Update: I have written a more recent, more comprehensive article covering the entire Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. I recommend reading that one first.
“I think it’d be rather exciting to meet a pirate.”
Part 1: An Unlikely Phenomenon
Pirates of the Caribbean. This is, perhaps, one of the oddest pop culture touchstones we have. Consider this: a theme park ride, one that is 46 years old, has become an American icon that is recognized all around the world. I understand the significance of Disneyland (boy howdy, do I understand the significance of Disneyland) and I realize that Pirates of the Caribbean attractions exist in four different locations across three separate countries, but it’s unprecedented the kind of cultural impact this one ride has had. In Disneyland Park today there are 49 attractions, 30 of which (give or take) have been around in some form or another as long, or longer, than Pirates has, yet none of them have the same level of recognition. The number of people who will understand a reference to the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Jungle Cruise is significantly less than those who will respond to “Dead men tell no tales” or “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.” In fact, I’d argue the only attraction that comes close to that level of universal recognition is It’s a Small World, but that also has the unique status of being a World’s Fair exhibit as well as a Disney theme park attraction.
Odder still is that someone decided to make a movie based on this. Now maybe the aforementioned iconic nature of the ride is enough for it all to make sense. After all, in this day and age, Hollywood is so desperate to have brand recognition that we have major studio releases based on everything from ‘80s action figures to board games. Remember, though, that it wasn’t always like this. In many ways, the success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean is what opened the door to these more, er- unconventional Hollywood adaptations. Let’s turn the clock back ten years or so and take a look at the genesis of the Pirates movies.
In the early 2000s the pirate movie sub-genre was dead. There hadn’t been a truly successful pirate film in the last four decades, and the most recent attempt at bringing back the genre resulted in the biggest box office bomb of all time (Cutthroat Island; adjusted for inflation). On top of that Disney had already tried their hands at a feature film adaptation of one of their beloved theme park attractions, Country Bear Jamboree, and it had failed miserably.(1) When the idea of a Pirates of the Caribbean film was pitched – along with the aforementioned Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion – it took a long time to find its footing. Disney waffled back and forth on whether it should be released theatrically or straight to video, they had multiple versions of the screenplay written by different people, and the whole project was in danger of being shut down on several occasions (even, at one point, by Disney CEO Michael Eisner(2) ).
Star producer Jerry Buckheimer was brought on board to help get the project off the ground, and it was he who ended up bringing screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio in to do a new draft of the script. Ted and Terry – who had recently written screenplays for successful films like Aladdin and Shrek – expanded on earlier drafts written by Jay Wolpert and Stuart Beattie respectively. Earlier drafts of the screenplay had been fairly generic, telling the story of a governor’s daughter who was kidnapped by the fearsome pirate Captain Blackheart so that a scheming captain of the guard could force her into marriage. It was up to a humble prison guard – with the assistance of a pirate he had helped to escape from prison – to rescue her. When Ted and Terry came on, they gave the story its supernatural element, an idea they had pitched to Disney almost ten years earlier(3). Captain Blackheart became Captain Barbossa, the prison guard became a blacksmith, and the villainous captain of the guard became the notably less villainous Commodore Norrington. The central device of the film changed from a forced marriage to a curse. With this new script Jerry Bruckheimer was able to court director Gore Verbinski, and the project finally was able to get rolling.
Exactly ten years ago today, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl opened to $47 million its first weekend, eventually going on to make $655 million worldwide. A movie that most thought would be a massive flop (including some involved in the production of the film) ended up being one of the most successful films of the year, but more importantly than that, it legitimately captured the public’s imagination in a way that is becoming increasingly uncommon. Something in this film stuck a chord with people, so much so that this movie that seemed destined to fail went on to launch one of the most successful film series of all time.
Let me be clear, I’m not only talking box office, because there’s plenty of highly fiscally successful films that have failed to stand the test of time. Yes, the Pirates films have made a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean anything compared to the cultural staple that the films have become. Captain Jack Sparrow is a character that is recognized around the world, Hans Zimmer’s(4) themes have become iconic, and pirate lore in general has gained a greater prominence in pop culture than it had in the years before the film released. Yet some people tend to devalue the impact this film, and the series as a whole, has had; often chalking it up to one great performance by Johnny Depp in an otherwise unnoteworthy film. I feel like a lot of this is due to the fact that Johnny-Depp-in-a-funny-wig characters have been annoying and largely ineffective in the wake of Jack Sparrow, and the fact that there’s been diminishing returns of quality in the Pirates sequels (more on both of these later). That said, the series continues to be a pop culture touchstone, and I’m here to examine what it is that has made these movies resonate.
