Solomon tells us not to ask why the former days were better than these, yet a film critic with a taste for well-crafted big-budget entertainment writing in the 2010s can hardly help looking back on the 2000s with a certain wistfulness. Among other things, instead of stories with beginnings, middles, and endings, studios now favor endless, formless strings of spin-offs and sequels. Trilogies are no longer fashionable in Hollywood.
The fact that they tell a complete, self-contained story in three parts makes Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean films feel like a breath of fresh air in today’s blockbuster landscape, but a decade ago, this was nothing unusual. That they resuscitated a dead genre, the swashbuckler, is also mere icing on the cake. Their most striking claim to fame, in my mind, is their originality. Yes, they were “based on” the theme park ride, but the mythology they created and the story they told were essentially built from the ground up, and the uniqueness of this achievement can hardly be overstated. Their finest contemporaries were based on books (Jackson’s Lord of the Rings), comics (Raimi’s Spider-Man, Nolan’s Dark Knight), or other films (Lucas’ Star Wars prequels). Whatever their limitations and shortcomings, these films created something genuinely new, and in this regard, their only real equal in the last quarter century is the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy. Before that, one might have to rewind the clock all the way to Star Wars in the 1970s.
This is only apt, because the Pirates films owe a more sizable debt to Star Wars than is evident at first glance. Together with Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars trilogy set a gold standard for adventure cinema that the Pirates films are consciously striving to meet – an intention declared by both moments of overt homage and veiled yet thorough parallels. (More on those later.)
Given my well-documented love for Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, perhaps it was inevitable that I would turn my attention to the films that put him on the map. Indeed, I would argue that his singular vision is responsible for much of the Pirates trilogy’s success. For a full decade – from The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003 to The Lone Ranger in 2013 – Verbinski was one of the best and most fascinating auteurs making massive blockbusters in Hollywood, refining his thematic and stylistic interests with each film before finally perfecting them in The Lone Ranger. He is a bit of an iconoclast, with an anarchic, irreverent sensibility, but like any good craftsman, he is also a devoted student of his medium’s history. The unlikely pairing of these traits accounts for the Pirates of the Caribbean films’ ability to feel both novel and timeless, to combine a deep respect for what came before with the audacious confidence to try new and unexpected things. The resulting films are delightful, robust entertainments, but beneath their surface pleasures, they also offer surprising riches. The purpose of this essay is not simply or primarily to praise and defend the films, though they deserve praise and defense. I am more interested in exploring their thematic intricacies, drawing out their unique vision of the cosmos. In other words, this will be – like my essays on Lucas’ Star Wars saga – less an apology than an explication. In the years since their release, the Pirates films have fallen out of style, their memory tarnished by soulless sequels, but the treasures hiding in their depths deserve to be unearthed and appreciated anew, or perhaps discovered for the first time.
Part I: The Curse of the Black Pearl
While it is arguably the tightest and most flawless of the three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Curse of the Black Pearl is also the most conventional and, in many ways, the least interesting. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark or the original Star Wars, it is an efficient crowd-pleaser above all: a straightforward swashbuckling adventure, a bit of simple yet terrifically effective mythmaking. The focus is not on the themes so much as the characters, the world they inhabit, and the brisk workings of the plot, all of which are drawn in broad, readily engaging strokes. It is neither perfect nor especially ambitious, but it is a truly remarkable effort.
Comparing Curse of the Black Pearl to Star Wars accounts for its success as a blockbuster, insofar as both are unpretentious and widely appealing yarns with well-drawn, likable characters. The comparison also runs deeper, though, acting as a key that unlocks the Pirates films’ themes. Like Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean is a Jungian coming of age myth. Its protagonists reach true maturity by integrating their conscious and unconscious selves, reconciling the freedom of childhood with the constraints of adulthood. Curse of the Black Pearl begins a dialectic structure that will grow increasingly complex and nuanced in the two subsequent films, ultimately arriving at a robust and satisfying conclusion.
