The Pirate Lieutenant in the Black Pirate (1929), tying up the princess to ensure he can have her after the battle.

Captain Levasseur in Captain Blood (1935). His hostage cowering in front of him, Arabella, will help ease his “loneliness,” whether she likes it or not.

The brutal pirate boatswain of Dancing Pirate (1936), beating and berating the shanghaied dancing instructor.

Captain Billy Leech in The Black Swann (1942), as he torments a captive before carrying her off.

The Hook, the “most bloodthirsty buccaneer in history,” killing his loyal and able mapmaker to hide the location of the treasure in The Princess and the Pirate (1944).

The cruel El Toro, in Long John Silver (1954) (the sequel to Treasure Island), passing a death sentence on the men who have failed him.

The opening scene of the Black Pirate, in which pirates tie their captives to the mast and torment them before blowing their ship to pieces.

Douglas Fairbanks as the Black Pirate, who, ironically, fights piracy the entire film. This poster mobilizes several interpretations of piracy in order to sell the film.

The Black Pirate transforms from impotent son to leader of men through his ruse as a pirate.

Jaime Waring in The Black Swann forcing himself on Lady Margaret. He slaps her unconscious, and, when interrupted while carrying her away like a caveman, throws her to the floor (with a distinctly emphasized crash).

By the end of the film, Waring has rid the Caribbean of pirates and won the heart of the pirate-hating Lady Margaret.

In Captain Blood, Peter Blood resigns as captain when his crew will not blindly follow him into danger for the sake of his love interest.

Captain Blood and his love Arabella ensconced in the Governor’s mansion. Naturally, while they end in the aristocratic surroundings they were born into, his crew remains on the ship.


Beyond the Curse of the Black Pearl

With the success of the first film, Disney “quickly realized that the image on which to capitalize was…the leering pansexual pirate” (Peterson 75). Thus the second, third, and fourth films have all focused on Sparrow and abandoned any examination of the pirate as a criminal. A reincarnated Barbossa and some of his crew have even joined Depp and company in their fight for, in the words of Pirate King Swann, “freemen and freedom.” The gender and sexual ambiguity have also become staples of the series, which is, according to Martin Fradley,

“perhaps the contemporary high-water mark for the mainstreaming of queer theory” (297).

In order to transform the pirate into the perpetually sequelized play of anarchic desire, the series has increasingly disconnected pirates from the act of piracy. Curse of the Black Pearl, while not featuring any robbery at sea, clearly aligns Barbossa’s undead pirate crew with previous acts of theft. As the series continues, however, it creates a fantasy world that is suspiciously lacking in maritime trade, populated instead by all manner of supernatural creatures. Each film centers on the recovery or discovery of some supernatural object or entity that is impossible to actually possess, some motivating, unobtainable McGuffin. Through the deferred objects of desire, the series dematerializes piracy and creates fantasy relations of exchange.

Piracy in the world of the films effectively becomes the desire for freedom and fantasy, and anyone who calls themselves a pirate becomes one. In Dead Man’s Chest, the antagonist and director of the East India Trading Company, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), forces Turner to take an offer of pardon and letters of marque to Sparrow, so he may be “free, a privateer in the employ of England.” Turner objects that Sparrow will not consider “employment the same as being free,” and Cutler exposes that the goal of the East India Trading Company is precisely the destruction of that fantastical freedom:

“Freedom. Jack Sparrow is a dying breed. The world is shrinking. The blank edges of the map filled in. Jack must find his place in the new world or perish.”

Though the films invoke maritime trade with terms like “it’s just good business” and “currency is the currency of the realm,” an exchange of goods is suspiciously lacking throughout the series. The goal of the colonial empires is not to secure commerce but to contain fantasy. In On Strange Tides, the most recent film, the British and Spanish sovereigns vie to prevent each other from reaching the fountain of youth, enlisting Sparrow and Barbossa as aids. The villain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), “the pirate who all pirates fear,” does not rob ships but rather magically shrinks them down and puts them in glass bottles. The pirating of pirates is not robbery but collection and exhibition—a process similar to the redefinition and containment of piracy within cinema. Blackbeard’s motivation for collecting pirate ships is never clear, and the narrative fails to distinguish him from a pirate hunter.

The films demonstrate the evacuation of the meaning of “pirate” most clearly through the characters of Murtogg and Mullroy (Giles New and Angus Barnett), who begin the series as British Royal Navy members and end it (in At World’s End) as pirates. After the pirates have destroyed the East India Company’s flagship and the British Armada retreats in fear, Murtogg and Mullroy find themselves aboard the pirates’ ship. They quickly switch into pirate rags and scream out, “Argghhh” and “Shiver me timbers,” in effect becoming members of the crew. Being a pirate, as Turner and Swann also show, simply means changing one’s clothes and following Jack Sparrow on adventures.

