2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
Pirates without piracy: criminality, rebellion, and anarcho-libertarianism in the pirate film
by Michael D. High
In an early scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Johnny Depp’s widely popular character, Captain Jack Sparrow, faces a mutinous crew. The crew revolts because Sparrow has returned from his foray into a demonic fort without anything “shiny,” because “dear old Jack isn’t serving their best interests as captain,” because under his command they have not done “a speck of honest pirating.” Sparrow, as he so often does in the series, mollifies the crew with empty promises and verbal trickery, and they ignorantly proceed on a quest for the heart of an immortal sailor who ferries dead souls to the afterlife. Yet this moment between the crew and Sparrow reveals an overlooked truth about the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the pirate film in general: film pirates rarely, and in many cases never, commit piracy. Far from celebrating piracy, the pirate film separates pirates from the act itself, eliding representations of robbery at sea and punishing those who commit it.
A perennial, though minor, subject in U.S. cinema, narratives featuring pirates have appeared every couple years since the beginning of the medium with Three of a Kind: A Pirate’s Dream (1901). The most beloved and iconic pirate films, until recently, came from the classical Hollywood era (1927-1960), and these specifically focused on pirates operating in the Caribbean. The success and cultural significance of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbeanseries, with four films released and a fifth film slated for 2015, has reinvigorated cinematic piracy after a relative dearth of films from the 1960s through the 1990s. The reemergence and success of film pirates after a forty-year lapse raises important questions about the congruities between the present moment and the first half of the last century, and between the earlier cinematic representations of pirates and the current ones.
Not surprisingly, Disney’s current series has received significant academic study for its racial politics (Frank 58-62), open-ended nature (Jess-Cooke 205-222; Peterson 70-79), portrayal of gender and queer coding (Karreman 1, 5; Steinhoff; Fradely 294-312), countercultural appropriation (Pugh 1-12; Land 169-170), and transmedia transformations (Aarseth). However, scholars have paid little attention to its relation to earlier U.S. pirate films. This is surprising, as director Gore Verbinksi, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have repeatedly expressed their debt to the earlier films. In the words of Elliot, they intended to
“do a movie that embraces the story sensibilities of the golden age of the Hollywood pirate movies while appealing to the story sensibilities of the modern audience” (Shewman 51; Surrell 113-119).
The early classical Hollywood pirate films, like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, make no attempt at historical accuracy, but they are nonetheless limited by historical and cultural conceptions. All the films utilize three dominant interpretations of pirates: as criminals, rebels, or anarcho-libertarians. Because the historical record is ambiguous, these three tropes are scripted into the earlier films as lecherous villainy, superficial rebellion, and gender transformation. The same tropes and their manifestations continue in the current Disney series, though the franchise’s refocusing primarily onto Jack Sparrow after the first film has foregrounded the anarcho-libertarian aspects of the earlier films. Furthermore, while all the films utilize these three ways of understanding piracy to suite their own ideological and industrial imperatives, they do so by minimizing and at times erasing the very act of piracy. Which is to say, U.S. films often disconnect pirates from the act that defines them. These films, by erasing pirates’ collective, economic transgression, undermine pirates’ rebelliousness and instead focus on individual villainy, heroism, and ill-defined, idealized freedom. Although Verbinski believes that piracy is “rebellion distilled” (Surell 119), he and other filmmakers have subverted that rebellion by mitigating the role of piracy itself within the films.
In this article, I will analyze the historical basis for, and interrelation between, the three dominant interpretations of pirates as criminals, rebels, and anarcho-libertarians. Next, I will trace the mobilization of these tropes across the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: in the Pirates of the Caribbean amusement park ride, in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and then in the remaining films—after Johnny Depp queered the pirate film and Disney reconfigured the series around his character. Finally, I will analyze the earlier actualization of these tropes in the pirate films of the silent era and the classical Hollywood era, with particular focus on those set in the early modern period. Irredeemable criminals, romantic rebels, and utopian freedom fighters dominate historical, cinematic, and popular accounts of piracy because these interpretations have some historical validity and are malleable enough to fit differing historical moments, ideological agendas, and consumer desires.