The very first scene sets the stage in several important ways. First, we see a ship coming out of the fog, accompanied by a child’s singing. (Notably, both devices will recur in the third film.) The ship bearing the child out of the cloud is a symbol of adolescent consciousness coming into the light, emerging from the unconscious darkness of infancy. This burgeoning self-awareness begins the hero’s journey to maturity – or the heroine’s, in this case, for the opening scene unambiguously establishes Elizabeth Swann as the trilogy’s central protagonist, and her coming of age as the central focus of the story.
Little Elizabeth, singing about pirates, is interrupted by Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) – not to be confused with FilmFisher editor Joshua Gibbs – who warns her that the song is “bad luck.” Throughout, Gibbs will act as a sage or holy fool, mixing superstition with common sense, and he is immediately contrasted with a pair of disapproving authority figures: Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce), Elizabeth’s father, and Norrington (Jack Davenport), who condemn pirates but are blind to their presence nearby. Coming across the burning wreckage of a ship, they assume it was destroyed by accident, but Gibbs knows better.
With a child’s keen eye, Elizabeth spots a “boy in the water.” Will Turner’s first appearance, floating unconscious in the sea, indicates that he is beginning the same journey to maturity as Elizabeth. It also indicates that Elizabeth, as a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, is first becoming aware of the opposite sex, as personified by Will: an unfamiliar Other who emerges from the unknown and enters her world. She is drawn to him, but cannot understand him yet. Moreover, she is discouraged by her elders. Finding a gold pirate medallion on Will, Elizabeth conceals it on her own person to shield him from the disapproval of her father and Norrington. She then sees a ghostly ship, the Black Pearl – visible to a child but entirely unnoticed by adults, apparently – disappearing back into the fog from which she emerged.
Verbinski then cuts to Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), now on the brink of adulthood. The symbolic language of repression could scarcely be clearer. Elizabeth awakens from sleep – framing the prologue as a dream, i.e., an expression of the unconscious – and takes out the medallion, which she has kept hidden all these years. The contents of Elizabeth’s childhood have been suppressed, but they have not gone away. She must deal with them properly if she is to enter adult life and become truly mature.
The first threat blocking Elizabeth’s journey to maturity is continued repression, again embodied by the Governor and Norrington. Presented with a corset by the former and a marriage proposal by the latter, Elizabeth is in danger of entering a state of extended infancy, where her agency and autonomy are stifled and she is sheltered from having to take responsibility for herself. (Tellingly, when the Governor’s mansion is raided by pirates, she cannot protect herself because the swords are merely decorative.) Norrington, proposing to her, is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t notice her toppling over the edge into the water. Though he is a “smart match” and, according to Elizabeth, “what any woman should dream of marrying,” she loves Will, and must acknowledge this hidden desire if she is to move forward.
Constricted literally (by the corset) and figuratively (by the prospect of marriage to Norrington), Elizabeth falls from the conscious world into the sea, the archetypal symbol of the unconscious. She is saved from the water by Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who opens her corset to revive her. The sexual overtones of the act are clear (most humorously to the Governor, who, even before finding out he is a pirate, orders Sparrow shot upon seeing the ripped corset), and it is no coincidence that Elizabeth is first seen concealing the medallion in her décolletage. Her sexual awakening gives rise not only to exciting new possibilities, however, but also to new dangers and responsibilities. The medallion summons the Black Pearl, and when it arrives bearing threats of sexual menace, she gives her name to its captain as “Elizabeth Turner.” The entire story, set in motion by Norrington’s proposal, will revolve around the continued postponement of Elizabeth’s marriage to Will, and the defense of her honor until then. It would be cheeky, but not inaccurate, to say that the whole trilogy is about “waiting till marriage.”
Taken aboard the Black Pearl, Elizabeth leaves the world of proper society behind and enters the world of pirates, where she confronts the next obstacle to her development. In one sense, she is free, having escaped the repressive influence of her father and Norrington, but in another sense, she is in a worse prison than before. She has left the stifling world of grown-ups and entered a world where adults act like lawless adolescents. Instead of being governed by her passions like a selfish child, Elizabeth must govern them to become a fully formed and responsible adult.