In the world of the CGI blockbuster, piracy is celebrated because it is not really piracy. Yet this is also a world in which gender policing and heteronormativity are remarkably absent, in which queer desire circulates freely. The Pirates of the Caribbean films, through the elision of capital, focus instead on the circulation of desire and the exchange of bodies and identity without social constraint. The cursed pirates of The Black Pearl, who become skeletal under the moonlight; the transmogrified pirates of the Flying Dutchman, part human, part crustacean; the goddess Calypso, trapped in human form; and the pirate drag of Elizabeth Swann and Angelica Teach; bodies within the film morph and change, crossing boundaries between male and female, human and animal, alive and dead. In this world, pirate liberty subsumes rebellion and criminality as piracy disappears within fantasy liberation.

The Classical Hollywood Pirate Film

The elision of piracy and the play of gender identity in the Pirates of the Caribbean series is less novel than it seems at first. In fact, both aspects, as well as the interplay of criminality, rebellion, and utopian revolt, operate in the earlier U.S. pirate films, though much more conservatively. The current pirates bear the influence of their historical intertexts, though they are updated for a more liberal historical moment. Now film companies (even those as “family friendly” as Disney) recognize both the need to respect traditional notions of gender and sexual behavior and the profit of coding their product for gay subcultural appeal (Griffin 119-214; Fradley 310).

Jean-Loup Bourget and Brian Taves posit a coherent and positive pattern of representation in the pirate film. Bourget argues that the pirate film, as a subgenre of the adventure film, “almost inevitably acclaims a pattern of social unrest and revolution” (57). Similarly, Taves situates the pirate film as a subgenre of the “historical adventure” genre, the spirit and conventions of which are summed up in the “Declaration of Independence itself” (219). For both scholars, cinema pirates are the embodiment of rebellion, the outsiders who fight to uphold liberty and equality.

Although Bourget and Taves rightly highlight a tendency of the pirate film to advocate revolt and democracy, the rebel pirates’ eventual domestication and cessation of piracy counters this tendency, as do the numerous representations of evil pirate antagonists. Within the films, the pirate protagonist’s love interest features repeatedly as the agent of domestication and as the target of pirate sexual predators. While never morally compromised by brutality or wanton, selfish theft, the pirate protagonists must nonetheless prove their goodness and righteousness to their love interest. They must ultimately prove that they are not pirates, that they are not like the lecherous, sadistic pirate antagonists.

Mirroring the tripartite schema of pirate interpretation, Hollywood pirates fall into three broad types. The first, and most common, is that of the pirate villain. The second, most-lauded representation superficially celebrates heroic piracy. The third representation positions the pirate ship as a temporary site for the protagonist’s gender transformation. This final representation, the temporary pirate, is a caricature of pirate freedom, in which a radical utopian impulse becomes the correction of gender performance.

The criminal villain

Film after film repeats the representation of pirates as an unrelenting criminals that revel in cruelty. Backstabbing, dissolute, lecherous, and sadistic, these pirates are often grotesquely scarred and larger in size than the other characters, thereby making the villains’ morality visibly legible. Lacking motivations for their piracy and often a backstory, these villains, unlike the other two types of pirates, actually rob ships and commit acts of violence. Their violence is always extreme and unnecessary, as if violence were not a constant part of the 18th century maritime world (Rediker 15). They are also sexual predators, seizing any opportunity to accost an unprotected woman. Like the mustachioed antagonist of early melodrama, the sexual predations of the pirate counterpoise the virtue of the pirate protagonist.

Much of Hollywood cinema functions in the melodramatic mode, as Linda Williams has argued, mixing pathos and action to generate audience affect (42). The pirate film is particularly suited to melodrama because it provides constant sources of pathos, moral polarization, and sensationalism through depictions of suffering bodies, decontextualized iniquity, canon blasts, sword fights, and last minute rescues (Singer 37-58). The pirate as criminal is reminiscent of the “male villains who exploit their greater size, strength, and sadistic guile” to victimize women in the early Serial Queen melodrama of the 1910s and 20s (Singer 253). However, as Ben Singer shows, the earlier Serial Queen films complexly combined victimization with female empowerment representative of the “New Woman,” addressing both anxieties about social change and the increased purchasing power of women during the period (232-255). The pirate films (as will be discussed below) are much more fearful of female power.

