The “Treasure Room” of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride foretells the fate of those who lust after gold.
Howard Pyle’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, first published in Collier’s Weekly in 1899. Many of the scenarios, and even scenes, from Pyle’s paintings have been reproduced in pirate films.
Howard Pyle’s Which Shall Be Captain? was first published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in 1911. This particular scene appears in The Black Pirate and is then recreated in several studio era pictures.
The animatronic pirates torture the townspeople for information, causing suffering on an unending loop.
“The Auction,” in which pirates bid on wenches, insinuates that pirates were sex traffickers and rapists.
The villainous pirate crew in Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Within the film, moonlight reveals what pirates really are: monsters.
Will Turner, the blacksmith turned reluctant pirate. Throughout the first film, he negotiates the moral status of the pirate, trying to reconcile his “pirate blood” with his dedication to love and righteousness.
The Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Elizabeth Swann, the daughter of the Governor of Jamaica, constrained by her bodice. As the character representing the “romance of the pirate,” she rebels against her class and the social limits of her gender.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read, as represented in Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. The illustrations present the women’s breasts, cross-dressing, and weaponry to stress their defiance of gender roles.
Swann and Sparrow in the climax of Dead Man’s Chest, as she chains him to the mast to be devoured by the Kraken. Her major moral dilemma, the killing of Sparrow, she accomplishes indirectly through seduction and subterfuge, and it haunts her until he is reincarnated. Sparrow calls her a “pirate.”
Angelica Teach in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). Her queer impersonation of Sparrow reflects his narcissism and confuses his desire.
The treasure room on the Isla de Muerta, which holds the accumulated booty of a decade of piracy. The crew of the Black Pearl cannot spend it due to the curse.
Sparrow in At World’s End, seeing his fate reflected in the dead Kraken’s eye. The Kraken is killed by its master, Davy Jones, under the orders of Lord Cutler Beckett. Sparrow, pondering his fate, observes that though the world has not changed, “there is less in it.”
The Spanish soldiers of On Stranger Tides care nothing for piracy. Instead, their goal is to destroy the fantastic fountain of youth to ensure that “only God can grant eternal life.”
Murtog and Mullroy begin as stalwart, though bungling, soldiers of the British Navy in Curse of the Black Pearl and end up pirates through a simple change of clothes and vernacular.
Released in 2003, the Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl grossed $654.3 million in worldwide box office and earned a Screen Actor’s Guild award for Johnny Depp in the role of Captain Jack Sparrow (“Pirates of the Caribbean Special Briefing”; “Awards Pirates”). The second film in the series, Dead Man’s Chest, grossed one billion dollars worldwide, while the third and fourth, At World’s End and On Stranger Tides, grossed roughly the same (“Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise”). At this point, Pirates of the Caribbean, with four films released and a fifth in development, has brought in $3.7 billion dollars worldwide in box office sales, making it the seventh highest grossing series ever (“Film Franchises”).
Disney executives began development on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as a way to capitalize on and cross-promote the various Pirates of the Caribbean rides. According to Walt Disney Studio executive Brigham Taylor,
Opened in in Disneyland in 1967, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride marked Disney’s entry into three-dimensional, animatronic story telling. The ride floats passengers on flat bottom boats through the haunted caverns of Dead Man’s Cove, past a pirate galleon bombarding a colonial fort, and through a besieged town as pirates torment captives, auction wenches, and attempt to escape from a subterranean jail. The ride, the “‘crown jewel’ of the Disney theme park experiences” (Surrell 7), was so successful that the company recreated it in each of the future theme parks, introducing the pirates to park attendees in Florida, Japan, and Paris.
Following the success of the films, the franchise now encompasses many products:
This kind of synergy, at which Disney excels, is only possible during the current period of media convergence, in which not only texts cross media barriers, but in which media company conglomeration facilitates such crossing through orchestrated production, marketing, distribution, and exhibition.
Yet the intertextual network that informs the films does not begin with the ride, nor does the ride particularly inform the later manifestations. As Anne Peterson stresses,
The Disney “Imagineer” primarily responsible for the design of the ride, Marc Davis, was inspired by a conflation of graphic, cinematic and literary representations. Like Douglas Fairbanks and other filmmakers, Davis drew from the work of U.S. illustrator Howard Pyle (Surrell 24), whose many magazine pieces and posthumously published Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates single-handedly codified the iconography of early modern piracy. Through Pyle’s illustrations, pirate costuming developed as distinct from that of other sailors, and films have repeated the costuming and standardized the portrayal so thoroughly that bandanas, ragged breeches, open necked shirts, and faded doublets now signify a character type instead of the amalgamation of the Stuart era fashion and working class clothing (Lubin 167-181). Yet in adopting Pyle’s visual motifs, later artists have ignored the “array of social and economic concerns” his drawings “symbolically addressed,” such as class strife, economic policy, U.S. aggression, and colonial oppression (Lubin 177).
