In The Crimson Pirate, the quartermaster Humble Bellows continually complains that they are not engaged in piracy but other activities: gun running (which is “business”), not molesting a fair maiden, “letting a fat fish off the hook” (letting rebels go instead of ransoming them), and not being willing “to sell [out one’s] friend, his sweetheart, or his mother.”

The Crimson Pirate ends not with the pirates sailing away to pillage new shores, but with a close up of the Crimson Pirate embracing the rebel leader’s daughter, with whom he sided against his own crew.

In Against All Flags Brian Hawke teaching Spitfire Stephens how ladies “attract the attention of the gallants.” The female pirate’s domestication begins with lessons on femininity.

Stephens goes from a pirate captain who takes pleasure from men to a woman needing rescue.

Anne of the Indies. Pierre François LaRochelle, pretend pirate and spy for the British, teaching Captain Anne Providence how to act like a wench and “wait for men to make the moves.”

Anne of the Indies. Anne in her final act, sacrifices herself so the man she loves and his wife can survive.

Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate, first in drag hiding from pirates, then in pirate drag defeating them.

The Boy, in Captain Kidd’s Kids, infantilized and incompetent until he meets pirates.

The Captain Mother, slapping around the boy and making him her servant.

The Boy, post pirate encounter, suddenly has the courage to threaten the Mother. His transformation closes the narrative.

The Frenchman’s Creek. Dona St. Columb telling her pirate lover goodbye because she cannot leave her child: “A man may be free if at all costs he will, but a woman, a woman cannot escape for a night and a day.”

Minnelli's The Pirate: Serafin, the rogue, dancing around the town square, moving from woman to woman, singing, “When I arrive in any town, / I look the ladies up and down, /And when I've picked my fav'rite flame, / This is my patter, no matter her name: / Niña, Niña, Niña, Niña.”

Serafin dancing the Pirate Ballet, leaving a “flaming trail of masculinity” across the town.



The Crimson Pirate is the most self-conscious film in regards to its abandonment of piracy, with a running commentary on what is not piracy. The quartermaster, Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), protests throughout the film that the crew has strayed from piracy by helping rebels. Though “piracy” according to Bellows is stereotypically dastardly, his interruptions foreground that the film does not repeat its initiating act of piracy. Eventually he is unable to remain in a pirate film and volunteers for a suicide mission, stating, “If I can’t live like a pirate, I’ll die like one.” Announcing the cessation of piracy upfront, the film begins with an extra-diegetic monologue in which the main character, the Crimson Pirate (Burt Lancaster), declares,

“You’ve been shanghaied aboard for the last cruise of the Crimson Pirate.”

In the two films featuring prominent female pirates, the women not only must cease pirating, they must also go through a process of feminization. In Against All Flags (1952), Spitfire Stephens (Maureen O’Hara), a pirate captain of the mythical Liberia, undergoes feminization at the hands of Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn), an English officer pretending to be a pirate. Through her love of Hawke, Stephens betrays her pirate brethren, abandons her aggressive sexuality, and ends up a prisoner of the British, dependent on Hawke for her freedom and broken to his will. No longer called Spitfire, but rather by her real name, Prudence, Stephens ends in the arms of her British spy.

The eponymous Anne (Jean Peters) of Anne of The Indies (1951) begins as the plague of the English, a pirate so cruel and fierce that all believe her to be a man. Very quickly though, her love for the suave Pierre François LaRochelle (Louis Jourdan), a French merchant captain pretending to be a pirate to capture her, undermines her authority and mission to destroy the English. Anne’s transformation entails receiving training from LaRochelle on how to dress like a lady and leads to the betrayal of her mentor and surrogate father Blackbeard. Yet unlike Prudence, she does not intend to give up piracy, and the film concludes as she sacrifices herself and her entire crew to ensure that her former lover and his wife survive. As they go from self-serving rogues to dependent, “love blind fools” (Anne of the Indies), the female pirates of these two films reflect the ideological pressure placed upon women in the post-war period to abandon the independence they gained through wartime employment (Chafe 178-193; Cowan 203-207).

The pirate rebel/hero and the pirate criminal/villain thus signify radically different relationships to the act of piracy. Whereas the pirate hero journeys to respectability and monogamy through the eradication of piracy, the pirate villain embraces it as a means for sadism. The villain is a static and unchanging presence, committing piracy not for economic profit but for the pure love of brutality. He can neither develop nor regret; only persist in his corruption, and as such must be purged from the world for narrative closure. The pirate hero however, is capable of change, love, and redemption. His piracy within the films, though decried by his love interest, is often off screen, never brutal, and forgotten when he rejoins the now corrected society. The female pirate, when she appears, can persist under the supervision of a man.

