“A lost bird that never learned to fly.”
When discussing the characters of Pirates of the Caribbean, one must begin with Captain Jack Sparrow. He is undoubtedly the main character of the story, even if it is not, in fact, his story being told. I’ve always viewed Jack as the one doing the story telling. He may be the one who is on screen the most, and he certainly is the catalyst for much of the story’s progression, but the movies aren’t really about him. Jack Sparrow is certainly not your standard movie hero. He’s not brave or courageous, he’s often selfishly motivated and while he’s not afraid of a fight, he’d much rather find another solution. Perhaps the best word to describe him is witty. Jack gives you the sense that he’s always the smartest person in the room, but is happiest when no one knows it.
When Jack first shows up in Port Royal (in one of the greatest character entrances in all of cinema), he projects an interesting presence. He first appears atop the mast of a ship, surveying the scene, as heroic music plays in the background. This is of course immediately juxtaposed with the actual view of his ship, which is little more than a dingy and in fact happens to be sinking. With a respectful nod at the skeletons of pirates who were hung as a warning, he makes his way to the pier, with just enough life left in his dingy to allow him to step from the mast to the pier. He then bribes the dock official while simultaneously stealing his coin purse. Jack then sets his sights on his prize, the HMS Interceptor, the fastest ship in the Caribbean. He then boldly declares to the guards his intentions to commandeer that ship, pick up a pirate crew, “Rape, pillage, plunder and otherwise pilfer my weaselly, black guts out.” He then saves Elizabeth from drowning, gets arrested for being a pirate, and promptly escapes. All of this occurs within his first ten minutes on screen, and paints a very interesting picture of the character.
Jack, as we first meet him, is a man down on his luck. His ship, the Black Pearl, was taken from him nearly ten years ago. He has a famous reputation, but little to show to back it up. It’s very interesting that Commodore Norrington takes particular note of his pistol with only one shot and his compass that doesn’t point north. As we learn later, the pistol shot is being saved to be used on his mutinous first mate, and the compass is actually an important object that leads the bearer to whatever they want most. As with his belongings, there is more to Jack than meets the eye, and this feeling defines the character over the course of the story. In the first film, Jack is driven by a desire to reclaim the Black Pearl, and all of the freedoms that go along with it. But he also works to see Will and Elizabeth united and safe, though those two ends goals are entwined together. He makes enough of an impression on the couple, however, that Will sees fit to rescue him from the gallows in the end.
In the second film, Jack finds himself on the run trying to save his own skin. His fortunes have improved; he’s regained the Black Pearl, but his past catches up to him. The knowledge of his debt and his fear of the forces chasing him pushes Jack to examine himself. His fear of death and/or servitude to Davy Jones drives him to do whatever he can to find a way to escape his fate. He’s perfectly willing to offer Will up to Davy Jones in order to help settle his debt, with the dual purpose of allowing Will to find the key. He uses Will and Elizabeth to help free him, and is seemingly unconcerned about their fate. He even leaves them and his crew to die as the Pearl is attacked by the Kraken. Yet he can’t shake that noble streak. Elizabeth piques his desires to be a good man, and in the end he even returns to save his friends and his ship. And all the while his dilemma has a perfect symbol, the compass. In the first film, his unique compass points its own direction, charting its own course, but is straight and true. In the second, it spins like a top, indecisive and unhelpful. It’s a great metaphor. The twist, of course, is that when Jack decides in the end of Dead Man’s Chest that he wants to do the right thing, he is betrayed by Elizabeth, the very person who encouraged his noble side, and left to his death at the tentacles of the Kraken. It’s very telling that as everyone is sitting around mourning Jack and remembering his uniqueness and what he stood for, Elizabeth is the only one remembering that “He was a good man.”
Of course, death is not the end for Jack. He is sent to Davy Jones’ Locker, his own personal hell, where he is forced to confront his conflicting nature and the various aspects of himself. After being rescued, the events in the Locker continue to haunt him, as the voices in his head pull him in different directions. As he says himself, “Death has a way of reshuffling one’s priorities.” His new goal is freedom, “Free to sail beyond the edges of the map, free from death itself,” and he concocts an elaborate plan to replace Davy Jones as the captain of the Flying Dutchman. Most of everything that happens after Jack returns to the world is a part of his plan. But this time, his plan encompasses more than just his own ends. He helps all of the others achieve their own ends, and works with Will in manipulating their enemies into the best possible position for everyone. And in the end, when tragedy strikes just as all seems to be working out like clockwork, he sacrifices his own happy ending so that his friends can have theirs. It’s a mark of the growth of the character and a wonderful final twist. Earlier on, Jack laments how much less there seems to be in the world, less beauty and freedom and wonder and love and all of the good things in life, and he gives up his dream of immortality (at least for now) to keep something good and pure in the world.
