Pirates of the Caribean


What's a pirates favourite letter of the alphabet?

You recall Woody Allen's joke about the two old Jewish ladies in the cafe? "This is disgusting" "Yes, and such small portions as well." I rather think you could make a similar joke about Pirates of the Caribbean. It's terrific; but there is much too much of it. That was my opinion when I first saw it in 2003; and it remains my opinion in the retro-free-popcorn-and-sofas screening at the Everyman. 

The film may be based on a fairground ride, but it knows its pirate lore, and more importantly, is quite prepared to ignore its pirate law in service of a good story. The Dread Pirate Roberts certainly did have a list of articles for his men -- or at any rate, Defoe/Johnson says that he did. ("If ever a prudent woman comes on board, that man who threatens to meddle with her shall suffer present death.") But there was never anything like a universal pirate code, even one that was treated as mostly guidelines. I think there is a universal law of the sea; and probably an unwritten honour code among thieves. Tortuga was certainly a pirate stronghold; Port Royal, far from being a British haven, was known as the wickedest city in Christendom. Marooning really was a nasty form of execution; with the intention of making the victim choose between dying of thirst or putting a bullet in his own brain and damning his soul. I haven't come across the idea of a pirate keeping the one bullet to kill the man who marooned him before, but I feel like I ought to have done. The coins with which Jack bribes the port official are quite clearly genuine Pieces of Eight.

But the film also knows it's Hollywood pirate traditions, and manages to combine nearly every trope into its incredibly long running time. Will Taylor is the traditional heroic elf-pirate, pulling on Westley from the Princess Bride as much as on Erol Flynn himself. Barbossa is the traditional pirate-that-goes-arr, channelling a slightly less extreme Robert Newton. And Jack Sparrow...

Jack is a perfectly sensible narrative trope, the charming rogue, the braggart anti-hero: Harrison Ford to Orlando Bloom's Mark Hamill. But he becomes something else; Johnny Depp takes the comic relief and makes it into the centre of the franchise. A lot of the Sparrow persona and some of the lines seem to have been created on stage by Depp. Jack looks like Blackbeard; or rather, he looks like an animatronic waxwork who looks like Blackbeard. He revels in his badness; but it is never quite clear if he is really bad, or if, like Teach, he has created a myth and living off his reputation. He becomes a superhero as the franchise rolls along; but here there is still a possibility that he is a genuinely incompetent pirate who succeeds by being charming and cool. Over and over again he steals a scene with an amoral one-liner. Imagine anyone else in the role and the movie falls flat on its face. 

The film starts as a conventional enough swashbuckler, and is probably at its best while it stays in that space: the sword-fight in the blacksmith's shop in the first act; and the rescue of Jack from the gallows in the closing minutes. It's Barbossa, not Sparrow, who propels the film into the realm of the crazy. By the end of act one we are in a perfectly sensible narrative spot: the nasty but likeable pirate forms an odd couple alliance with the honest good looking hero. But once we get to the Black Pearl, everything goes rather consciously silly. 

Ships entirely crewed by ghosts belong more to the world of Scooby Doo than Douglas Fairbanks. There are legends and operas about the Flying Dutchmen, of course, but those are stories of a man who is cursed never to die, rather than one who is already dead; and we have all heard of the Mary Celeste, which was abandoned, rather than haunted. I do wonder if the idea of ships crewed by dead people arises from a pun or a misunderstanding of expressions like "ghost ship" and "skeleton crew". It's all done with great visual panache, but it knows it is ludicrous rather than frightening: I assume that the whole plot line arises because there are ghost pirates at Disneyland and therefore there have to be ghost pirates in the Disneyland movie. 

The scene in which the Black Pearl's crew raid Port Royal seems to go on forever; the final battle between the ghosts and the redcoats is even longer. The action sequences are sequences of vignettes rather than as cohesively visualised battles, and each individual moment is perfect: the little bits of business with the monkey and the pirate with the glass eye; the governor chasing a disembodied limb around his bedroom -- but very much more is very much less an I ended up exhausted. And the final resolution -- Will lifting the curse with his own blood while the skeletal Barbossa fights the skeletal Jack is narratively and logically perfect -- it gets swamped in the sheer volume of CGI white noise. 

The final minutes cycle back to being an historical pirate romance flick, almost making the insane middle feel like a rum-soaked fever-dream. I certainly enjoyed it; but when Jack says "Bring Me The Horizon" I felt as if I had had all the pirates I needed in one lifetime. And then I remember that its a trilogy. With two sequels. And a sixth film possible on the way. 

Aye: there's the rub. The film is twenty minutes too long; but you couldn't point to a single twenty minutes that ought to be cut. 

Most people think it's "Arrrr" but their first love is the Sea.


dhx said...

I loved your old review and showed it to several friends, who were quite charmed by it.
Jack Sparrow as Trickster hero has stuck with me ever since, even if the later films were somewhat disappointing.

Andrew Ducker said...

Agreed that it needed trimming, but more at a moment by moment level than overall.

I have a big soft-spot for the second two movies. Which feel bloated, but mostly because they feel like 5 or 6 episodes of a TV show cut down and stitched together than they do a pair of movies. So many people and pieces being moved around so that they can all end up in the right places at the right times, and either they needed more space (to actually let the characters shine) or they needed less stuff stuffed into them. What we get instead is a bunch of set pieces chained together with insufficient detail to really follow at the time.