One of the earliest films to position the pirate as a villain is The Pirate’s Gold (1908), directed by D.W. Griffith. In it, Young Wilkinson (George Gebhardt) departs for sea, leaving his mother at home. Later, pirates come ashore and, squabbling, kill each other. Before one dies, he convinces Wilkinson’s mother to hide his gold, after which she is struck by lightning. Young Wilkinson returns, marries, and when he is deep in debt, attempts suicide. At the last minute, his wife pushes the gun aside, and the stray bullet reveals the gold, solving Wilkinson’s financial problems (Simmon 146).

In The Pirate’s Gold, the pirates are unimportant in and of themselves. They occupy the role of thieving backstabbers, a foil for Wilkinson, the loving son and husband, who goes off to sea yet does not become a criminal. However, the pirates’ place at the beginning of the film structures the rest, defining Wilkinson’s attempted suicide as a righteous act—first because he would rather kill himself than steal to appease his creditors, and second because it leads to his deserving salvation. Whereas the pirates have no fidelity to anyone, familial piety defines Wilkinson: in his distress and posture, “arms to heaven, palm to breast, hands clutching head,” on the spot of his mother’s death; in his sunlit happiness with his new bride; and in his wife’s vigilance in watching over him after their furniture has been taken, a vigilance that leads her to knock the gun away from his head, revealing the hidden treasure (Simmon 147). Although the film only has fourteen shots, it jumps forward in time four times (Gunning 132), yet through all the passing years Wilkinson does not change, as his essential goodness remains intact as the inverse of the pirates’ wickedness.

Another film that foregrounds this villainous representation of pirates, while also demonstrating the superficial celebration of piracy and the pirate ship as a space of transformation, is Albert Parker’s Douglas Fairbanks vehicle, The Black Pirate (1929). Within the film, pirates are particular only in their general dastardliness. The first scene opens onto the pirate symbol par excellence, the Jolly Roger, and shows a pirate captain looting dead bodies as his crew binds seamen to the mast before igniting a powder keg. To emphasize the pirates’ depravity, the camera closes in on a small seaman below deck who furtively swallows a ring. The pirate captain, while reveling at the gunpowder trail being laid, notices the act and orders another pirate to cut out the ring. The camera remains with the captain while his order is carried out, as he picks his teeth and spits, showing no concern for the loss of human life. He then wipes the ring off, looks at it approvingly, and pockets it.

The pirates’ viciousness in the film significantly differs from its advertising strategy. A promotional poster for the Apollo Theatre repeatedly designates Fairbanks as the daring pirate hero, while the film itself shows pirates as barbarous villains opposing him. The film and poster utilize different discourses and conceptions of piracy. In marketing the film, the poster celebrates pirates as romantic figures; within the film though, the narrative revolves around Fairbanks defeating the murderous scourges of humanity. The title furthers this conflation by positioning Fairbanks as a pirate, though he is actually a Duke pretending to be a pirate in the film. The variability of positioning and generic designation demonstrates the pragmatic (i.e. context dependent and institutionally specific) nature of both piracy and genre.

The poster also betrays pirate portrayals’ homoerotic potential. Though the bottom of the poster asserts the character’s heterosexuality, the top hints at Fairbanks’ sexual availability with his crotch thrust forward as he clutches two smoking cannons. Through the poster’s polysemy, the bold Buccaneer’s body becomes “The Adventure Of A Lifetime!” that any viewer may have. Daniel Cornell writes that Fairbanks’ body functions within The Black Pirate as the film’s motivating spectacle, specifically coded as a site of sexual pleasure for both heterosexual women and gay men (79). Although Cornell does not consider heterosexual, identificatory male pleasure in Fairbanks' body, his essay underlines the multiplicity of discourses operating within the film and its marketing, as well as the hypermasculinity of Fairbanks’ costuming and the coded relationship to his stalwart mate (86). While the narrative insists on its heterosexual plot, Fairbanks’ unclothed body and the sailors’ homosocial bonds suggest other possibilities aboard the pirate ship. The film illustrates the liberty associated with the pirate ship through its sexual ambiguity and Fairbanks’ transformation from impotent victim of pirates to bare-chested braggadocio and soon-to-be husband.

The superficial celebration of the rebel pirate

The problematic relation between Fairbanks’ Black Pirate and the act of piracy prefigures an entire era of Hollywood’s separating pirates from the act that determines their designation. The Black Swan (1942) is typical of the studio films’ rejection of piracy, as the script relates the conversion of Captain Jamie Waring (Tyron Power) from buccaneer to pirate hunter. This conversion begins with Waring’s infatuation for a British Lord’s daughter, Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara), who promises him on their first meeting that she will see him hang from the gallows. Their relationship develops in tandem with Waring’s reluctant acceptance of his role as state agent under the direction of Captain Morgan (Laird Cregar), recently appointed governor of Jamaica.