Johnny Depp plays Jack Sparrow as an odd conglomeration of Keith Richards, Pepe Le Pew and Errol Flynn, and it got him a well deserved Oscar nomination for the performance. More than many characters in recent memory, Jack Sparrow is a creation of the actor portraying him. Depp had a large role in creating the look of the character, from hair and makeup to costume, to his speech and mannerisms. He gives Jack that sense of depth, of having more going on in his brain than at first appears, that helps define the wittiness and cleverness of Jack. He gives Jack just a hint of melancholy, of not truly belonging, that lets him be taken seriously despite his madness. It’s truly one of the most unique performances of one of the most unique characters on film. The writers did a fantastic job with dialogue and story that allowed Depp to develop the character without getting in the way of the acting. Jack Sparrow, alone, is the reason there is more than one Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He stole every scene in The Curse of the Black Pearl and became the main character of someone else’s story.
“Gentlemen, I wash my hands of this weirdness.”
I have to talk for a minute about the Davy Jones’ Locker sequence, because it’s something that’s brilliantly out of place in the series. It’s a surreal, beautiful, funny and fascinating look at Jack Sparrow’s own personal hell. It’s something you don’t ever see in a big budget action comedy, or in pretty much any movie; it’s a risky filmmaking endeavor and something that you would never see in Lord of the Rings. It’s full of striking images: the Black Pearl lost in the middle of a desert, dozens of Jack Sparrows trying ineffectually to get the ship going again, an army of rock-crabs carrying the ship to the sea, the ghostly souls of the dead making the journey to the other side, and a capsized ship returning the real world. (Also, it’s absolutely genius use of audio from the ride as an introduction to the Locker.) It also provides us fascinating insights into our main character.
It makes total sense that Jack’s version of hell would be one where he’s stuck, both in terms of his inability to move and being stuck with only himself for company. Whether the “other Jacks” are a part of his imagination or a manifestation of the Locker, it seems there is no worse torment than having to confront all of the different aspects of your personality. As funny as it is to watch Jack boss himself around, and to see versions of Jack that lay eggs or have a thing for goats, it’s actually rather shocking for Jack to kill the part of himself that asks for another chance, saying, “That’s what got us into this mess.” And despite his best efforts, he can’t escape himself or his place in the world. He tries to wash his hands of the confusion in his soul, but all of those parts of him remain with him for the rest of the story. It’s also very humbling for Jack to have to be rescued by someone else, which I’m sure is a new experience for him. No matter how hard he pulls on the Pearl, she won’t budge for him. It takes Calypso’s crab-rocks (yes, she’s the one that causes them to appear, just watch the way they crawl over to her once everyone is reunited) to get him moving again. This humbling actually allows Jack to be in a place where he can work with and rely on Will to carry out his plan later in the story. It allows him to surrender a bit of control, which lets him accomplish much bigger things as a result. It’s an incredibly odd and disorienting way to explore a character, and an unusual way to spur him on to greater things, but there’s nothing I appreciate more than a creative, risky and unique bit of storytelling.
“So tell me, what’s become of my ship?”
Captain Hector Barbossa is one in the great long line of characters who transition from villain to hero over the course of a story. He also has the distinction of being the most authentically “piratey” of all of the characters we meet. Barbossa is a fairly straightforward character, out to meet his own ends. He can be ruthless and violent, but he’s not without a “merciful nature and sense of fair play.” He keeps to the code as long as it doesn’t get in his way. He’s charming and intelligent, and seems to take a real pleasure in being a pirate (he also has a great laugh). When we first meet him, he’s been cursed for 10 years, and is nearing the end of his quest to reunite the pieces of gold and replay the blood. He’s happy to parley with Elizabeth, and even seems impressed by her nerve. Barbossa’s a leader, willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, but willing to negotiate when the situation calls for it. He strikes a bargain with Calypso that sees him returned from the dead in exchange for freeing her from her human body, though he’s not entirely comfortable having a debt to pay to anyone. He’s unwilling to fight the navy and the Dutchman, and when Calypso fails to destroy his enemies he refuses to take a part in the battle. It’s only when Elizabeth reminds him of his importance, and entices him with taking command that he returns to the fray. But he also has a bit of a soft spot to him. He shows some affection for Will and Elizabeth, and treats them as (mostly) equals. He even marries them, and treats it as a serious thing. He’s a bit mischievous and enjoys sparring with Jack whenever possible, and I think he has a grudging respect for his former captain.