Elizabeth’s repressed desires are reflected in the film’s two major pirates, Sparrow and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). The capricious and immature Sparrow bears little resemblance, at first glance, to the ladylike and levelheaded Elizabeth, but both chafe against the expectations of respectable society, and their surnames indicate that they are two birds of a feather. Elizabeth wants to be free from the constraining influence of her father and Norrington, by whom Jack finds himself literally imprisoned. Jack Sparrow embodies the childish longing to throw off all rules in favor of the unfettered possibility represented by his ship, the Black Pearl, which he spends the entire film trying to reclaim. “Wherever we want to go, we’ll go,” he tells Elizabeth. “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.”
Sparrow and Barbossa can be contrasted along roughly generational lines. Sparrow typifies the rebellion of youth, while Barbossa represents the perpetually dissatisfied cravings of old age. Jack seems to be the same age as Will and Elizabeth, but he is not undergoing the same journey, even if he does act as the trilogy’s third protagonist. In fact, he never really matures at all; rather, his role in the story is to catalyze Will and Elizabeth’s coming of age. Barbossa is older, and more readily resembles the Governor and Commodore Norrington. (Sparrow successfully tempts him with the opportunity to command a fleet and introduce himself as “Commodore Barbossa.”) As much fun as Rush is obviously having in the role, Barbossa is more straight-laced than the wild, childish Jack, and he is an even more repressive, limiting influence than Elizabeth’s father. (Abducting and confining her, after all, is a far worse insult to her independence than asking her to wear a corset.) We learn that Barbossa sent Will’s father, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), to “the depths” after he objected to mutinying against Jack. The idea of forced submersion marks this as more repression imagery, but while the well-intentioned Governor Swann only attempted to repress the unruly urges of youth (as parents do), Barbossa represses the voice of conscience to better pursue his selfish desires.
It is fitting, then, that in Barbossa, Elizabeth encounters her first temptation in the pirate world: to cast propriety aside and indulge her hunger. “There’s no need to stand on ceremony,” he tells her at the dinner table, but his fate is indicative of the end of a life without constraint, wasted on the pursuit of pleasure. The crew of the Black Pearl, cursed by “heathen gods” for their greedy robbery of Aztec gold, are enslaved to vicious appetites that can never be appeased. “The drink would not satisfy,” Barbossa laments. “Food turned to ash in our mouths. And all the pleasurable company in the world could not slake our lust.”
This scene, in which Elizabeth dines with the villain, wearing a dress he picked out for her, and secrets away a knife from the dinner table, pays tribute to the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Marion Ravenwood does the same. Marion also tricks Belloq into getting drunk so she can make her escape – a ruse that Elizabeth uses on Jack when they are marooned on a desert island. Though she finds Sparrow’s promise of freedom alluring, Elizabeth is wise enough to recognize that some desires should not be indulged.
While Elizabeth is drawn to pirates, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is even more combative and hostile toward them than Governor Swann and Norrington. His first onscreen encounter with one is, in fact, a literal swordfight, during which he proclaims (without an ounce of irony), “I practice three hours a day so that when I meet a pirate, I can kill it!” The idealistic Will is this story’s Luke Skywalker. Like Luke, he sets the adventure in motion with his naïve desire to rescue a beautiful young woman, and like Luke, his black-and-white view of the world is challenged by revelations about a morally compromised father. (“You knew my father?” he asks, quoting Luke verbatim.) Like Elizabeth, Will begins the story in a state of repression. For both of our young protagonists, the repressed element is symbolized by the medallion, which links them both to each other and to the world of piracy. For Will, the medallion represents the missing father who, unbeknownst to him, ties him to the pirates he despises. “I make a point of avoiding familiarity with pirates,” he says, but he cannot avoid his familial relation to them for long. Per Sparrow, “Pirate is in your blood, boy, so you’ll have to square yourself with that some day.” In fact, it is quite literally Will’s blood – the stuff of carnal, physical, familial relations – that will prove vital to the story, as Barbossa needs it to lift the titular curse (“Begun by blood, by blood undone”).
Just as Elizabeth was propelled into the world of pirates by her desire for Will, he embarks on his adventure for her sake, joining forces with a pirate to rescue her. Will’s journey is characterized by symbolic descents. By joining forces with Jack and learning the truth about his pirate father, he is growing in self-knowledge, descending into the repressed internal depths that unsettle his conscious mind. Since Will thinks he is more mature than he is, the childish Jack is an apt guide on this foray into the unconscious. Their first move is to literally submerge themselves in water. “This is either madness or brilliance,” Will remarks, departing from the world of consciousness where he is most comfortable.
