Movie Review - Pirates of the Caribbean

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Gore Verbinski
Walt Disney Pictures
for action/adventure violence

Just what everyone was waiting for: a swashbuckler movie about the undead. Unexpected—weird, when you think about it—but popular. Very popular. Even with people who don’t like movies about the undead. You’d think—or at least, I should have thought—that a story which, at first glance, looks like a blend of Long John Silver and Dracula, would have had a fairly limited audience. And maybe it would have, if it hadn’t also been a comedy. I mean, take a shipful of immortal skeleton pirates, add in some cool (for the turn of the century) special effects, and not one but two pairs of quarrelsome, bumbling side characters (one tall, one short, of course), and what’s not to love, right?

Well, if that hasn’t frightened you off yet, just wait: Pirates of the Caribbean has a scary worldview to top it all off. The top ten twisted worldview messages in The Curse of the Black Pearl (most of which apply nicely to the other three movies as well):

#10: Good guys are boring. As the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann is surrounded by good guys—her father, Commodore Norrington, and miscellaneous military men—all of whom are white-wigged, straight-laced, picture-of-honor kind of fellows. They lack one important thing, though: our interest. In real life, playing by the rules and being respected in society don’t automatically ruin someone’s chances of being an engaging conversationalist. In Pirates of the Caribbean, however, there is a direct correlation between how law-abiding you are, and how boring you are.

#9: Bad guys are cool. We’re not talking about great villains, here; we’re talking about the coolness of your main characters engaging in piracy. See, Norrington never had a chance with Elizabeth. Even childhood sweetheart Will Turner (with the advantage of being a blacksmith with a secret past) might have been too bland for such a spirited woman, if rescuing her from the black-hearted pirates hadn’t required him to turn pirate, himself. On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment in the Pirates franchise, doesn’t even need Will, to draw a crowd. All it needs to hang on to is the swaggering, off-the-wall coolness of pirate, womanizer, drunkard, kidnapper, arsonist, thief and heathen, Captain Jack Sparrow.

#8: Paganism works. What brought the unlikely trio of Jack, Will and Elizabeth together was chance. What kept them together after the initial round of threats and insults was the “undead” theme. The heathen gods aren’t just mute idols in Pirates of the Caribbean. They have power—to make human beings immortally undead. Interesting. Imaginative. Inherently problematic, though. What the pirates have to do is repay (to the heathen gods) the blood that Cortés spilled in South America two hundred years earlier. Do that, put the magic Aztec coins back in the box, and the pagan gods will be appeased. Interestingly, these are the only divine beings worth appeasing in this schema.
Unfortunately, the villains kidnap Elizabeth by mistake, thinking her blood will satisfy the gods—hence the partnership between Jack (marooned captain of the pirate band) and Will (the sole offspring of the missing skeleton pirate). The mistake is remedied, however, and Will the reluctant pirate saves the girl and (in a complete reversal of the Atonement of Christ) is able to pay for his father’s sins because he, the son, has pirate blood, too.

#7: Hurray for feminism! Oh, Elizabeth may need rescuing, but then, so do Will and Jack. Elizabeth is, of course, the one with all the brilliant ideas on how to evade the villains, and she’s the one who takes charge when Will and Jack need somebody to rescue them. Stopping shy of swordplay (until the next episode, anyway), Elizabeth still manages to wield wooden beams and muskets with beyond-female ease and agility. She’s maybe not quite as contrary to biblical femininity as (“good”) pirate Anna Maria, who holds a man’s position on Captain Jack’s (“good”) pirate ship (or as Elizabeth herself becomes in POTC 3: At World’s End); but she’s far from being a positive example of eighteenth-century womanhood (or even a realistic example of twenty-first century womanhood).

#6: “Goodness” has absolutely nothing to do with… goodness. Just about every time Commodore Norrington tries to clap Captain Jack in irons and save him for the hangman, there’s a Will or an Elizabeth to argue that Jack is really a good man. Ignore the debate over situation ethics, if you want. You still have to deal with the deep—very deep, very complex—question of whether being labeled a “good man” actually obligates you to do more than one good deed in the course of the movie. Yes, Jack saved Elizabeth from drowning that one time, and that’s good… but that’s also it: the lone positive event in his moral history. Aside from that, Jack didn’t do a single thing that wasn’t directly tied to his personal gain. Will and Elizabeth, Norrington, Governor Swann and all those miscellaneous military men had their lives put in jeopardy (some of them ended) by Jack’s selfish ambitions. And yet they all (eventually—plot spoiler, there) jump in on Captain Jack Sparrow’s side with a resounding, “Good man.” Forget the debate. What they needed was a dictionary.