Geoffrey Rush does a fantastic job of bringing out Barbossa’s charm and enthusiasm. Rush brings so much energy to every scene he’s in, as he’s done in countless other roles, Oscar-winning and otherwise. To me, the biggest thrill from seeing the films in the theaters the first time was that final moment of Dead Man’s Chest, when Barbossa reappears, apple in hand, to ask what’s become of his ship. It’s both a bit of a shock as a plot twist, and a promise of the excitement to come. It also made me realize how much I’d missed the character throughout the second movie, and I think Dead Man’s Chest suffers for not having him in it. It’s very reassuring that he’ll be in the newest movie, because I really don’t feel like it would be Pirates of the Caribbean without him. He gives the movie a grounding, and makes it feel authentic despite whatever fantasy action might be going on around him. He helps remind us that we are, in the end, watching a pirate movie, whatever else it may also be.
“I am the sea.”
Davy Jones is the most tragic character in the story. Once a great sailor and a pirate, he fell in love with the goddess of the sea, Calypso. Out of love for her, he agreed to ferry souls to the land of the dead for ten years, to return to her once his time was completed. She gave him the Flying Dutchman, and he left this world for the land of the dead. When he returned, Calypso was not waiting, because her very nature as goddess of the sea kept her from being faithful to him. Because she did not wait for him he was bound to the Dutchman, which must always have a captain to guide the souls of the dead to the next life. In his rage he convinced the Brethren Court to bind Calypso to a human body, calming the seas and allowing mankind to have free reign of the oceans. Out of guilt and despair for what he had done to his love, he cut his heart from his body and placed it in a chest. He locked the chest and buried it, keeping the key with him at all times. He cursed the Flying Dutchman, so that whoever would stab Jones’ heart and take his place must also have his heart removed and bind himself to the ship. Only if the captain could find someone to remain faithful to him for the ten years between setting foot ashore would the curse break and the captain be free. Jones then forsook his duty and terrorized the seas, destroying ships and using his power as captain of the Dutchman to recruit souls to serve on his ship. Jones, along with his Kraken, became infamous and legendary, and his body, his ship and his crew all began to transform into beasts of the sea.
Davy Jones is an imposing creation, both tragic and fearsome. He uses his phrase “Do you fear death?” to scare sailors into volunteering to serve on his crew, offering to spare them from judgment for a century. He controls a devastating creature that can be called upon to destroy his enemies, and his ship can appear without warning to send you to the bottom of the ocean. Jones himself, with his peg leg, his tentacled face and his clawed arm, is a nightmarish figure, but Bill Nighy’s eyes give him a deep well of sadness underneath. It’s a quirky performance, which shines through the effects thanks to the latest in performance capture technology. Davy Jones may be the most visually believable CG creation ever seen on screen, but we never loose sight of the fact that he was once a man. And despite being literally heartless, the tragedy of his story required a more figuratively heartless villain to drive the story.
“It’s just good business.”
Lord Cutler Beckett is the polar opposite of Davy Jones. He’s an unimposing, pompous bureaucrat, conceited and single-minded. He never picks up a weapon and uses others to fight his battles, including his favorite tool, Davy Jones. Beckett is a man of pure evil, a remorseless villain to stand in contrast to the morally ambiguous pirates. He even seems to take great relish in what he does. We first meet him as he ruins Will and Elizabeth’s wedding, serving arrest warrants for the pair of them, along with Norrington, for aiding Jack Sparrow. He’s really not interested in their arrest, but merely to use them to help him acquire the compass, and by extension the heart of Davy Jones. This will allow him to control the seas, eradicate the pirates, and make the most profit. “I’m afraid currency is the currency of the realm,” he says. It’s all reflected in his mantra, “It’s just good business.” Tom Hollander plays Beckett as a man who couldn’t care less how things get done, as long as he gets what he wants. He’s the sort of man who isn’t interested in keeping his bargains, and who will only be happy once his enemies are obliterated. He is even content to round up innocents to be hanged just to incite them into singing “Hoist the Colours” and therefore calling together the Brethren Court. He also has a deep-seated grudge against Jack Sparrow. Beckett is the Emperor Palpatine to Davy Jones’ Darth Vader, and by being purely evil it allows Davy Jones to be more sympathetic. Beckett also provides a great foil for Sparrow, between having a shared history and being just as devious and manipulative.
“A woman as changing and harsh and untamable as the sea.”
