibals.
Of course none of this would be
as good as it is without a dedicated ringleader
to set the parameters for the circus. Director
Gore Verbinski is a smart audience for art, which
is one of the keys to great directing. He is without
much history. His lasting relevance will be measured
by his post-Pirates
work because people have to be sure he didn’t
just get lucky. His best asset may be humility.
Some directors make sure audiences know who’s
behind the camera at all times. With Pirates,
Verbinski deserves enormous credit for spotlighting
the talents he assembled. The films are fat with
an otherwordliness thanks to the relishing of
so much detail. They are long in part because
he is willing to encourage so much, including
little comedy bits by supporting players. From
a more stylistic director much of this could look
indulgent, but Verbinski is able to present it
as nothing more than enthusiasm for the extraordinary
work in front of his lens.
As a genre, adventure films are
rarely reviewed with respect. And yet, they require
special skill, a sensitivity to diverse experiences
and emotions. One must have a command of articulating
the full spectrum of life. Dramas move our spirits.
Comedies make us laugh. Horror frightens. Science-fiction
provides escape from the familiar. Romantic comedies
remind of love. Action films exercise aggressions.
Adventure films, in order to be really good, must
accomplish all of the above.
In present day Hollywood, where
ambition rarely reaches beyond riches, any great
passion for old-fashioned adventure has been frightened
away. For the few filmmakers of the genre, video
games have overpowered one hundred years of cinema
as influence and inspiration. And so, the team
of Disney, Bruckheimer, Verbinski, Elliott and
Rossio, Depp and the entire cast, deserve enormous
respect and admiration for having the courage
to aim so high. Unlike the vast majority of disposable
Hollywood product, these films will last.
World’s End began to wind down toward
conclusion, I was moved by it and sad to see it
go. Despite numerous and obvious influences from
so many great movies of the past, there has been
nothing quite like it. Maybe Jack Sparrow, some
day, will return. One thing true about Hollywood,
as much as I complain about it, is that its movies
are the one place where everything lives forever.