#5: Revenge really is sweet. The villains should be brought to justice. This is understood. Ideally, Jack and Will bring Norrington and his men to the villains’ lair, the villains are completely unsuspecting, and Norrington captures them all in the name of the law. Ideally for Jack, however, Norrington and his men are just decoys to get everybody else out of the lair, so that Jack can get his personal revenge on the leader of the mutineers. Of course, it’s climactic when revenge happens, but, objectively, it’s not worth going out of your way for. And personal vendettas are biblically unacceptable, anyway*.

#4: When in moral doubt, throw out the rules. Frankly, getting everybody to throw out the rules is the only way Pirates of the Caribbean succeeded with a Christian audience (and I don’t just mean the rules about keeping swashbucklers and the undead in separate movies). This movie isn’t throwing out the Bible, per se. To be a pirate, you kind of have to be beyond tossing out the Bible (Dead Man’s Chest’s Bible-toting pirate being, of course, a mockery, rather than an exception). These “good” pirates won’t even stick to the laws they set up for themselves. “Hang the Code, and hang the rules! They’re more like guidelines, anyway.” But we expect that from pirates. Governor Swann, though—originally convinced that everybody is “bound by the law”—finishes off the movie by advising Commodore Norrington to throw off the constraints of British criminal law. And he actually does it. This is supposed to be good. Cool, even.

#3: If doubt persists, throw out the good guys, too. When Captain Jack sparrow has finally made it all the way to the gallows, Will (pardoned by the governor) has to act fast—and alone—to save him. Now, why he’d want to save him, is another question. The question of the minute is why Will thought that assaulting the whole garrison of good guys was morally preferable to letting Jack swing. Attacking military personnel: serious criminal offense. Potentially killing them: serious moral offense. But, for Will, better them than Jack. Yes, indeed: better to overthrow a guiltless, white-wigged military force, than to let wacky Jack die for his crimes. Even aside from the over-the-top choreography of the scene, this is nuts. But this is how Pirates of the Caribbean works.

#2: Ethics boils down to preference. In other words, this is a completely relativistic movie. What makes Jack a good pirate, and villain Barbossa a bad pirate? Eh, looks, mostly. What makes Elizabeth able to be outraged when the pirates kidnap her and ravage the town, and yet enjoy singing a pirate song that goes, “We kidnap and ravage and don’t give a hoot. A pirate’s life for me!”? Oh, probably the same thing that lets the audience laugh when Captain Jack Sparrow steals somebody else’s money, and yet be angry when a real-life robber steals theirs. What makes Pirates of the Caribbean “swashbuckling fun,” for the critics, rather than “pagan pandemonium”? It’s all the same answer: Personal preference.

Side note - Violent and Intense Content:
This isn’t an especially bloody movie, and the special effects for the “undead” segments really are outdated now. Even so, a lot of the violence (strangulation, throat-slitting, mutilating the slain, etc.) is intense… or it would be if we were more focused on thinking about the action than being drawn in by the computer effects. We’re even supposed to laugh at Governor Swann (who did not take part in the fighting, but triumphs as though he did—Worldview element) because he couldn’t stomach the sight of a severed human arm. Basically, death and carnage played for humor and choreography’s sake.

Side note - Sexual Content:
If you want to pick out the heroes of the story at a distance, just look for the men who have their shirts unbuttoned halfway down their chests. If you want to spot the lady… try another movie. Elizabeth’s dress gets torn off when Jack rescues her from drowning—okay, sensational at worst. Her father immediately covers her with his coat… which she promptly throws off again, going off to argue with Commodore Norrington (and a lot of other men) in her undergarments. Ladies don’t do that. Nor would a lady invite a man who has declared no romantic interest in her to fondle her hand, much less allow him to run his fingertips down her bosom. It comes pretty naturally to Elizabeth, though.

Are you ready for the final twisted worldview message in Pirates of the Caribbean?

#1: Love sin. Love sin—that’s all. Love it, laugh at it, when Jack steals things, when he takes vengeance, when he engages in drunkenness, deceit, treachery, lust, and—best of all—piracy. Love Norrington for giving him a day’s head start. Love Elizabeth and Governor Swann for being a morally confused mess. Adore Will for being ready to give his life for the proposition that someone can be a pirate and a good man.
Enjoy the paganism—the immortality theme, and the blood sacrifices. Don’t mind it much when heathen gods get more power, more reverence and more screen time than Jesus Christ, who only appears as an informal swear word. Love the vengeance. Love the feminism. Love the relativism. Drink up, me hearties, yo ho.

To love the movie is to love those things. Stop loving those things—hate them, in fact—and what is left of Pirates of the Caribbean? Outdated special effects, a predictable love triangle, a few catchy lines, two pairs of quarrelsome, bumbling side characters, and a compass that doesn’t point north. Oh, and the undead.
It is not worth it.

* “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Romans 12:19, ESV

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