Tia Dalma, as we first see her, is something of an Obeah woman, a witch doctor figure to whom the pirates occasionally go for help. Her crazy, semi-Jamaican accent and her flirty and mysterious personality initially seem out of place in our story. She clearly has a history with Jack (he actually mentions her having tried to kill him in the past) and has knowledge of things outside the normal realm of pirate wisdom. She is the one who initially gave Jack his special compass, and she helps him find his way to the Flying Dutchman. She fills in the gaps in the story between legend and fact, and she seems to see more in Will Turner than anyone else has: a destiny. Of course, we learn in the next movie that she is really Calypso, trapped in a human body. However, she still has some powers beyond a normal mortal. She manages to raise Barbossa from the dead as part of a plan to release her from her “human bonds”. She also has an understanding of Davy Jones Locker beyond any mortal, due to her connection to the other world. When the rescue party arrives in the locker, it is she who conjures the rock-crabs to bring Jack to him. The crabs seem to be here symbol, because when she is finally released to be a goddess again, she transforms into crabs which fall into the sea. It’s truly a moment out of a Ray Harryhausen film, a classically envisioned special effects sequence. Calypso, as played by Naomie Harris, is intentionally something of a mystery. She’s an important part of the plot, and the lynchpin of Davy Jones’ tragic story. Harris gives her a since of mischief and a sexuality that is missing from most of the other characters, which allows her to hold her own against the more familiar faces.
“‘Nine pieces of whatever we have in our pockets’? Oh yes, that sounds very piratey.”
The Brethren Court scene is by far one of my favorite moments in the series. It’s such a lively, clever and fun sequence, with a great atmosphere and colorful characters. I love the idea of an eclectic group of international pirates, gathering together but accomplishing nothing. The mix of accents and ethnicities helps broaden the scope of our story, and add some extra weight to the conflict to follow. Each Pirate Lord is unique and interesting, and manages to convey a sense of individuality. The highlight, of course, is Captain Teague. Not technically a member of the Court, he’s the keeper of the code, and brings a sense of that rock star sexuality that only Keith Richards could provide. Johnny Depp was adamant about getting Richards to portray his father in the films, and it really pays off (and he will be in On Stranger Tides as well). This entire section of the story is a joy to watch, from the infighting and arguing, to Teague’s menacing presence (and excellent background guitar accompaniment), to Jack’s brilliant manipulation of the Court. His speech encouraging the Brethren to fight, and his gift of kingship to Elizabeth, are some of the most clever and entertaining of all of his maneuverings throughout the story. The existence of the Court allows the fleet of pirate ships in the final battle to have more personality and background, and adds a good deal of weight to the dramatic “hoist the colours” moment.
“Captain, I think the crew, meaning me as well, were expecting something a bit more… shiny.”
As independent as Jack Sparrow likes to be, he would be lost without his faithful motley crew. Mr. Gibbs provides him with grounding, and an experienced seamen to rely upon. As played by Kevin McNally, Gibbs provides an opportunity to explain things to the viewers, and is a fount of information and lore. He’s incredibly superstitious and also very loyal, and it was a great move to bring him back for the fourth film. He also serves as an observer, often a humorous one, appearing in the opening scene as a British sailor and taking part in every major step of the story. He’s not the only colorful member of the crew, however. There’s Marty, the midget, Cotton, the mute with a trained talking parrot, and Annamaria, a sailor with a history with Jack. Having a crew with personality is an important part of the filmmaking, as it allows those in the background to be more than just characterless extras. Even though none of them are given much in the way of depth, they provide humor and heart for the story, and the films would suffer without them.
“We’ll tie each other to the mast upside down so when the boat flips we’ll be the right way up!”
A moment needs to be taken to address POTC’s R2-D2 and C-3PO. Pintel and Ragetti begin as humorous villains, fairly clueless and bumbling, but enthusiastic. After being released from the curse and escaping from jail, they join up with our heroes. The duo provide a lot of comedy and commentary, keeping things light and funny, and providing an opposite for Mullroy and Murtogg, the bumbling Royal Marines. Pintel and Ragetti are played by well known character comedians, and offer up some of the most consistent laughs by their stupidity and cluelessness. They’re a classic character archetype that can be seen in most movies (such as Merry and Pippin in Lord of the Rings), but they fill an important role in the story. They’re often the outsiders on the adventure, who ask questions for the audience and get explanations of things the main characters would already know.
“A touch of destiny.”
Finally we come to the two characters whose story is being told, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. It’s hard for some people to see, but the story being told is most definitely theirs, as the first scene shows us their first meeting and the final scene shows us their reunion after Will’s 10 years aboard the Dutchman. Will Turner is an interesting film protagonist. He’s fairly one dimensional in the first film. Our first encounter with him is his rescue as a boy from a ship destroyed by the Black Pearl. His mother has just died and he has set off on his own in an attempt to find his father, of whom he knows very little that is true. He’s spotted by his eventual wife, Elizabeth, who takes his pirate medallion in order to protect him from being labeled a pirate himself. Years later we see that he is an apprentice to a blacksmith in Port Royal, making swords for those who would consider him inferior. He longs for Elizabeth, and they remain friendly after the years, but their different stations in life keep them apart. He releases his frustration by training with the swords he makes, trying to live his life as straight and true as possible. Once Elizabeth is threatened by Jack Sparrow, he finally gets a chance to put his sword skills to use, and would have beaten Jack if only he could fight like a pirate. After her capture, he compromises his once firm values, doing what needs to be done to rescue his love, turning pirate in the process. In many ways, he’s an idealized version of Jack. He’s clever and resourceful, but lacking in some of Jack’s real world experience. In the first film he’s a bit of an everyman, an average hero fitting the mold of countless movie heroes before him.