In my estimation, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a great film. It’s not a perfect film, and there are most certainly problems with it that I will get into over the course of this column, but I honestly think it’s one of the best fantasy adventure films of the last decade, as well as being one of very few original films to earn an iconic status thus far into the twenty-first century(5). There’s a very Old Hollywood feeling to the whole thing, yet it also has the sensibilities of a modern blockbuster. It’s a big, sweeping epic that still understands that a strong story should evolve out of the wants and needs of its characters.
Part 2: The Importance of Character
Let’s spend some time on that last point, because this is something that a lot of summer movies struggle with. Film Crit Hulk, one of my absolute favorite writers when it comes to understanding the art and the impact of cinema, has two recent columns dealing with summer movies that have failed at telling stories from a character perspective. He argues that too many movies have their characters serving the mechanics of the plot rather than the narrative growing out of the actions of its characters. One of the things that the Pirates trilogy has been criticized for is the complexity of its narratives, but when you really examine it, this complexity is a direct result of the fact that you have multiple characters in the films who all have conflicting goals and little-to-no loyalty to each other. It’s not arbitrary plottiness; it all grows out of the characters.
The way I see it, there are five primary characters who drive the story in Curse of the Black Pearl: there’s our protagonists, Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner; our main antagonist, Captain Barbossa; Jack Sparrow, who affects almost all areas of the narrative, but is not himself the protagonist; and Commodore Norrington, who is the most minor player on this list, but still affects the narrative in important ways. So let’s examine the primary wants and needs of each of these characters and see how they affect the overarching story.
We’ll start with Elizabeth. Elizabeth is one of the two primary protagonists in this film – Ted and Terry argue that she is THE primary protagonist, but in some way’s the film is more Will’s story than it is her own. Either way, a good portion of the story is told from Elizabeth’s perspective. We’re with her from the time the film opens all the way up until she is captured and brought aboard the Black Pearl, and it’s through her eyes that we get to experience such revelations as the nature of the pirates’ curse and how Jack Sparrow was able to escape from being marooned.
The opening sequence of the film does a good job setting up the core of Elizabeth’s character: she’s an adventurer who is confined by her role as the governor’s daughter. She dreams of excitement and believes in the romantic ideal of piracy, but is instead being offered to Commodore Norrington as a potential bride. The physical representation of a corset that is laced too tightly is an analogy that, while perhaps a bit on the nose, does a wonderful job of getting at the essence of Elizabeth’s internal conflict. If she had her way she’d be having adventures out on the high seas, but is instead bound by the status she’s had put upon her. When the crew of the Black Pearl invades Port Royal she not only knows how to handle herself, but also deliberately sets up a meeting with Captain Barbossa. She’s not taken against her will; she goes willingly, taking the opportunity to not only have a taste of adventure and to finally fulfill her dream of meeting a pirate, but also to use her knowledge of piracy to try to strike a bargain with them. She winds up in over her head, but it’s not the typical damsel in distress situation, at least not exactly. Elizabeth winds up in this situation due to her own choices, not simply because she was kidnapped by pirates.
As for Will, our second protagonist, we get to see from the early scenes of the film that he and Elizabeth share an obvious, though unspoken, infatuation. There’s a clear chemistry between the two characters, but neither of them act on it due to the societal roles they both play. She’s the governor’s daughter while he’s only a blacksmith. He also hates pirates and all that they represent, quite possibly due to him being the sole survivor of a pirate attack as a child. Over the course of the story Will rises above his status as a blacksmith, learning to take action and not just accept his established societal roles. It’s his journey that really defines the narrative of the movie; he’s a blacksmith who takes action to become a hero, he’s a man who hates pirates, but must challenge his views on piracy in order to do what is right. When Elizabeth is taken onboard the Black Pearl, he is the first to take action and is willing to do whatever is necessary to bring her back, even striking a deal with an imprisoned pirate.
Which brings us to Captain Jack Sparrow. Jack Sparrow’s role in the film is a bit involved, so I’m going to take some time to establish the precise way this character works in the context of the narrative. First, let’s debunk one of the most common misconceptions: Jack Sparrow is NOT the protagonist of the film. His story is secondary to Will and Elizabeth’s, and, in fact, acts as almost a framework for their stories to exist in. Jack is a character who completely lacks a traditional arc and who operates on a level that is almost separate from the rest of the characters. Jack Sparrow’s revenge against Barbossa is very much the B-story of the movie, but the steps he takes to achieve that goal end up directly influencing the other characters. Jack Sparrow has frequently been compared to Han Solo from Star Wars and it’s easy to see why. Both characters are scoundrels, both characters have a more dynamic personality than their respective leads, and both characters play important roles in their films without actually being the protagonists. Star Wars is undeniably Luke Skywalker’s story, but without Han Solo, Luke’s story couldn’t have happened. The same goes for Jack Sparrow; without Jack, Will and Elizabeth’s story would have never been able to get off the ground.