The next descent is social in nature, as Jack leads Will to Tortuga, society’s seedy underbelly. Subsequently – and more significantly – Will descends into the underworld to save Elizabeth. “I’d die for her,” he tells Jack. Indeed, his quest takes him, Orpheus-like, to the Isla de Muerte (“island of death”), where he rescues her from the dead. Discussion of death, hell, and judgment permeates the film; Sparrow, who apparently knows his Dante, tells the mutineers that the “deepest circle of hell is reserved for betrayers,” and they suffer an appropriately infernal fate.
Will rescues Elizabeth at the film’s halfway point, but leaves Jack behind with Barbossa to do so, indicating that the real conflict has not been resolved. Before they can kiss, the young lovers are interrupted by the medallion (found once again in its old hiding place), which prompts Elizabeth to confess that she stole it because she was afraid Will was a pirate. This confession confirms Will’s fear about his father’s blood and drives the two apart. They must each face what they have repressed before they are ready to truly come together. Elizabeth rejects Sparrow’s promise of irresponsible freedom and agrees to marry Norrington, convincing him to try and rescue Will, who in turn squares himself with his pirate blood, lifting the curse so Barbossa can be killed. The day is saved when our heroes bring their conscious and unconscious selves into proper harmony. (For the film’s third act, Elizabeth is dressed in a soldier’s uniform – more practical than a dress, but not a pirate’s garb.)
However, a worrisome trade-off has occurred, and the self-knowledge gained by our heroes is now threatened with renewed suppression. Jack is again imprisoned and sentenced to hang, Elizabeth is again facing a loveless marriage, and Will is again restrained from pursuing his love. Another reversal is necessary, and Will – coming full circle from his avowed hatred of pirates – brings it about by saving Jack from the noose. “You forget your place, Turner,” says Norrington, but Will retorts, “It’s right here, between you and Jack.” At this point, Will’s name suddenly begins to seem symbolically apt, for it is the role of the will to negotiate between the appetites (as represented by Jack) and the ideals (as represented by Norrington). Elizabeth has achieved the same balance and she joins Will in this middle space, now able to know and love him fully. What was hidden in the film’s first moments has now been completely unveiled: “He’s a pirate,” she declares before they kiss. The ever-honorable Norrington gives the couple his blessing, Sparrow escapes aboard the Black Pearl, and everyone is happy, except perhaps the Governor, who cuts a rather forlorn figure as he watches his daughter throw away her social prospects with a lowly blacksmith.
At this point, rousing as the adventure has been, it is fair to ask what the film’s moral vision really amounts to. It is an odd move to frame Will’s choice to save Sparrow from the hangman as some kind of heroic act while the characters insist that he is a “good man.” These attempts at sentimentality ring false because Jack Sparrow is not a good man – he is, at best, a lovable rogue, and the film has shown little interest in convincing us otherwise until these final moments. There is a certain thrill to watching Sparrow sail away into the sunset without a care in the world, but it is also hard to shake a certain moral dissatisfaction. The Pirates of the Caribbean films’ veneration of pirates recalls the western genre’s tendency to glorify the outlaw, which should be a little troubling to anyone with a passing knowledge of what pirates and outlaws actually do. Pirates and outlaws appeal to us because they are free from the constraints of respectable society, but mature stories understand that there is something inescapably untenable about this fantasy – that freedom qua freedom is hardly an end worth striving for, that the good life does not consist in pursuing one’s desires without regard to one’s obligations.
The nearly Manichaean push and pull between obligation and desire, honor and freedom, will be the central tension of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. As Curse of the Black Pearl closes, freedom wins out over honor, and if this is all these movies’ moral vision boils down to, it is a rather insubstantial and dissatisfying vision indeed. As our young heroes’ journey to adulthood continues, however, the challenges and complications that arise from this premature conclusion will push them toward a more perfect balance.