While researching pirates for his designs, Davis felt the historical realities took “a lot of the glamour out of these characters.” According to Davis’ research, pirates
Davis’ disappointment with history betrays a desire for the pirate hero of the Hollywood film, the debonair aristocrats that save helpless damsels in distress. His “real pirates,” however, betray the blending of history and moral censure to produce a Puritan-inflected view of pirates as sexual deviants and absolute criminals.
Tamed for a family audience, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride weaves together a series of tableaus in which pirates torment hapless citizens, auction off women, and chase gold. Irredeemably immoral, yet still bungling and dissolute, the pirates of the ride offer a stark portrayal of pirate life as one of unrestrained excess and predation. As Davis remarks, a ride
The riders’ experience of the scenes are not structured by their linear progression; the scenes exist simultaneously and independently, activating already present cultural conceptions (Aarseth 7). “The idea of pirates” within the ride is, of course, an idea of pirates that frames them within a particularly simplified Manichean morality, in which crime is a mark of character, not a social construction. This portrayal combines themes of anarchy and criminality while denying any rebellion in piracy.
Espen Aarseth, writing of relations between the ride, the first film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and simultaneously-released Pirates of the Caribbean video game, calls attention to the particular lack of shared content between the three media manifestations of the same property (7). Though the film and the game were released to exploit the ride, aside from the shared name and a few visual allusions, there is little overlap between the texts. Applying John Cawelti’s distinction between the cultural and structural levels of popular fiction to Pirates of the Caribbean and other transmedia properties, Aarseth argues that what transfers across media is not content but rather concepts. What transfers between the history of pirates and the rides, the celluloid films, and the digital film and video game texts made about them is not the stories of pirates, but rather the concepts associated with their stories adapted to each medium’s narrative, generic, structural, and industrial conventions.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The first film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Curse of the Black Pearl, complicates the ride’s simple portrayal of pirate villainy by splitting the pirates into two groups. It tells the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) as they circumnavigate their various desires for treasure, revenge, the Black Pearl (a ship), and each other. Barbosa, who was previously Sparrow’s first mate, helms the Black Pearl with his pirate crew. They are searching for a piece of cursed Aztec gold held by Swann, who is the Governor of Jamaica’s daughter, and, in tandem with the gold, a descendant of Boot Strap Bill Turner, who is Will’s father. Without the final gold piece and the descendant, they will continue on as cursed monsters that cannot “feel,” lacking the pleasures of taste, touch, and smell. Sparrow wants to avenge himself on Barbosa for leading a mutiny against him and to once again be captain of the Pearl. Turner wants to marry Swann, though his station as a blacksmith’s apprentice makes such a union seemingly impossible. The combinations of these various desires and each of the main characters’ ignorance of the others’ desires propel the plot. Eventually Turner, Swann, and Sparrow defeat Barbosa and his undead crew.
Barbosa, as the unregenerate pirate villain, proves himself bloodthirsty, heartless, and backstabbing. He and his crew are unregenerate sadists, literally incapable of feeling due to the cursed treasure and doomed to live forever without empathy or sensation as phantasmagoric sociopaths. Will Turner opposes Barbosa as the good pirate, though Will is a reluctant pirate, who practices sword fighting “three hours a day” so that when he meets a pirate he “may kill it.” The first film is Turner’s journey to become a pirate, his growing understanding that, in his own words, one can be a pirate “and a good man.” Turner’s piracy, however, only encompasses the theft of a single navy ship, spurred by the British Royal Navy’s refusal to chase after Barbosa and crew after they kidnap Elizabeth. The film, in fact, crystalizes in the moment when Elizabeth tells her father that she will marry beneath her station. Replying to his comment that Turner is a blacksmith, she murmurs lovingly, “No. He’s a pirate.” Yet his piracy is meager (at best), and “his transgressions are subordinated to the plot’s overarching focus on the quest for love” (Pugh 8). In his case, piracy clearly upholds the very laws that it breaks, but without questioning the social hierarchies the laws support. Governor Swann (Jonathon Pryce) sums up the film’s equivocation in the dénouement:
According to screenwriters Elliot and Rossio, “Elizabeth is the protagonist [in the film], representing the idea of the romance of the pirate” (Shewman 51). The daughter of the colonial Governor of Jamaica, she is more threatened by a marriage proposal than the pirate attack, and her attraction to pirates clearly stems from the constraints of her gender and her class position. Aboard the pirate ship, she finds the freedom to admit her love for Will and to erase all the previous limits society placed on her. As the series continues, she becomes not only a skilled swordsman and mariner but eventually the pirate King, leading all the world’s pirates to war with the East India Company.
