100 Film Favorites – #35: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
(Gore Verbinski, 2003)
Originally, I prefaced this entry with some information about how posts were going up daily over here on EarnThis, and that the new site offered “an improved, multimedia Brian Terrill Movie Night experience devoid of typos.” Hopefully that has proven true thus far, and will continue to do so.
Now on to the matter at hand. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, like the series it launched, takes place at some unspecified point in Pirate Times (sometime within the 17th and/or 18th centuries). While sailing across the Atlantic to Port Royal, Jamaica, a British crew rescues a boy from the flotsam of a shipwreck. Elizabeth Swann, the young daughter of Port Royal’s new governor, spies a mysterious gold coin hanging around the boy’s neck, and stashes it away.
Eight years later, Commodore Norrington, a high-ranking member of the Royal Navy, proposes marriage to the now-adult Elizabeth. Though Norrington is rich and powerful and looks dashing in a powdered wig, Elizabeth is hesitant to answer. The pressure of the situation, amplified by a severely tightened corset, causes Elizabeth to faint…and fall off a cliff. A word to hopeful young suitors: avoid proposing near cliffs.
Meanwhile, the bizarre pirate Jack Sparrow arrives in Port Royal. While in the midst of a argument with some dull-witted naval guards, Jack witnesses Elizabeth’s fall and rescues her. Despite Sparrow’s heroism, Norrington recognizes him as a pirate and orders his arrest. Jack makes a quickly-improvised escape, employing a cannon as a counterweight to swing up and away over the heads of the pursuing soldiers. He hides out in a blacksmith shop, where he is confronted by Will “Legolas” Turner, the boy rescued from the shipwreck in the prologue. Will, now grown as well, is a skilled swordsman and bests Jack in a duel. The defeated pirate is hauled off to jail. But not for long.
That night, a legendary pirate ship known as the Black Pearl attacks the town, summoned by the magical call of the gold coin in Elizabeth’s possession. The pirates abduct Elizabeth, and when she gives her surname as “Turner,” decide to take her aboard the ship.
Will, who’s crushing hard on Elizabeth, springs Jack from jail to pursue the Black Pearl. They manage to abscond with the HMS Interceptor, one of the fastest and newest ships in the Royal Navy, and set a course for the pirate port of Tortuga to recruit a crew. Along the way, Will learns that Jack was once Captain of the Black Pearl, until his first mate, Hector Barbossa, masterminded a mutiny and marooned Sparrow to die, leaving him with a pistol and a single bullet – which Jack has been saving.
Elsewhere on the ocean, Barbossa reveals to Elizabeth that he and his crew are under a curse. Shortly after the mutiny, they stole a chest full of hundreds of pieces of Aztec gold and promptly set about spending the booty. However, the pirates discover a curious side-effect of having pilfered the coins: in moonlight, they appear as monstrous, skeletal figures. While this curse has the benefit of making the crew immortal, they gradually become unable to experience pleasure, or to feel anything at all. The literal skeleton crew have spent the intervening years recovering each of the nearly 1,000 cursed doubloons and restoring them to the chest in hopes of lifting the curse.
After many a twist and turn, including spats with the Royal Navy, and Jack being marooned once again on the same island, the three groups come together at the secret grotto where the cursed chest lies. Barbossa commands Elizabeth to “return” her coin to the pile, slicing her palm to drizzle her blood atop the arcane heap. You see, breaking the curse requires that each person who originally took a coin from the chest must shed some of his blood in addition to returning his coin. As the only crew-member yet unaccounted for is “Bootstrap Bill” Turner (Barbossa murdered him before realizing the importance of blood to the ritual), the crew believes that the blood of young Elizabeth “Turner” should suffice to break the curse. Since that isn’t her real name, of course, this doesn’t work. The furious pirates erupt into battle with the Navy men. Amidst the combat, Will Turner, Bootstrap’s real heir, steps forward and restores the final coin, along with his blood, to the treasure. Jack Sparrow buries his long-saved bullet in Barbossa’s chest. No longer immortal, the mutinous pirate sinks to the ground, muttering that at least he can finally feel something again.
Back in Port Royal, Jack is sentenced to death for his piracy. Will attempts to save Sparrow from the gallows, but merely winds up apprehended by the Navy as well. Jack manages to “escape” by falling backwards over the same cliff from the beginning of the film (They really need to put up a railing around that thing. Seriously. It’s precarious). In light of recent events, the governor pardons the young blacksmith, and Will and Elizabeth commence a serious end-of-movie make-out session.