Things get a bit murkier in the 2nd film, however. After seeing his wedding ruined by Beckett, he strikes a deal to acquire Jack’s compass in exchange for Elizabeth’s freedom. He’s become a bit more ruthless and determined by the events of the first film, but he’s still honorable and noble. After being betrayed by Jack to Davy Jones, both as an attempt to square Jack’s debt and as a ploy to help him find the key, he finally meets his long lost father. It turns out that Bootstrap Bill, having been sunk to the bottom of the sea by Barbossa for sending away the last piece of cursed gold, has volunteered to serve on the Dutchman’s crew. It’s at this point that Will’s motivations begin to change. Like most of the characters in the sequels, Will’s internal conflict drives the story. He swears an oath to his father, to free him from his servitude, and becomes obsessed with the notion, destined to meet a tragic end. For the Dutchman must have a captain, and if Will slays Jones, then his heart must take its place in the legendary chest. As he says himself to Jack, “Each step I take for my father is a step away from Elizabeth.” He becomes secretive and motivated by his own interests. He duals with Jack and Norrington over the chest, each wanting it to achieve their own ends. He betrays Jack and Barbossa to Sao Fang and the East India Trading Company in an attempt to get the Black Pearl for himself (the only ship that can outrun the Flying Dutchman). He keeps his fiancé in the dark about his choices, becoming inward and withdrawn, and for a while he believes that she is in love with Jack. Yet despite all of this, he still remains devoted to his friends and his love, and still remains a hero. When Jack offers to dispatch Jones and free Bootstrap, Will jumps at the opportunity, which will allow him to keep his promise to his father and to still be with his love. Together, he and Jack run a “long con”, allowing the final confrontation to happen on their own terms. And in the end, despite all that has happened, he commits fully to Elizabeth, no matter what happens in his quest to free his father. “I’ve made my choice. What’s yours?” he asks when proposing. Will knows that no matter the outcome, none of it matters if he doesn’t have Elizabeth. Though with a final twist, he becomes the captain of the Dutchman anyway, the only possible solution Jack can find to give Will and Elizabeth a chance at a happy ending.
Orlando Bloom makes for an interesting movie hero. He originally comes off as rather stiff, as more of a heartthrob and a piece of scenery than a true, fleshed-out character. But that initial impression is a bit misleading. When watched together, the growth of Will as a character and Orlando as an actor over the three movies becomes apparent. Will evolves from a naive blacksmith who (for the most part) blindly follows Jack, trusting in him not to lead him astray, into a leader in his own right, someone others are willing to follow. He shows off a witty side that almost rivals Jack’s, and the two of them form an imposing pair of manipulators. Orlando’s performance in At World’s End is actually pretty impressive, he brings a lot of weight, depth and intelligence to the character, and gives him a swagger that makes him feel considerably more adult than he did at the beginning of the adventures. Will grows into more than just a pretty face, and it’s one of the more rewarding aspects of the trilogy to see him as a man in the end. Orlando manages to portray Will’s devotion to Elizabeth without making it seem overly sentimental or unrealistic, and when he believes that she loves Jack, his resentment and hurt are saddening to watch. Once he realizes his mistake, and gets over his anger, he becomes a better man, someone to look up to and someone who is finally worthy of Elizabeth, and worthy of having his story told.
“There is more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there? And the eye does not go wanting.”
Elizabeth Swann, to me, is the most interesting and unique of all of the characters, and comprises one half of the couple at the center of our story. In the first film, Elizabeth is something of a contradiction. She has a deep-seated fascination with pirates, even from an early age, and a cleverness and boldness not likely to be found in women of the time. But she’s simultaneously trapped by her social station, by society, by her sex, and by the expectations placed upon her. She is forced to dress in a way that’s visually pleasing to others, despite the pain it causes her. She is constantly reminded of her place, and the expectation that she be a dutiful wife to an important man. She’s discouraged from following her heart or her will, and is treated as little more than an object. It’s made most evident by the simple act of wearing a corset, an item designed to shape her into what others think she should be, while not even allowing her to breathe. Yet when faced with a dangerous and new situation, she has both the resources and the ability to rise to the challenge and hold her own. She continually shows her initiative and intelligence, parlaying with Barbossa, directing a sea battle, engineering an escape from being marooned, and jumping to the rescue of her love. But even more than a standard hero, she’s willing to use her unique abilities as a woman to achieve her own ends. She is willing to use the acceptance of Norrington’s marriage proposal as a bargaining chip in return for his help to save Will.
