Going on the Account: “Pirates” of the Caribbean?

Trying to write about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has been a little difficult, and it’s only been as of now why it is hard for me to discuss.

It’s not for lack of appreciation, in that the film is by no means the worst tale about the Brethren of the Coast.  There were the requisite number of buckles swashed and do daringly done by the protagonists, and some of the touches were extraordinary; I could easily see a film built around the mermaids themselves with nothing else from the movie present.

Heck, I see such a mermaid film set in modern times directed in the style of John Carpenter, with the setting changed to a Club Med / Sandals Caribbean resort that’s under attack after an oil drilling platform befouls the mermaid resting place, and the displaced need sustenance and spawning partners quickly if they’re going to get through the disaster.  Think Mars Needs Women mashed with Piranha 3D with a much, much better set of effects and script…

But I digress-  No, actually I’m stalling, bear with me…

Despite there being plenty of things to recommend the movie for, for small things and large to both the pirate-sympathetic and the general audience, there was something that seemed off to me.  Part of me wondered if it might be the way the original novel, On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, was subsumed by the screenplay; that’s still something I’m digesting and may with some time to reflect discuss later.  However, it feels to me as though it’s beyond that and that alone, this sense of disturbance.

And then it hit me after a few moments…

We have in the theaters a pirate movie where there’s no piracy!

Seriously, we know the main characters are pirates because one of them is in the dock standing trial as the film opens, before his daring escape, and the term is thrown around quite a lot in mention of what these characters do, but when we see them, they plunder and ransack…

…zero vessels or towns.  They’re too busy dealing with each other or emissaries of King George II while under license from His Majesty on the quest for the Big MacGuffin the Fountain of Youth for them to actually meet their job requirements.

Think about this a moment:  What if they had a movie about cops where none of the cops actually bothered to enforce the law, not even to flash a badge and issue a traffic ticket?  What if we had a movie about firefighters where none of these firefighting characters ever went to the firehouse, responded to an alarm or suited up to go into a fire?  What about a war movie where we are told the characters are soldiers but they don’t even drill?  Imagine if you can a superhero film where the characters don’t actually suit up to fight crime or save the world…

…and the first one of you to shout out, “Hey! That’s Watchmen right there!” I’m going to show the door; that’s one argument we are not having today…

The point is, why talk about pirates if they’re not allowed to be pirates?  In Powers’ book, we see characters actually practice the Sweet Trade; for that matter, in most of the classic pirate films and works there are definite acts of piracy committed by the characters.  There’s even quite a few such acts in some of the less well known works on pirates out there…

(…thought I was going to hotlink back to the novel again for a second there, didn’t ya…?)

But Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t give us a single act of piracy onscreen here.  In fact, there’s not a lot of piracy depicted in any of the four films in the franchise, though with the wild divergences and overcrowded set pieces in the second and third films, it would have been hard to tell they were missing.  Which means that, for four films, we have people who don’t actually do what their job description claim they do.

And that puts the most recent film and whole franchise in a whole new light.  Consider the possibilities as to what we might be seeing here:

  • We have a whole new description of what constitutes being a pirate offered here.  It’s much looser than we’ve known, and rather nebulous in the description, kind of like what being an ‘Executive Producer’ is…
  • Being a pirate is a title of affection in the film’s universe, much the same way you refer to someone as ‘Squire’ or ‘M’lady’ whom you meet at the tavern ashore.  And let me say, these are titles that are much better worn than the usual passing titles New Yorkers get anointed with during a pressing rush hour…
  • There may be a whole host of reasons out there for this, all of them better than the most obvious one that suggests itself…

which is, sadly…

  • …that the pirates in the film are being whitewashed by storytellers who don’t trust their audience to deal with the reality of pirates.

Unfortunately, there are no winners in a situation like this.  To use the word “pirate” to describe someone, then attempt to remove all meaning from the word is to deny the reality of history, myth and tradition.  And once you’ve denied the reality of a character’s background, you’re left with someone without a past, with no roots on which to build their motivation or drive, a character without anything to latch on to.

Likewise, to pretend that pirates are just colorfully dressed sailors who are more likely to behave like costumed heroes or villains, many of which in the films being amateur bossale (save in this film Blackbeard, who is a full-fledged houngan with zombie officers aboard a Queen Anne’s Revenge that looks more menacing than any ship from 1718 ever could have), gives the wrong idea about pirates as a whole, one that diminishes them as a force of history that for all their bloody actions are worthy of our respect.  And a people without a true sense of their own history are one that are left poorer without a foundation for their own back story.

Heads on this cursed doubloon, the film’s characters are cutouts; tails, we’re not well fleshed-out characters ourselves.

And that’s a shame, because we had the pieces here for a decent pirate film that had it been played straight could have been monumental.  Ian McShane could have made a fascinating Edward Teach in his own right; that we first see him enter the scene with black-powder matches tied to his beard and hair alit gave him plenty of menace even before his +3 Sword of Ship Control got drawn.  They even have Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow mention in the script the details of Blackbeard’s actual last encounter at Ocracoke against Maynard, a scene that could have in this film’s crew’s hands been something to behold.  Sadly, this was a lost opportunity.

And if the film is indeed the end-all of all pirate tales for the big screen, there may be plenty of lost opportunities for serious pirate fare that devolves into cartoon, where themes that could have gotten serious treatment through the pirate experience are keel-hauled for the sake of the franchise.

Like I said earlier, there’re plenty of bits to keep you from wishing you were swabbing the decks instead of seeing the film.  The set pieces are entertaining, and the mermaids were interesting.  And who am I to object to Penelope Cruz as a pirate?

Even if “pirate” is a rather loose term here…

All content Copyright © 2011 James Ryan

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Filed under Fiction, Pirates, Writing

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