Much has been made of Johnny Depp’s performance as Jack Sparrow, and there’s not much more I can add to that conversation. It really is a truly iconic performance, and one of the most memorable original characters in film history. That said, Jack Sparrow can’t exist in a vacuum. He needs other strong characters to play off of, characters whose journeys he can affect. This is the problem that so many other Johnny-Depp-in-a-funny-wig characters have had. They are made too great a focal point in their respective films; films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and even Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides all put the eccentric Johnny Depp character too squarely in the spotlight, and neglect to give him interesting characters to play off of. Barbossa, Elizabeth, Norrington, and Will(6) are all essential characters to the story that allow Jack Sparrow to work.
As for his personal motivations, Jack is the ultimate opportunist. His whole character revolves around the idea that if he can get enough plates spinning eventually one of them will benefit him. It’s not about the character changing, it’s about the world changing around the character while he waits to seize an opportunity. His ultimate goal is to reclaim the Pearl, take revenge on his mutinous first mate Barbossa, and reclaim his freedom in the process. To accomplish that goal, Jack will use anyone or anything as a piece on the board to manipulate to his ultimate objective, even making conflicting deals with different parties simultaneously. His motives are not made clear immediately, as the motivations of many of the other characters are, but in the context of the film this works because we’re viewing the story through the eyes of Will and Elizabeth. Jack’s motives are revealed to us at the same time they are revealed to Will, thus giving the reveal a weight to both Will and the audience. As a rule, it’s generally boring to watch characters catch up to information the audience already knows, and it’s frustrating to have information withheld that the protagonist is already aware of.
As for Barbossa, his sole interest is breaking the curse which has subjected him to an agonizing existence for the past ten years. He’s a pirate who is unable to enjoy the spoils of piracy. He wants to be free from the curse and is willing to do anything to accomplish that.
Finally, there’s Norrington, who, like Will, is in love with Elizabeth. However, where Will is willing to stop at nothing to rescue her, Norrington won’t break the rules or compromise his station.
And this is where the central conflicts of the film lie. The plot of the film is fairly straightforward: a pirate crew needs one last gold piece and the blood of its owner to break the curse, a governor’s daughter is thought to be that person and is taken by the pirates, a blacksmith goes to her rescue, but along the way discovers it’s his blood that is needed, all the while a former pirate captain seeks revenge on his cursed, mutinous first mate. The complexity comes from the fact that all the players in this story have conflicting goals that each is absolutely dedicated to. Barbossa will stop at nothing to be free from the curse, Jack will stop at nothing to take revenge and reclaim his ship, and Will will stop at nothing to rescue Elizabeth. On top of that, each has every reason to mistrust the other: Will hates pirates, of which Jack and Barbossa are both; Jack was betrayed by Barbossa and Barbossa knows Jack wants revenge; and both Jack and Barbossa know that Will would gladly turn on both of them if the opportunity presented itself. These characters are thrust together by circumstance, but their allegiances are precarious at best.
For example, when Jack and Will reach the Isla de Muerta, Jack is getting ready to use Will – whose blood is needed to break the curse – as a bargaining chip to reclaim the Pearl. Will – who knows Jack intends to use him as leverage – now has the opportunity to rescue Elizabeth and no longer needs Jack’s aid, so he abandons Jack to Barbossa and his crew. Similarly, at the end of the film, Jack strikes a bargain with Barbossa that would give Barbossa a grander ship to command, allowing Jack to once again captain the Pearl, yet reclaiming the Pearl is only half of Jack’s ultimate goal; the deal was really made to allow Jack the opportunity to take revenge on Barbossa by removing his crew from the equation.
It’s this dynamic that really helps the movie stand out. It combines classical storytelling with a complex character dynamic to create a film with both the romantic swashbuckling nature of a classic pirate film, and the untrustworthy, cutthroat reality of piracy. Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t even the first to successfully use this idea; Treasure Island, perhaps the most famous pirate story of all time, uses this very same dynamic in the character of John Silver. Silver is a character whose allegiance is in question up until the final moments of the story, because the reality is he doesn’t have much allegiance to anyone. He’s after Flint’s treasure, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it, whether that’s organizing a mutiny against Captain Smollett, or betraying the pirates to join up with Smollett, Jim, Squire Trelawney, and Dr. Livesey.