The liberty of the temporary pirate

As the pirate film denies the radical democratic order pirates constructed on board the stolen merchant ship, it instead transforms discourses of pirate liberty into gender transformation. In several films, temporary pirates find themselves underneath the Jolly Roger, absorbing the pirates’ agency and masculinity and thus inverting the film’s original relations. Pirate liberty manifests itself here only as a trace, as a temporary fracture, localized around the masculinization of a character.

In The Princess and the Pirate, Sylvester the Great (Bob Hope) travesties and impersonates pirate Captain Barret (Victor McLaglen), usurping the captain’s masculine authority. Dressing in the guise of the vicious pirate, this pirate drag disrupts the narrative logic and turns Sylvester’s impotence (symbolized by a piece of celery going limp in his hand at the sight of Barret) into courage. Although Hope’s character (and onscreen persona) never fully loses his comical timidity, during his brief impersonation as pirate captain he becomes gruff and commanding, inspiring fear and awe.

Thus, the key moment in the temporary pirate films occurs when the protagonist assumes the pirate’s place, either by joining the pirate crew or as in The Princess and the Pirate by impersonation. The protagonist occupies the position only temporarily, however, and the pirate ship or the pirate’s outfit functions as a space for the protagonist to redefine their position within the diegetic world before ultimately giving up the position. The symbolic importance of the pirate within these films is indicated by the constant use of the pirate’s name or simply the word “pirate” in the film titles.

Captain Kidd’s Kids is an early, blatant slapstick example of this type. This 1919 comedy short directed by Hal Roach relates the story of the Boy (Harold Lloyd) as he tries to follow his fiancé to the Canary Islands after her mother prohibits their marriage. In a dream, he encounters female pirates (Captain Kidd’s Kids of the title), with the captain and first mate played by the same actors as the Mother and the fiancée. The animosity between the Boy and Mother is repeated, with the Captain forcing the Boy into servitude and humiliation. Eventually male pirates overrun the ship and the Boy summons the courage to rescue his love. Once awake and strengthened by his encounter with dream pirates, he threatens the Mother with physical violence and reunites with his beloved.

After the dream sequence, the Boy is suddenly free from matriarchal authority, as is his fiancée. The mother’s power is replaced by the boy’s newfound masculinity, a masculinity that materialized through his encounter with pirates. The boy changes from the cause of disruption (slapstick pratfalls and miscommunication) to the source of order, defeating the male pirate crew and saving his fiancée. This temporary, oneiric empowerment translates into action, allowing him to dominate the castrating mother and resolve the narrative. This transformation’s gendered nature, and its ability to subvert the reigning relations of the non-dream world, recalls the utopian desire for liberty associated with pirates, though channeled into the plot and the character’s lack of action.

In both historical and fictional accounts, the sea is a masculine space, a place to “make a man” (Rediker 110). Seafaring was and continues to be a male-dominated profession, and and the enlightenment's gendering of social spacee strengthened the connection between the ship and masculinity (Creighton viii-xi). The pirate, as the aggressive, violent, hypermasculine anti-hero of the sea, furthers this connection, yet as Isabell Karreman has argued, the overwhelming excess of pirate masculinity can become effeminacy. Adopting Eve Sedgweick’s notion of gender identities as “threshold effects,” Karreman demonstrates through historical and literary analysis how

“the quantitative augmentation of manliness, namely [the pirate’s] conspicuous display of fierceness and physical prowess, can suddenly become visible as a qualitative difference, as something else altogether” (3).

Pirate hypermasculinity, by pushing masculine gender performance to excess, becomes effeminacy because it reveals the performative nature of all gendered behavior. Within the films under discussion, however, pirate gender performance remains relatively constrained, rarely crossing the threshold between masculinity and femininity. Instead, the film pirates are the threshold, the demarcation between the normal world and another, freer world crossed into by the protagonist. Whereas patriarchal ideology holds that gender aligns monolithically with physical sex, pirates activate the continuum of possible human behavior, changing effete boys into men, as in Captain Kidd’s Kids, or correcting female behavior.

In the Frenchman’s Creek (1944), Dona St. Columb (Joan Fontaine) leaves her incompetent husband and embarks on a romance with a pirate, joining him on raids and dressing as a pirate. However, when he asks her to leave with him, she declines, returning to her family and her role as mother. Her experiences, rather than liberating her, finally reveal her proper place: the home. The liberty of the pirate ship exists as a potential, but one primarily dictated by the era’s gender norms.

However, the narratives’ patriarchal thrust is not absolute. Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948), one of the famed Freed Unit’s musicals, shows an alternative possibility. Manuela (Judy Garland) has an ongoing fantasy about the dread pirate, Mack the Black Macoco. As Manuela is about to marry the town mayor, the traveling actor Serafin (Gene Kelly) attempts to seduce her. To fit her fantasies, Serafin pretends to be Macoco and takes the town hostage, leading to a series of comic misunderstandings.