The film ends after Waring has defeated his former comrades who refused to cease pirating, and the defeat allows Waring and Margaret to finally kiss and acknowledge their union. Captain Morgan closes the film, commenting,

“There he goes; it’s the end of the Spanish Main.”

While the “Spanish Main” signifies the territory claimed by Spain during the early colonization of the Americas, in Morgan’s dialogue it means the pirate way of life, incompatible with monogamy and domesticity. The Black Swan makes strikingly clear the motivations of the pirate hero, as Waring’s conversion from pirate to heroic pirate hunter intertwines the pursuit of his former comrades and the abandonment of his casual, rough sexuality.

Within these films, pirate rebellion becomes the defeat of a particular villain, not a revolt against a corrupt system, and it ends in monogamy. The pretexts for the pirate hero come primarily from the novels of Rafael Sabatini, such as Captain Blood: His Odyssey, The Fortunes of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and The Black Swan. Sabatini excelled in creating heroes who were “good and innocent men turned, through no fault of their own, to fugitives and outlaws” (Voorhees 201). The heroes’ goal is to prove that they have, in the words of Captain Blood, the “rags of honour” (Sabatini 169). Of course, they never act in such a way as to actually seem dishonorable, but their status as “pirates” prompts the love interests’ initial disdain and rejection. In this way as well, these films fit within the melodramatic mode, which

“tends to become the dramaturgy of virtue misprized and eventually recognized…the drama of recognition” (Brooks 27).

The pirate overcomes his love interest’s initial condemnation by devotion to the woman, which, in Sabatini’s novels, is the “only religion of a hero” (Voorhees 201). Monogamous heterosexuality spurs the fight against piracy while guaranteeing the pirate has a conscience, belief in justice, and sense of patriotism. After pirates have accepted the yoke of monogamy, they can fulfill their duty as legitimate defenders of liberty and country, but only after. As David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson observe, the classical Hollywood film features at least two interrelated lines of action, one almost always a heterosexual romance (16). In the pirate film, the resolution of the heterosexual romance invariably involves the renunciation or transcendence of piracy, intimately wedding the pirate’s redemption as legitimate citizen with the romantic action line.

Although, as Richard E. Bond has demonstrated, these films often modeled extralegal behaviors for U.S. audiences that were in line with the democratic principles and military actions of the U.S. government in the interwar and postwar years (309), the films, like the U.S. government, routinely subverted egalitarian and democratic decision-making. Importantly, in these scripts pirate heroes repeatedly undermine the crew’s democratic decisions for the sake of their love interest. In Captain Blood (1935), the eponymous character played by Errol Flynn goes against the desires of his crew so he can return to Port Royal, where they are wanted for piracy. His decision to endanger all their lives is a paradoxical attempt to demonstrate to his love interest, Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), that he is not simply “a thief and a pirate.” The film ends with Blood becoming the governor of Barbados, where he was once a slave (slavery and monarchial tyranny forced him into piracy). The film ends before Blood must oversee the same the slave auctions and plantations he fled from (Bond 314-315), containing his revolt in a closing two shot.

In the end, Captain Blood reintegrates its hero into the world he fought against without changing that world. Rather than structural transformation, the film advocates a change of management:

“History in this film is used as a setting to allow for daring adventures while reinforcing a particular social order that is being menaced…the hero confronts the destabilizing force to reaffirm a well-ordered community” (Gerassi-Navarro 137).

In this respect, the pirate is similar to the hero of the western and the noir film, in that they uphold the legal systems and social institutions yet exist outside them (Cawelti 245). Unlike the marginal figures of those other genres, the pirate ultimately reintegrates into society: whereas the cowboy rides back into the wilderness and the detective returns to his lonely office and bottle of scotch, the pirate hero ends the film in the arms of his beloved.

Pre-cinema, pirates were romantic symbols because they resisted class-based injustice, not because they reaffirmed “a well ordered community” and upheld heterosexual coupling. The rewriting of class-based rebellion undermines their role as social bandits, the very role that contributed to their popular celebration during the 18th and 19th century. Not surprisingly, many of the pirate heroes in these films are from the aristocracy or positioned superior to the men under their command (Earle 8; Bond 314). As “nobility allows the abuse of power” (Turley 39), these gentlemen pirates have a class position that allows them to flaunt the law and reenter legitimate society, unlike social bandits who can only live short lives on the margin.

In order to facilitate this reintegration, the films downplay the pirate protagonists’ pillaging of merchant ships and finally have them discard the activity. Captain Blood mitigates Blood’s violence against merchant sailors by collapsing his piracy into a short montage of sword fights, hiding the human damage caused by forcibly boarding and subduing another ship.

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