From the very beginning of Dead Man’s Chest Elizabeth shows a newfound confidence and assertiveness. After her wedding is ruined by Beckett and she is arrested for helping Jack, she rejects her father’s plan to help her escape, instead choosing to go after Will and Jack on her own. She puts a gun to Beckett’s head, demanding answers and the letters of pardon, reminding him that he robbed her of her wedding night. She then disguises herself as a man, joins a merchant crew and maneuvers the ship into sailing to Tortuga. Once there she meets up with Jack and Norrington, asking for Jack’s assistance in helping Will. Jack can’t help but notice the differences in the couple, noting, “Will strikes a deal for these and upholds it with honor, yet you’re the one standing here with the prize.” Jack also tries to exploit her curiosity about him, enjoying the flirtation. But she turns it around on him, using her feminine wiles to encourage his curiosity about being a good man, and doing the right thing. Once Will returns, and he, Jack and Norrington begin to fight over the chest, each for their own reasons, she tries to stop them, offering criticism of the selfish, narrow-minded pirate way. When they won’t respond to her demands for attention, she abandons the ways of her old station in life, picking up a sword (or in this case, two swords) and defends the chest from Davy Jones’ crew. Of all of the characters, she’s the one with the most perspective on the situation, and doesn’t allow her personal concerns to get in the way. At the end, during the battle with the kraken, when Jack returns for his moment of heroics, she is impressed with him. However, that does not stop her from leaving him to his death. She tricks him with a kiss, seemingly a reward for his heroism, and chains him to the mast. She knows that’s the only way they can escape, and she tells him that she’s not sorry about her decision. Jack responds the only way he can, with the highest of compliments, “Pirate.” But she does feel guilty for what she’s done, and when she calls him a good man in her toast Will begins to question her feelings.
As the third film opens, Elizabeth has embraced Jack’s compliment and committed herself completely to being a pirate. But the biggest appeal for her is the idealism of piracy, of freedom and individuality and resistance. She’s become a threat with a blade and otherwise, and no longer needs the protection most people expect a woman needs. She’s fearless in the face of the intimidating Sao Fang, and even tries to appeal to his better nature as a pirate, and he sees that there’s much more to her than meets the eye, though he eventually misinterprets this as being because she is Calypso in disguise. Once Jack is rescued, and the truth of her betrayal of Jack is revealed, she is forced to confront her motivations and deal with Will’s hurt feelings. The discovery of her father’s murder hardens her, giving her an additional personal motivation for defeating Beckett, but she never lets go of idealistic vision of being a pirate. She encourages the Brethren to fight, something generally out of their nature, but she believes they have something worth fighting for. And once she’s been elected King of the Brethren Court by Jack, she leads the fleet to war. Her best moment comes, however, once Calypso has seemingly abandoned them and Barbossa tells her, “Revenge won’t bring your father back, and it’s not something I’m willing to die for.” Her response:
“Then what shall we die for? You will listen to me. LISTEN! The other ships will still be looking to us, to the Black Pearl, to lead, and what will they see? Frightened bilge rats aboard a derelict ship? No, no they will see free men, and freedom! And what the enemy will see, they will see the flash of our cannons, they will hear the ring of our swords, and they will know what we can do! By the sweat of our brow and the strength of our backs and the courage of our hearts! Gentlemen, hoist the colours!”
It’s an impressively delivered speech, and it stands out in a movie series devoid of speeches. It’s a change in tone from the manipulative and deceitful language of pirates like Jack and Barbossa, and it gives these selfish creatures something to fight for that’s bigger than themselves, and unites them as a group. It’s an inspirational speech to a type of people who aren’t inspired by speeches. It provides the series with its most powerful moment, and the fact that it comes from the character who started the story the farthest from piracy as possible is striking. But of all of the characters, she’s the only one who could inspire pirates in that way, and shows why she is the perfect choice for King. But the most important moment for Elizabeth comes during the battle, when she finally makes her choice and marries Will.
