Posted by Susan Doll on June 23, 2014
Pirates of the Caribbean did not resuscitate the pirate picture, but it did prove that the swashbuckler was still a fun genre capable of making money. Previous attempts to update the swashbuckler had failed, including Roman Polanski’s 1986 comedy Pirates and Renny Harlin’s 1996 gender-reverse adventure Cutthroat Island. The Pirates of Penzance from 1983 received good reviews, but many theater owners refused to book it because the studio decided to simultaneously release it to pay-television. The unofficial boycott resulted in box office failure.
Though I generally loathe Hollywood’s current love affair with franchises and series, I confess that the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy are among my favorite contemporary movies, at least until the fourth film when Rob Marshall took over as director. I am fond of the original trilogy because it reawakened my love of the pirate genre. The first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies not only updated the swashbuckler but they also referenced pirate films from the Golden Age, a good example of how contemporary films are richer when they reveal a connection to classic cinema. The latter is a characteristic of the work of Pirates director Gore Verbinski, who likes to make references and hommages to movies of the past as he did in Rango and the much-loathed Lone Ranger. According to the press material for the Pirates trilogy, Verbinski’s knowledge of pirate classics was matched by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who was quoted about his love for Treasure Island (airing June 27), Captain Blood, and The Black Pirate. For the last in my series on pirate movies, I thought I would connect the dots between the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and classic swashbucklers.
The POTC movies used several familiar conventions of the swashbuckler, including roguish pirates with their own code of honor, exotic settings, buried treasure, a feisty governor’s daughter, stuffy British authority figures, a pet monkey and a pet parrot, plenty of sword play and rope swinging, and wild binges in Tortuga. In their update of the genre, the scriptwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio—who worked closely with Verbinski—expanded or twisted the conventions. Last week, I mentioned the character of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley, who gave new vitality to the archetype of the governor’s daughter by participating in the action as much as the male characters, even becoming pirate king in the last film, POTC: At World’s End. Another interesting twist by Elliott and Rossio occurs in the first film, POTC: Curse of the Black Pearl. Instead of unearthing a stash of buried treasure and running off with it, the pirates must do the reverse. In order to lift the curse on the pirate crew, they must find one gold coin and return it to the treasure chest.
The sword play and rope swinging in the POTC trilogy would make Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster proud because the choreography has been improved and the intensity amplified. Captain Jack Sparrow swings around the ships with such exuberance it becomes a running stunt-gag. Large-scale sword fights take place in a variety of offbeat settings, from the blacksmith shop in Curse of the Black Pearl to the inside of a water wheel in Dead Man’s Chest. Bob Anderson, a stunt coordinator and fencing expert, had coached Errol Flynn on Master of Ballantree and Crossed Swords. He was deliberately tapped to help Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, and Orlando Bloom handle the sword play on Curse of the Black Pearl, making a connection between past and present .
The invention by the scriptwriters in the POTC trilogy was to combine the pirate saga with supernatural tales of curses, spells, and the legend of Davy Jones. According to historians, ferocious and violent buccaneers were a superstitious lot, though that is not a convention that defines the pirate movie. Occasionally, superstition or the supernatural crop up in the storyline, as when the children onboard ship in A High Wind in Jamaica scare the big, burly pirates by holding mock funerals, playing in coffins, and disregarding their beliefs. But, the POTC trilogy effectively creates a world lost in time, when curses, ghosts, and resurrection from the dead are possible. Yet, the supernatural aspects do not turn the films into horror stories; they add to the romantic aura of the pirate adventure.
Like many a pirate film, stuffy, uptight British authority figures and their proper manners, social mores, and tight-fitting clothing are at odds with the free-wheeling pirates in the POTC trilogy. But, once again, the convention is updated to reflect our times. As the trilogy unfolds, the most deadly figure is Cutler Beckett, a representative of the East India Tea Company, who has more authority than Elizabeth’s father, Governor Weatherby Swann, or the British Navy. Short and impeccably dressed and coiffed, Beckett reminded me of the squat-looking, snooty aristocrat in The Crimson Pirate, who ruled over the island of Cobra. The stiff, rigid demeanor of both characters are the opposite in costume and body language of the handsome pirates whose personalities are defined by broad, unique gestures.