Part 3: Texture vs. Substance
In trying to examine why Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl struck such a strong chord with audiences, all of this is essential. Pirates of the Caribbean excels in the very same areas that made series like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter such monumental successes. It creates a rich fantasy world, fills it with interesting and dynamic characters, and then uses those characters to tell a very classical story on a grand scale. It’s a fun fantasy adventure film right off the bat, but it also has layers of intrigue to the characters and to the world that make the film rewarding on repeat viewings.
This is where the Pirates films, particularly Curse of the Black Pearl, succeed while so many other pirate films failed. Take Cutthroat Island for instance. Cutthroat Island is a terrible film; the directing is bad, the acting is abysmal, it’s poorly paced, and it has absolutely nothing going for it. On a deeper level, though, the movie fails because it doesn’t invest in its characters, instead the whole film tries to skate by on the texture of being a pirate movie. It has ships and lost maps and buried treasure and betrayals, but it’s all utterly hollow. None of the characters in the film have any real motivation other than “I want to get rich” which, by itself, isn’t really an appealing enough motivation for an audience to latch onto. If you think back to the classic pirate films: Treasure Island, The Crimson Pirate, Captain Blood, etc., there was always a deeper motivation that informed the search for the treasure beyond simply the desire to be rich. Jim Hawkins’ quest for treasure is a backdrop to his coming of age story, Captain Peter Blood takes up piracy as a way to escape slavery and become his own master, and Captain Vallo’s quest for wealth is in direct conflict with a romantic entanglement. Heck, even if we look at more recent films whose plots revolve around obtaining some sought after item of value, we can see that the best ones have characters motivated by something greater than fortune and glory. Indiana Jones is trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant out of the hands of the Nazis, Danny Ocean is trying to win back his ex-wife, Jack Sparrow wants the heart of Davy Jones so he can escape death…wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, a MacGuffin only works if there’s some greater meaning to the quest beyond the item itself.
The Curse of the Black Pearl is so much more than empty texture. We’ve already discussed character motivations and how they propel the narrative, but another reason Pirates stands out is because it’s not content to simply rehash the tropes of old pirate stories, it instead plays with them, turning things on their heads, subverting expectations, and adding new elements to the mix that no one has ever seen before. In fact, Gore Verbinski has said that part of what attracted him to the project was that it was a quest to return treasure rather than steal it, and that the archetypal mutiny occurs before the events of the film take place. Another big element here is the supernatural. Pirate stories and seafaring lore in general have long referenced ghosts and curses and mythical creatures, but Pirates of the Caribbean was really the first pirate film to ever play with those ideas in a literal way. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio smartly worked both classic elements and new twists on the old formula into their screenplay so that the film really broke new grounds for what a pirate movie could be.
On top of that, the film was expertly directed by the extremely talented Gore Verbinski. Gore Verbinski is an odd director; he has a somewhat offbeat sense of humor, he whole heartedly embraces eccentricity, and he’s more than happy to take time out from the main plot to focus on tangential bits of story or character development. His stories are often not told extremely efficiently, and normally that would be a kiss of death for a filmmaker, but there’s something about Verbinski’s style that makes it all work. In the Pirates films especially, there’s an energy that is imbued into every scene making everything feel purposeful, rather than meandering. Lesser filmmakers attempting this same thing would find their movie falling apart due to lack of focus, but Gore can expertly lead an audience off on a slight tangent, keep them entertained, and bring them right back into the main flow of the narrative without missing a beat. He’s a perfect match for a film like this where the audience is bounced back and forth between several points of view and multiple, converging story lines. As an audience we’re happy to follow wherever he takes us in the story, and we never feel cheated when we cut away from one point of view to another.
In addition, he’s an utterly fantastic action director. I’ve talked before about how action scenes need to both support the main story of a film while also having moments self-contained story to themselves, and Verbinski is a true master at this. Take the battle between the Interceptor and the Black Pearl, for example.
Let’s break that down. It’s not just a straight ship to ship battle, instead there’s a progression to the action, making it far more interesting and exciting. It begins as a chase, with the Pearl pursuing the Interceptor, the crew of the Interceptor throwing items overboard to help give them as much of an advantage as possible. However, the Pearl brings out her sweeps, robbing the Interceptor of her lead. It’s decided that they’ll have to fight, but the cannon balls were among the items thrown overboard. Will instructs the crew to fill the cannons with any items they can, while Elizabeth has the idea to lower the anchor on the starboard side to quickly bring the Interceptor into firing position. The two ships pull alongside each other before the battle breaks out; cannon balls flying from one ship, candle sticks, rum bottles, and cutlery from the other. As the fight progresses and it’s clear the crew of the Interceptor are on the losing side, they decide to use the pirate medallion to bargain with Barbossa and his crew, but the medallion is below deck. Will goes down to retrieve it when a cannon blast takes down a mast, trapping Will below deck. As the crew of the Pearl takes hostages, they rig the Interceptor to blow, while Will desperately tries to find a way to escape.