Interpreting pirate history
Though piracy is as old as maritime travel, the pirates and representations of piracy that have dominated U.S. cinema and popular imagination originate primarily in the Caribbean during early European colonial expansion. As Christopher Hill succinctly states it, “Who says pirates says West Indies” (165). Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Long John Silver, Captain Blood, Anne of the Indies – these pirates, both actual and fictional, come from two adjacent periods of piratical activity centered in the Caribbean: the Buccaneer era from 1650s to the early 1690s and the “Golden Age” of piracy, from the 1690s to the end of the 1720s. These are notably rough periodizations, as historians do not agree on when the Golden Age began or its relation to the Buccaneer era that preceded it. Even more disputed, however, are interpretations of pirates’ intentions and moral judgments about their actions during these periods.
For example, David Cordingly declares,
“Pirates have acquired a romantic aura they certainly never deserved. Pirates were not maritime versions of Robin Hood and his Merry Men” (xiv).
Linda Grant De Pew similarly insists,
“Pirates are often heroes and heroines in novels and plays in which they would more rightly be cast as villains” (20).
From this perspective, piracy seems solely motivated by greed and a desire to harm others:
“Pirates' motives are clear—others have what they want and they are determined to take it from them—but some pirates (though their primary motivation was still material gain) had secondary motives—to attack and injure those of another religion, another area, or another nationality”(Bradford xi).
Directly opposing this view, Marcus Rediker argues that sailors turned to piracy because it offered them an escape from the privations and injustices of merchant and naval service, because it
“offered the prospect of plunder and ‘ready money,’ abundant food and drink, the election of officers, the equal distribution of resources, care for the injured, and joyous camaraderie, all as expressions of an ethic of justice” (9).
Stephen Snelders likewise writes that
“piracy can be seen as a form of grand marronage, where crews of seamen created an alternative society with alternative rules aboard their vessels” (3).
For these historians, pirates are maritime “social bandits” who consciously rebelled against hypocritical and unequal social systems. Social bandits fight against the tyranny of those in power, and piracy can be seen as a class-based form of revolt, though not an attempt at revolution, not a an attempt to create a new system (Hobsbawm 5).
According to Eric Hobsbawm, social banditry
“is little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs” (5).
In addition to these conflicting interpretations, which I will call pirate as criminal and pirate as rebel, is a common view of pirates as anarcho-libertarians. Peter Lamborn Wilson, writing under the pseudonym Hakim Bey, advocates this view:
“It is simply wrong to brand the pirates as mere sea-going highwaymen or even protocapitalists…their base communities were not traditional peasant societies but ‘utopias’ created almost ex nihilo in terra incognita, enclaves of total liberty occupying empty spaces on the map” (Bey 13).
For Wilson, pirates’ idealized desire for freedom dissolves context and achieves the unattainable: full and untainted liberty. This interpretation, while having less historical grounding (Kuhn 57-58, 61), is currently the most appealing. It often underlies the celebration of piracy in popular culture and the use of the Jolly Roger by anarchists and anti-capitalist protesters (Land 188). Rarely occurring in isolation, and clearly interrelated, these three interpretations articulate the dominant Anglophone conceptions of pirates as both historical and fictional narratives draw upon them.
Differing moral evaluations here result from a dearth of verifiable historical information on 17th and 18th century piracy, and the semantic instability of the term “pirate” itself (Burg xii). As very few pirates were literate, contemporaneous accounts of shipboard activities come second-hand or from those captured by pirates (and biased by the experience). Due to a lack of pirate self-presentation, pirates’ motives and activities will forever remain a mystery, so that conjecture, fabrication, and romanticization augment the gaps (Kuhn 2-4). Therefore, David Cordingly can insist, “Reason tells us that pirates were no more than common criminals” (xiii), while Robert C. Ritchie can assert “piracy was never merely robbery” (iv); and Christopher Land can claim,
“pirates opened onto a radical form of social organization that moved beyond a simple revolt toward a revolutionary consciousness” (183).
Also contributing to the disagreements is another definitional problem of piracy, as a “wide definition of piracy competes with a narrow one” (Kuhn 7). Fundamentally, piracy is robbery at sea, and those who commit that act are pirates. Piracy can include other forms of maritime predations, such as raiding (attacking land from sea), kidnapping, destruction, and murder, but without the intent to seize property such actions are not piracy. Yet, as Gabriel Kuhn stresses, an understanding of what constitutes robbery in general
“has been highly contested throughout history, usually based on conflicting political interests” (7).