Kiera Knightly had a tough job playing Elizabeth. She’s such a contradiction and is written so inconsistently in the first film that she struggled to make more of the character than just a pretty face and a damsel in distress. But she becomes the soul of the series, and, as one half of the story, really finds her place. She’s something of a feminist role model, and is able to be an action heroine yet still be entirely woman. She can fight with the boys without having to act like one. It helps that Knightly does most of her own stunts in the movies, and her sword fighting is more skillful and enthusiastic in Dead Man’s Chest than any of her costars. I think that her climactic speech is phenomenally delivered, and is one of the best movie speeches in recent memory. She delivers it realistically, trying to carry her voice over the sea, and puts a lot of heart into it. And in a story full of manly characters, her ability to rise from damsel in distress to King of the Brethren Court has quite the impact.
“Depends on the one day.”
In the end, to truly appreciate the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, you have to realize what story you’re watching. As I said earlier, despite the larger than life and ever-present Jack Sparrow, the films actually tell the story of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. And more so than anything else, their story is a love story. After seeing The Curse of the Black Pearl, I couldn’t have cared less about Will and Elizabeth. I felt that their love story was merely an excuse to advance the plot, and to give the film some pretty young faces to fill the screen. I thought it was painfully simple as a romance; it was predictable and uninteresting. While I generally enjoyed the actors and the characters, I felt their romance had run its course and I was generally less interested in their role in the second film than I was in Jack’s. After seeing Dead Man’s Chest I felt that while splitting them up allowed the characters to breathe, allowing them to be apart seemed at the time to be just an excuse for a flimsy love triangle. After my first viewing of At World’s End, I was perplexed. I wondered why so much time had been given to their unusual ending, and why the writers would give them a “happy” ending at the expense of Jack’s. After all, couldn’t they have found a way to work both out, if all they were interested in was a happy ending? But after rewatching the film films as a trilogy, I realized my mistake, and the knowledge of whose story I was watching brought the entire series into focus.
Will and Elizabeth start as basic film archetypes. He’s the handsome, upstanding, commoner hero and she’s the feisty, kidnapped princess. You know from the beginning that they’re meant to be together, because that’s their role as stock characters, so where they end up at the end of The Curse of the Black Pearl is entirely predictable and uninteresting. It works for what it is, but is never any deeper than that. But that all changes at the start of Dead Man’s Chest. The film opens with Elizabeth sitting in the rain, her wedding ruined not by the weather, but by Will’s arrest (and Elizabeth’s, eventually). It’s a complete turnabout from the previous ending, when Will had nobly said he would face the consequences of his actions, but had been absolved of wrongdoing. After all, he was in love, and whatever “crimes” me may have committed, he had committed no sins worthy of punishment, right? Yet here, as the story continues, he and Elizabeth are held accountable for their “misdeeds”, regardless of how unjust it might be. They’re being told that love might not be enough to save them from their situation, and thus they are separated and sent on their own journeys. This allows the characters to find each other again, not as a method of serving a particular storytelling trope, but as a way to chose what is most important.
A lot is made between the two of choices and burdens. It seemed like destiny that the two would end up together during the first film, and despite his seeming indifference Jack was happy to help them to that end. But the sequels find them responsible for their own paths, and their roads appear to diverge wildly. Basically, they’re separated so that they can grow as individuals, and decide for themselves whether to be together again. They both suffer temptations and dilemmas, things that would keep them apart, and they both choose, at times, to take steps apart. Elizabeth chooses to tempt and betray Jack, and must deal with the consequences of her actions. Will chooses to pursue a path towards freeing his father, regardless of what it might mean for his ultimate destiny. And through it all, these decisions are made alone, as individuals, which is a tough pill to swallow for people hoping to be together. It’s best shown in this exchange, once Will learns of Elizabeth’s betrayal of Jack:
Will: “You left Jack to the kraken.”
Elizabeth: “He’s rescued now, it’s done with… Will, I had no choice.”
Will: “You chose not to tell me.”
Elizabeth: “I couldn’t. It wasn’t your burden to bear.”
Will: “But I did bear it, didn’t I? I just didn’t know what it was. I thought…”
Elizabeth: “You thought I loved him.”
Will: “If you make your choices alone… how can I trust you?”
Elizabeth: “You can’t.”
It’s not the sort of conversation you expect from the romantic leads of a film. And when Will later repeats her “It wasn’t your burden to bear” line as justification for keeping his plans a secret, the divide between them seems too big to be repaired. As they are separated again, it seems to be for good. But Will gets an insightful bit of advice from Jack Sparrow, this couple’s matchmaker, when mourning his decision to pursue his father’s freedom at the expense of his relationship with Elizabeth. Jack tells him, “Mate, if you chose to lock your heart away you’ll lose it for certain.”