Just off-shore, Captain Jack Sparrow retakes the helm of the Black Pearl. Eyes trained on the horizon, he quotes “A Pirate’s Life for Me,” the theme song of the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme park attraction:
“Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!”
Before its release, Curse of the Black Pearl was predicted by many to be a flop. After all, resorting to basing films on amusement rides seemed like scraping the bottom of the creative barrel, even for Disney. The release one year earlier of The Country Bears, a box-office bomb which Roger Ebert decried as “terminal inanity,” seemed to seal the fate of Pirates.
And yet, Pirates proved surprisingly successful, and pretty much single-handedly resurrected the “pirate movie,” a genre which had fallen into relative obscurity since the tail-end of Hollywood’s “golden age” in the 50s and early 60s. Curse of the Black Pearl went on to earn more than $650 million worldwide, and its three sequels likewise rank among the highest grossing films to date.
The same cannot be said of The Haunted Mansion, the next Disney-theme-park-attraction-based-movie to debut.
I’m sure there are probably those among you who may be miffed that Pirates outranked the Star Wars trilogy. But there’s a lot I like about it. For one, despite being (loosely) based on a ride, it’s one of the few mega-budget films in recent years (if a full 10 years ago can even be called “recent”) that’s not a sequel or a remake. It kicked off a new franchise, and bears the hallmarks of all the great trilogies: memorable dialogue, a theme tune you can whistle, and iconic characters. Well, at least one.
Jack Sparrow is easily among the most recognizable characters in recent film history. So saddled with manic mannerisms they could call him Captain Quirk, Sparrow nonetheless remains likeable because he gives the impression of being imperfect, but quick-witted and able to improvise. He’s constantly thinking on his feet, and often must, in the words of Indiana Jones, “figure things out as he goes.” His rough-and-tumble style is endearing, and his desire for freedom above all else (“That’s what a ship is…freedom”) makes the oddball Sparrow a character for the ages. His introduction is equally legendary: Jack sails toward port in a modest boat, which springs a leak. He frantically attempts to bail out his floundering craft. The next time we see him, Jack is sailing into port, standing dramatically atop his mast, looking every part the hero…until it’s revealed that the mast is the only part of the boat not currently underwater. But Jack regains his roguish cred when the boat coasts smoothly into the harbor and he steps onto the dock an instant before it sinks completely.
The role of Jack Sparrow launched Johnny Depp from relative cult status to super-stardom. It’s therefore interesting to note that the part was originally written for Hugh Jackman, and was intended to be played as a more “traditional” pirate role, in the vein of actor Burt Lancaster’s performances. Though the suits at Disney were wary of Depp’s weirdo interpretation, questioning whether Sparrow was supposed to be “drunk or gay,” Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer were confident the character could work, considering that Orlando Bloom as Will Turner was really the traditional, Errol Flynn-type character in the story, and Sparrow was more of a supporting role.
This post is quickly getting long, so I’ll try to quickly sum up the features which secured Black Pearl such a high slot on the Countdown:
-Klaus Badelt’s impressive musical score. The early duel between Will and Jack is a highlight, with beats in the music synchronized with the clinking of their crossed blades. The main theme, “He’s a Pirate,” along with the foreboding leitmotif associated with the skeletal pirates, are standouts as well.
-Comic relief duos: The Pirates films one-up the Star Wars trilogy by having not one, but two pairs of bumbling “comic relief” characters: Murtogg and Mullroy, two low-ranking Royal Navy sailors, and Pintel and Ragetti, Black Pearl crew-members who are similarly low on the totem pole. The two duos demonstrate that, truly, humorous incompetence can exist on both sides of war. One comic beat I particularly enjoy occurs when Pintel and Ragetti are peering through a porthole as the protagonists let loose with a salvo of cannon-fire, the cannons having been filled with assorted objects as impromptu buckshot. After a moment, Ragetti turns incredulously to face Pintel, a fork dangling from his rolling wooden eye.
-There is evidence to suggest that The Curse of the Black Pearl may have originated as a Monkey Island movie. Screenwriter Ted Elliott allegedly wrote a script based on the Lucasarts game franchise for a Spielberg animated film which was ultimately canceled before going into production, some three years before the release of Pirates.