Designating something as piracy, therefore, can foreground how different forms of appropriation are defined as legitimate or illegitimate, and can make clear the structures of power and interest that allow for and prohibit such acts. In this case, during the early colonial period several other maritime actors not designated as pirates appropriated property at sea without authorities labeling their actions as robbery. Pirates existed alongside privateers (called corsairs by the French), buccaneers, and freebooters, who all looted ships at sea.
Colonial sovereigns granted letters of marque to privateers, which authorized them to attack enemy merchant ships during times of war as an extension of the navy. During times of war, the privateer was, in essence, a maritime entrepreneur who furthered the war effort by attacking supply lines (Turley 38). During peacetime, if the privateer still operated, often the sovereign deemed the privateer’s actions illegal so as to ensure plausible deniability with allies (Earle 23). The distinction between pirate and privateer for the sailors themselves was fluid and strategic, with most legally representing themselves as privateers while committing piracy (“Of Pirates” 75; Kontorovich 214).
In addition, the Spanish inadvertently created Buccaneers at the beginning of the 17th century when they tried to depopulate the northern side of Hispaniola (modern Haiti). In order to clear out the English and Dutch living in the wilds of the island, the Spanish destroyed their settlements and hunting camps, and they attempted to slaughter the wild cattle off of which the settlers survived, scattering them to the surrounding islands. Known as boucaniers—those who smoke and barbecue meat—this “remarkable blend of human flotsam” mixed with the French conquerors of Tortuga and began attacking Spanish ships and networking with other islands (Galvin 110). These men, who called themselves “The Brethren of the Coast,” may have been influenced by the British radicals of the New Model army and the Monmouth Rebellion, who
“rejected a state church, supported full religious toleration, and often carried this over to advocacy of democratic, communist or antinomian ideas” (Hill 161).
The Dutch, French, and British governments utilized, encouraged, and celebrated buccaneers for damages they did to the Spanish trade monopoly, plunder they brought into the colonial economies, and defense they provided to settlements. Rather than criminal outcasts, the buccaneers were in fact the economic engine of the non-Spanish Caribbean during this period (Konstam 95–115; Earle 92–93).
French, British, and Dutch buccaneers did not generally attack their own national or allied ships, and were therefore considered heroic in their home countries and could be easily reintegrated into legal society, as shown by the lieutenant governorship of Henry Morgan. Not in the direct employ of a crown, the buccaneer served the interests of the enemies of Spain and did not receive from them the opprobrium and appellation of pirate. To the Spanish though, they were undoubtedly pirates (Turley 28-36; Leeson 7-8).
In a related fashion, Dutch sailors coined the term, vrujbuiter (freebooter), to describe those who did not honor Spanish claims to the new world. Bypassing their intermediaries, Dutch traders (and many from other nations) went to the Americas to trade with Spanish settlements illegally. Due to the Spanish prohibition against settlements trading with non-Spaniards and the intimate marriage of commerce and war during the early period of colonial expansion, merchants often attacked settlements as a strategy to both steal and to encourage prohibited trade (Pérotin-Dumon 207-209). They were, of course, pirates according to the Spanish government, demonstrating that
“the trope of piracy has always been highly mobile, a marker of the very instabilities of those lines that define social and ethical standards” (Mackie 29).
Pirates, in the wide, normative definition used during the Buccaneer period, were those who overstepped their authority or robbed on the behalf of an enemy. However, following the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713), pirates in the narrow definition appeared in the Caribbean attacking ships regardless of national affiliation. These formerly mobilized privateers returned to a flooded maritime labor market and many “went on the account,” bringing Caribbean trade to a standstill. Prioritizing trade over naval dominance, the colonial powers waged a “rhetorical, military, and legal campaign” against their former employees (Rediker 127). Declared pirates and therefore legally hostis humani generis, the “enemy of all mankind,” pirates were linked through legal phrasing with the tyrant, the brigand, and the savage (Edelstein 31). These “villains of all nations” were, actually or no, at war with the world and any naval power could seize and execute them without trial (Rediker 128). By 1728, the European powers had exterminated several thousand of them and ended the Golden Age of piracy.