This weighs on Will throughout the film, and it comes to a head during the climactic battle. As they fight in the pouring rain against hellish creatures and enemy sailors, Will makes his way to Elizabeth and asks, “Elizabeth, will you marry me?” Her response, “I don’t think now is the best time,” implies more than just the battle they’re in. To her, it’s not the time to start over, and perhaps it’s too late to begin again. But it’s Will’s response that changes her mind, and sets this relationship apart from the norm. “Now may be the only time. I love you. I’ve made my choice, what’s yours?” Their journeys have led them to be able to come together not because of destiny, or fate, or the roles they play, but by choice. As adults they’re able to look at their situation, look at the world, look at all they want to do and can do, look at each other, and choose to make love the most important thing. Love is not a choice, but devotion is. They never doubted their love, but they have now chosen to devote their lives to each other. They have proven to each other and to themselves that they deserve to be together. It’s the difference between a love and a marriage that exist only because they don’t know any better, and one that can survive and thrive because it’s based on more than just instinct, it’s based on maturity, individuality, and choice. There’s nothing more romantic than knowing that in addition to feeling like they should be together, they know it, and they choose it. It’s a truer, stronger love than most, and the sort of love that you rarely see in movies of this sort. And when Elizabeth turns her choice into action, shouting, “Barbossa, marry us!” it leads to one of my favorite movie weddings.
The wedding is a perfect fit for the characters, unconventional and fun. It’s a moment of joy and calm despite everything that is going on around them. It’s a sign of true devotion when no matter what is happening, your entire focus is on your soul mate. It’s also unyieldingly cute. When Elizabeth says her “I do” with breathless excitement, Will’s simple response is an overjoyed “Great!” It’s such a sweet moment, followed by Elizabeth’s defiance of their circumstances, “Do you take me to be your wife, in sickness and in health, with health being the less likely?” and Will’s confident, “I do.” Barbossa pronounces them, and tells them they may kiss, and it’s quite the neat bit of symbolism that it takes two false starts before that fateful wedded kiss. And what a kiss it is! The world slows, the battle fades to the background, the strings swell in our ears, and all that’s left is our couple, blissfully kissing in the rain, completely oblivious to the world crashing down around them. It’s a moment where everything seems to stop, and even the crew takes notice.
The wedding allows Will and Elizabeth to go after Davy Jones, knowing that no matter what happens, they’ve made their choice, and they know where their hearts truly lie. The tragedy, of course, is that the marriage is almost cut short, but Davy Jones cruelty. Their love for each other enrages him, and he stabs Will just at the moment when Jack is about to stab the heart. And here the ultimate test of Jack’s character comes, as he realizes whose story most needs a happy ending, and he forces Will to stab the heart before he dies. This binds Will to the Dutchman, allowing him to live, but forcing him apart from his new wife. As his father says, “One day at shore, ten years at sea. It’s a heavy price for what’s been done.” Will replies with one of the most romantic sentiments on film, “Depends on the on day.” Will knows now, with all of the choices he has made, that for a love like theirs there is nothing he wouldn’t give for just one day. And as that long-delayed wedding night (day) comes to an end at sunset, Will gives her the chest containing his heart, saying, “It’s always belonged to you.” He’s willingly given her what was always hers to begin with, knowing their love will never waver, no matter how many days it may be until he can be with her again. And as the final scene shows us, Elizabeth is happily waiting for him those 10 years later, with their son alongside, ready to finally begin their life together in earnest. Their story is over, but also just beginning.
“That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom.”
There’s plenty more to be said about the Pirates of the Caribbean series. That’s even truer as the first chapter of a new story, seemingly Jack Sparrow’s story this time, sets sail in theaters. But for me, there are a few truths about the series that keep me returning time and again. The films, despite the modern effects and technology, are decidedly timeless feeling, and adhere to a storytelling style that has endured throughout the age of film. They’re polished and lovingly made without seeming fake or manufactured. They combine unique characters, exciting action, an epic scope, a twisting plot, a deep romance and a sense of adventure in to something that is decidedly not modern. They’re decidedly pirate-like in that way, telling the story they want to tell in their own unapologetic way, skeptics be damned. There’s a sense of cockiness and rebellion in these films that I think Jack Sparrow could certainly relate to, an attitude of defiance towards those who said they would fail or that they did fail. The openness and the obvious love for the story being told really gives the films a sense of freedom, it allows the tale to breathe. For me personally, it’s exactly the sort of story I love, and it has everything I want from a series of films. And as much as I love Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean feels like my story. As much as the two series have in common, the feel and attitude of the trilogies couldn’t be more different. (For my next essay, why Pirates of the Caribbean is a series for Democrats and Lord of the Rings is for Republicans. Discuss.) But for me, given the choice, I will always come back to Pirates of the Caribbean. It feels like returning to the helm of your very own ship, with the wind at your back and the salt spray in your face. It feels real and exciting, and it invigorates the spirit. And it brings those famous words to my lips:
“Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirates Life for Me!”