Her rejection of the limited options within patriarchal society recalls the stories of the infamous Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Both female pirates were captured upon the ship of “Calico” Jack Rackam in 1720 and sentenced to hang, but found respite from execution when they revealed their pregnancies. The many versions of these women’s tales center on the transgression “of the lines separating men from women” and the juxtaposition of femaleness, which saved them from hanging, and ferocity and cruelty (Paravisini-Gebert 92). For instance, Anne Bonny, when visited by her lover on the day of his execution, supposedly told him “that she was sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a man, he need not have been hanged like a dog” (Johnson 131). Similarly, Mary Read pre-empted a duel between her lover and another pirate by challenging the contestant and killing him in a fight with sword and pistol (Johnson 123). Female cross-dressing during the early modern period, especially to pass as soldiers and sailors, was primarily a proletarian practice; working class women wore men’s clothes so they could fulfill the hard labor that went along with those careers. The women’s stories, circulated in popular ballads of “warrior women” and celebrated by proletarian men and women alike, directly conflicted with the discourses of feminine nature prevalent at the time (Rediker 112-115).
Unlike her historical predecessors, however, Swann is an aristocrat, and therefore she fits the pattern of de-proletarianized heroes common in classical Hollywood cinema (Hark 4; Bond 315). As the series progresses, she cross-dresses and fights alongside the other pirates, becoming one of the most armed and (supposedly) dangerous women in the world (Fradley 303). Yet once extracted from colonial society, her rebellion against gender and class evaporate, and the series is careful to never question her physical ability or to represent her as brutal and threatening. She ends her tale pregnant, on land, waiting patiently for her love.
Captain Jack Sparrow, the other main character, embodies the trope of pirates as anarcho-libertarian. In his first encounter with Sparrow, Turner reacts in disgust to the pulling of a gun in a sword fight, saying, “You cheated,” to which Sparrow mockingly responds, “Pirate.” In all of the situations he enters, Sparrow transforms the standard codes of operating and roles of the participants, as symbolized by his strategy for escape and attack, which proceed without plan and metamorphose his surroundings from mundane objects into whatever contingency demands. Sparrow explicitly articulates the alignment of piracy with liberty when he describes his desire to recapture his ship, which motivates him throughout the series:
The running joke of the series, however, is that Sparrow is the best and the worst pirate ever. The inconstancy of his desire leads to the endless loss and recapture of his ship, as well as his liberty. The character demonstrates the contradiction inherent in total liberty: that one individual’s total liberty will restrain the liberty of others. In this vein, Sparrow’s desire to save himself causes the incarceration and near death of each of his comrades, as well as the constant mutiny of his crews.
It is also this free-floating, liberated desire that marks the character as queer. Depp’s performance, based on Keith Richards and Pepe LePew (Blunt), clashes pirate masculinity with glam-rock femininity. Depp’s performance and the character Sparrow’s influence over the other characters confuse distinctions throughout the film: alive or dead, friend or enemy, masculine or feminine, gay or straight. Heike Steinhoff, in one of the first articles to analyze the film, argues that “rather than simply reproducing cultural dichotomies, Captain Jack Sparrow’s representation unsettles binary categorizations.” The film’s
Not surprisingly, the historical ambiguities of actual pirate lives have likewise spawned queer readings. B. R. Burg claims,
The homosocial nature of pirate communities suggests high incidences and acceptance of homosexual activity, without the censure of the dominant homophobic culture (Burg 69). In this formulation, the rebellion of the sailor through the crime of piracy influences the rejection of social and religious prohibitions as a celebration of liberty (Burg 110). Turley sums up the logical connection between pirate criminality and pirate sexuality thus:
The semantic, legal, and moral instability of piracy, coupled with the lack of prohibitions in the same sex maritime world of the pirate, produce a subject that “highlights the instability of sexual and gendered identity, and the instability of dichotomies represented by gender, sexual desire, masculinity, and capital” (Turley 42).
Depp’s “pirating” of the pirate film foregrounded pirates’ sexual and gender ambiguities in a way that was not originally scripted (Peterson 75). In fact, the direction in which Deep took the character was so radical that Disney CEO Michael Isner reportedly felt Depp was “ruining the movie,” and Depp’s performance caused other executives to ask if the pirate was gay (Smith). Believing that this ambiguity had the potential to derail the video game and merchandising efforts, as well as Disney’s carefully constructed family image, the company downplayed Depp in prerelease promotional materials and instead foregrounded the sinister nature of the other pirates (Peterson 75). The film’s overwhelming success and Sparrow’s acclaim caused them to change strategies and the focus of the future films.