All three interpretations (criminal, rebel, anarcho-libertarian) have some basis in reality, and inflect the moral judgments placed on the nominally different maritime predators. Pirates were undoubtedly criminals, breaking the laws of multiple states, and did commit horrible atrocities against those who did not surrender easily (and some who did). For example, Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, actively cultivated an image of cruelty and wickedness, “making his men believe he was the devil incarnate” (Johnson 61). One historian has even described pirate Captain Henry Avery as "the very model of a pirate villain" and "one of that rarest of human creatures: a completely selfish man" (Sherry 67, 69).
Pirates were also undoubtedly rebels, reacting against the scarcities of maritime proletarian life and the absolute power of the merchant ship captain. According to A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, the early 18th century book from which most pirate lore and fact originates,the pirate Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts summed up the choice between piracy honest maritime labor thus:
“In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto.” (Johnson 213)
Underpaid, subject to horrible abuse, and lacking effective legal recompense or protection, many pirates viewed their actions as "doing justice to sailors" (Rediker 83-102).
And pirates were certainly trying to create something liberated, something radically democratic and possibly anarchistic (Land 190). Under the Jolly Roger, pirates chose their captains (and all policies) by democratic vote, distributed power between the captain and quartermaster, shared loot amongst the crew based on skill (the largest share was only 1.5), and lived everyday in carnivalesque excess (Rediker 60-82). Captain Charles Bellamy expressed the radical libertarian sentiment when he responded to a sailor who refused to join his crew:
“I am a free prince and have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships and an army of a hundred thousands men in the field” (Sherry 131).
So apparent was the "freedom inherent in the pirate's life" that many people during the 18th century believed in the pirate nation of Libertatia in Madagascar and its fictitious founder, Captain Mission, even though there was no corroborating evidence of such a settlement or captain (Sherry 99).
The semantic ambiguity of piracy and the power inherent in legally designating piracy likewise affects moral judgments about pirates. The legality of privateering and the national celebration of buccaneering mitigate the opprobrium of more conservative historians, thereby creating a separate moral category that could be applied to similar actors. For the more socialist historians, finding similarity of activity but difference in legal and moral standing highlights the social construction of criminality and the hypocrisy of rulers. This analysis undermines the former historians’ moral condemnation of pirates. And for the anarchists and libertarians, the fact that men fought against the early nation states erases any ties (national and economic) they may have had to those states. What differs is not the historical data but the meanings of the crimes, rebellions, and attempts at liberty. As Hans Turley, one of the first scholars to study representations of piracy, notes in an oft quoted passage,
“These larger-than-life figures remain legendary precisely because there is no ‘truth’ that can be determined…The legend and the reality are woven into a fabric impossible to unravel. However, the way this fabric is woven can be examined” (7).
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise
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,
“We talked about the possibility of a pirate movie and the fact that we were the only ones who could call a pirate movie, Pirates of the Caribbean” (Surrell 114).
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,
“Although piracy, mutiny, and rogue sailors may have certainly existed, the manner in which they are displayed in the ride—as swashbuckling caricatures, bungling and gluttonous—is more a function of exposure to other media, not to factual pirate accounts”(64).
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
“would have to sign the [pirates’ contractual] ‘articles’ with their own blood. It turns out that there were very few battles with pirates at sea. Most pirates died of venereal disease that they got in bawdy houses in various coastal towns” (Surrell 24).
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
“is not a storytelling medium [in the sense of a movie]. But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates” (Surrell 30).
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:
“Perhaps, on the rare occasion when pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course.”
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:
“Wherever we want to go, go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and hole and deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is, what the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.”
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
“ambiguities, self-reflexivity, and contradictory ‘maps of meanings’ characterize it as a post-classical and double-coded film” that “allows for queer readings without rendering the film explicitly queer” (Steinhoff).
Not surprisingly, the historical ambiguities of actual pirate lives have likewise spawned queer readings. B. R. Burg claims,
“Among pirates, either aboard their ships or while living on isolated West Indian islands, homosexual acts were not integrated with or subordinated to alternate styles of sexual contact. They were the only form of sexual expression engaged in by members of the buccaneer community” (xxxix).
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:
“If we imagine a piratical subject, however—a merging of the economic criminal and the cultural transgressor who ‘declares war against all mankind’—we should be able to understand the implicit link between homoeroticism and piracy” (29).
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.
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 (Gunning132), 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” (Sabatini169). 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.
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 the enlightenment's gendering of social space 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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