There’s a progression from moment to moment, with variety and storytelling within the action sequence making the whole thing so much more compelling than if it had been just two ships blasting cannon balls at each other. Ted and Terry deserve credit as well for writing these elements into the scene, but without a director with the skill of Gore Verbinski the sequence could have easily been incoherent. Instead, Gore pulls it off remarkably, successfully conveying the progression of the scene while keeping the geography of it intact. And that’s only one example; the duel between Will and Jack in the blacksmith shop is another great sequence.
This scene clearly establishes individual traits of these two characters, it sets up the relationship between the two of them, it addresses larger story issues, and it’s all contained in a fun sword fight with a good deal of progression and variation in the action itself. What’s more is that Verbinski accomplishes much of the action in the movie using practical effects with real stunts at real locations in the Caribbean, rather than doing everything in front of a green screen on a soundstage in LA. There’s obviously a fair amount of visual effects in the film – the cursed pirates being a major presence in the film – but Gore understands that in order to make a visual effect credible you need to combine it with something real, a concept that too few filmmakers today understand.
It’s all of these things – the classical storytelling, the interesting screenplay, the intrigue of the fictional world, the appeal of the characters, and the skill of the director – that helped to make Pirates of the Caribbean a movie that people connected with.
Ten years later, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl continues to be a well-loved film; its characters and iconography are bonafide staples of pop culture, and its legacy – for better or for worse – has been clearly seen in movies of the last ten years. The lessons that Hollywood took away from Pirates – that Johnny Depp acting eccentric in a funny wig equals box office gold, that audiences embrace complexity, and that movies based on obscure properties can be successful – have mostly been the wrong lessons, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that the team behind Pirates of the Caribbean knew what they were doing and made a highly entertaining film. Curse of the Black Pearl is, in my opinion, one of the great fantasy adventure films, and it will always be a personal favorite of mine.
Happy 10th anniversary, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
(1)I’m aware that The Country Bears technically wasn’t Disney’s first movie based on a theme park attraction. The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror got a made for TV movie in 1997 while Mission to Mars was released in theaters in March of 2000. That being said, because Tower of Terror was a TV movie and because most people didn’t even realize Mission to Mars was based on a theme park attraction that had already been closed for seven years, I’m going with The Country Bears as the first real attempt.
(2)Shortly after The Country Bears flopped, Eisner cancelled development on Pirates, which, by that point, had Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio on board and was almost ready to start shooting. Gore had everybody come into work anyway, and when Eisner came by to personally shut down the project, Gore gave him a tour of the development work and persuaded him to allow Pirates to continue.
(3)This, I feel, is of real importance. Even if it was sort of by accident, Disney got people on this project who were actually passionate about making a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Too often these days, movies are made because the studio has the rights to something so they, in essence, assign people to that project. It’s not a situation where someone has a burning desire to make a movie about Battleship or Transformers (in fact, Michael Bay famously hates Transformers), instead it’s just a completely cold endeavor and it shows in the final product. Disney initially went this route with Pirates, but when Ted and Terry came on they had a pair of writers who had been wanting to make a movie using the framework of the Disneyland ride for the better part of ten years. In addition, Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer were both excited to take a new approach to a pirate movie. Like I said, this came together sort of by accident, but it’s this group of people and their passion for the project that really gave this movie its heart and soul.
(4)Klaus Badelt is credited as composing the music for the first film, but it was actually Hans Zimmer who wrote most of the themes used by Badelt. Zimmer was committed to a different project and wasn’t able to accept the job for Curse of the Black Pearl, but spent a full day writing themes for the movie before handing the reins to Badelt.
(5)I am aware that on a technical level the movie is “based on Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean,” but on a functional level, it is entirely an original story. There’s no narrative to adapt from the attraction, the cast of characters in the film didn’t exist before the work of the screenwriters, and the connection to the attraction basically comes down to a handful of winking references.
(6)Will is listed last here because, at least in the first film, Orlando Bloom doesn’t quite have the presence to go toe-to-toe with Depp as Jack Sparrow. He’s fine, and his character works for the film, but there’s times when Will sort of accidentally fades into the background. Geoffrey Rush is obviously the most capable of accomplishing this, but Kiera Knightley is also noteworthy in this film for holding her own in scenes with Johnny Depp.