The film portrays the reverse metamorphosis of Captain Kidd’s Kid, with Serafin morphing from hypermasculine cad to dependent lover. Serafin’s first dance number, “Niña,” establishes him as a philanderer who cannot remain attached to any woman. Yet his autonomy and lack of attachment slowly break down, as he pretends to be a pirate to convince Manuela to join the acting troupe and, secondarily, to love him. In one number, “The Pirate Ballet,” Serafin becomes a fantasy pirate, dancing amongst fire and sliding down rigging a la Douglas Fairbanks. Steve Cohan notes that the pleasure of the scene is “the erotic spectacle of Kelly’s scantily clothed body as he twirls and leaps against the fiery red backdrop” (179). The scene’s excesses cross the threshold of hypermasculinity, offering up Kelly’s body to Manuela and the audience.

Pirate ambiguity shifts the musical numbers from masculinity to femininity, from camp to sentimentality. The machismo of “Niña” becomes the homoerotic appeal of the male body in “The Pirate Ballet” described above, and leads to the admission of love in the sentimental “You Can Do No Wrong.” The remaining musical numbers feature both characters singing in tandem as equals—a reversal from the previously over the top, isolated numbers. Cohan remarks that the plot of The Pirate follows a different trajectory than Kelly’s other films:

“As the plot plays itself out, his multilayered masculine impersonations (performer as womanizer as pirate as performer) do not lead to his final disclosure of a more authentic male concealed by the macho mask, as happens in other Kelly musicals” (182).

Instead, the masculine performance is shown inadequate, and the character’s temporarily playing pirate corrects it.

In this film, the camp sensibility of the Freed unit and the flamboyant contradictions of the musical spectacles reveal the constructed nature of pirate hypermasculinity. Imbued with a gay sensibility, it reverses the more common correction of masculine and feminine behavior in the temporary pirate films. Whether aligning with patriarchal notions of acceptable gender performance or undermining them, the temporary pirate enacts a liberating potential localized around gender. The temporary pirate reveals the return of the repressed sexual possibilities and gender performances aboard the pirate ship.


Piracy in cinema is ambivalent. When present, it is villainous, threatening, and excessively violent. Yet it continues on, if only as a trace, in the pirate heroes who combat, erase, and preempt it. The continuance of pirates in cinema, even if disconnected from piracy, testifies to the power of the pirate as a cultural figure. But what is this power? What cultural desires do pirates without piracy tap into?

Martin Fradley proposes that popular culture’s fascination with pirates originates in the desire for

“a malleable fantasy space into which individual and collective yearnings have long been displaced and projected” (300).

For Fradley, these yearnings are primarily sexual, a response to the prohibitions of the “heterosexual matrix” for a “queer outlaw” (301). Yet the “piratical imaginary” need not only be about outlawed sexual desire and gender performance.

The projection of cultural transgressions onto the gaps in pirate history is, as Turley observes, intimately wed to the pirate’s status as economic outlaw (41-42). As the films up until the 1960s show, U.S. cinema decreed acts of piracy as iniquitous, but nonetheless relied on the figure of the pirate as a romantic, though highly limited, rebel protagonist. Villainous pirates and reluctant pirates fulfilled the generic requirements of melodrama, with its penchant for Manichean morality and the recognition of virtue. A pirate plot also fit well into The Motion Picture Production Code (1930-1968), with its imperatives that crimes against the law “shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime [...] or to inspire others with a desire for imitation,” that films should never make “criminals seem heroic and justified” (“The Production).

That filmmakers and audiences turned to the pirate to fulfill these requirements speaks to a desire for economic rebellion as contradictory as the cinematic portrayal of pirates. It is highly suggestive that the pirate was continuously present in U.S. cinema through the Gilded Age and the devastation following the great Depression, but that it ceased to speak to audiences during the prosperity which followed World War II. As the United States experienced the rapid expansion of its middle class and union power, as well as the Civil Rights and countercultural movements, production of pirate films slowed to a trickle. The films made in the decades following the 1950s were neither critical nor commercial successes, convincing later filmmakers “that pirate films don’t work” (Surrell 118).

The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean series and its embrace of “the story sensibilities of the golden age of Hollywood pirate movies” (Shewman 51) has likewise coincided with U.S. and global wealth inequality reaching volatile proportions. It has coincided with the implications of a second gilded age dawning on legislators and the public, with both lauded and largely unsupported grassroots attempts to reverse the effects of the disparity. Are not the pirates of the current series, who fight for freedom from stability, boundaries, and control, similar to global capitalism, which defies prediction, problematizes local, national, and regional boundaries, and undermines attempts at regulation? Are not the very films that represent pirates’ economic transgressions entangled in the production and commodification of desire? The celebration of the pirate film during times of economic disparity suggests that pirates answer yearnings both for action against inequality and the desire for wealth that inequality provides. Perhaps the pirate film, with its ambivalent relation to economic transgression, answers an equally ambivalent desire, providing audiences with criminals without crime, rebellion without revolution, and liberty without anarchy.

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