Akin to the corporate moguls of today, Beckett seeks to control global politics in order to control the entire global market, even in the film’s equivalent of an undeveloped country. In POTC: Dead Man’s Chest, Captain Jack Sparrow is held captive by natives on a far-away island. He finds tin containers of paprika and spices from the East India Company in a rough-hewn native hut, suggesting the long arm of corporate interests. Any free agent who cannot be roped into Beckett’s modern corporate world is considered a threat whose time has come. At first, Beckett seeks to buy off Captain Jack Sparrow with an offer to become a privateer, but working for someone does not befit a mythic character who embodies freedom from oppression of any kind, including economic. The overly refined Beckett makes an icy speech to Will Turner in POTC: Dead Man’s Chest about the modern era. In his new office high above everyone else on Port Royal, he informs Will that the world is shrinking and that pirates are a dying breed. The speech is a modern version of an exchange in The Black Swan in which an authority figure pronounces, “Privateers must give way to progress.” In Dead Man’s Chest, a large clock looms in the right side of the frame, a visual cue that time is running out for Jack Sparrow’s world of pirates, ghosts, curses, unlimited horizons, and other romantic notions long gone in our modern age.
My favorite aspect of the POTC trilogy are the references to specific pirate movies from other eras—a tip that the filmmakers are movie- lovers themselves. I see a lot of The Crimson Pirate and Captain Blood in the POTC films. Talk of keeping to the Pirate Code is frequent in The Crimson Pirate, as it is a running joke in Curse of the Black Pearl. In Captain Blood, Flynn also lays out the guidelines for his pirates, which includes the circumstances for leaving a fellow pirate stranded on an island with one bullet. Captain Jack Sparrow had been left on an island with one bullet by arch-enemy, Captain Barbossa, during a mutiny aboard the Black Pearl. Early in Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack and Will steal a rowboat in order to make their way to a ship in the harbor. They place the boat upside down over their heads and walk across the ocean floor to the vessel. The upside down boat supposedly creates an air pocket allowing them to breath, even though they are under water. The trick was borrowed from a scene in The Crimson Pirate in which Captain Vallo and two other characters similarly use a rowboat to escape to shore from a ship. Later in the film, Vallo and his two companions dress in drag to fool the authorities while they infiltrate their enemy’s position; likewise, the two Mack Sennett-like characters in POTC—the short Pintel and the tall, one-eyed Ragetti—dress like women to fool the British in Curse of the Black Pearl.
The phrase “keep a weather eye open” is spoken in Captain Blood in regard to looking for pirate ships just as it is used in Curse of the Black Pearl for similar reasons. The fabulous three-way sword fight inside the rolling water wheel in Dead Man’s Chest may have been inspired by Captain Blood. Early on, Peter Blood works as a slave on a plantation where the slaves power a similar-looking wheel to drive the gears that grind the sugar cane.
While I was watching The Black Swan as part of TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight on Pirate Pictures, I was reminded of POTC, particularly in the costuming. Jamie Waring’s black pirate garb, head scarf, and facial hair look like the inspiration for Will Turner’s final costume in At World’s End after he becomes a true pirate. Waring’s sidekick, played by Thomas Mitchell, is akin in looks and demeanor to Jack Sparrow’s right-hand pirate Mr. Gibbs.
Not every movie reference is to a pirate film. In Curse of the Black Pearl, the audience’s introduction to Jack Sparrow finds the captain sailing into the harbor of Port Royal on a sinking ship. He stands gallantly atop the mast as it quickly sinks. By the time he arrives at the dock, he merely steps off the ship, which is fully submerged. The stunt is akin to the gags of Buster Keaton, though it is not an hommage to a specific stunt as erroneously stated by web writers who tend to propagate errors by repeating what they read on the Internet rather than researching on their own. It recalls a stunt from The Boat in which Keaton launches a small craft from a harbor, standing resolute as it sinks before getting out to sea—the reverse of the action in Curse of the Black Pearl. It also echoes a sinking-boat scene in The Navigator and another in Sherlock, Jr., because Sparrow—like Keaton—is nonchalant about the watery eventuality of his situation. One of the most subtle references to other movies occurs in At World’s End. As Elizabeth, Jack, and Barbossa square off against Davy Jones, Will, and Beckett on a beach, the background music sounds like an Ennio Morricone score from an Italian western to signify the start of an ultimate confrontation.
When a contemporary film references the classics, it can be more than just a nice touch for avid movie-goers. At the very least, it signals a respect for genres, movies, and stars of the past, which is often lacking in franchises, series, and blockbusters by contemporary filmmakers.
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