Part II: Dead Man’s Chest
If Curse of the Black Pearl was a crowd-pleaser in the same vein as the original Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, two of the all-time great blockbusters, Dead Man’s Chest succeeds because it emulates two of the all-time great blockbuster sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Like Empire, it goes both bigger and deeper, upping the spectacle on one hand and exploring its characters more intimately on the other. (It also splits them up to send them off on parallel subplots like any good second entry in a Star Wars trilogy.) Like Temple, it goes absolutely wild, getting darker and zanier as it dials everything up to eleven. By refusing to rest on the laurels secured by its predecessor, Dead Man’s Chest handily outdoes Curse of the Black Pearl in every respect. It’s a much richer, fuller experience: melodramatic, grisly, and playful by turns, but always a genuinely spectacular moviegoing adventure.
It also has more on its mind under the surface. As if acknowledging that its forerunner concluded a bit too tidily, Dead Man’s Chest turns everything from Curse of the Black Pearl on its head, interrogating every character and theme from a new angle.
As noted in the previous section, the continued postponement of Elizabeth’s marriage to Will is the hinge upon which this entire story turns, and the striking prologue of Dead Man’s Chest puts the young lovers’ interrupted wedding squarely in the spotlight. The first film concluded with the triumph of freedom over honor, allowing Will and Elizabeth to declare their love for one another despite the social pressures and obligations that parted them, but this promise of happy union is imperiled by the repercussions of the very choices that made it possible. The bride and groom are arrested for aiding Jack’s escape by Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, not to be confused with Spider-Man impostor Tom Holland), head of the East India Trading Company: an external threat that masks an internal danger. The wedding is drenched in rain, and the profusion of clouds and water suggests an outbreak of the chaotic unconscious. It is precisely by eroding the honor Norrington and Governor Swann represented that our heroes have put their wedding in jeopardy. They have unleashed the ruthless tyranny of the Company, which is guided by the imperatives of commerce rather than those of honor. Moreover, husbands and wives cannot be free agents, and star-crossed as Will and Elizabeth are, they may not be ready to give up their newfound freedom for each other. “A marriage interrupted or fate intervenes?” muses Beckett, insinuating that Elizabeth might prefer the life of a pirate after all, free from the responsibility marriage implies. (Notice also that Elizabeth accuses Beckett, “You robbed me of my wedding night” – not, that is, her wedding day.)
Dead Man’s Chest constantly puts its characters in situations where they are indebted, obligated, coerced, or otherwise at the bidding of others. The freedom glorified by Curse of the Black Pearl is inevitably haunted by two essential conditions: love and death. Mortality always collects its due, and if one loves another, his or her choices are always limited by the desire for that person’s wellbeing. Beckett uses Will’s love for Elizabeth to press him into the Company’s service, and Jack, who will spend the entire film fleeing Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a seafaring grim reaper of sorts, is first reintroduced cheating death (after a fashion) by hiding in a coffin to escape a prison.
The point is later underlined by a visual joke when Jack stumbles into a grave without realizing what it is. Notice the cross, a symbol the film associates with love (it is situated atop the wedding chapel in the previous image) and death (for obvious reasons). The prison Jack escapes from is framed as a hellish realm, where the prisoners’ grisly fates – they are eaten alive by birds – recall the punishment of Prometheus, a trickster who defied the gods. The connection to “witty Jack,” with his similar penchant for flouting the laws of fate, is clear. Dead Man’s Chest sketches these mythic dimensions lightly, but consistently; after all, Jack’s next escapade sees him mistaken (like C-3PO before him) for a deity by a tribe of primitives.
The trilogy’s real R2-D2 and C-3PO analogues, though, are Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook). One is short and stubby, the other tall and lanky, with an eye that monkeys like to steal, and their comic asides are used as a device to reveal theme. “Since we’re not immortal no more,” Ragetti insists to his skeptical counterpart, “We’ve got to take care of our immortal souls.” The prospect of postmortem judgment – “All your deeds laid bare, all your sins punished” – looms over Dead Man’s Chest. Davy Jones preys on this fear of death, offering to postpone the final reckoning with a century-long stint of service aboard his ship, the Flying Dutchman. “Life is cruel,” he spits. “Why should the afterlife be any different?” (Another cross puts in a notable appearance when a sailor carrying a crucifix is the only one to see through this Faustian bargain.) The cruelty of life stems from man’s inherent inability to free himself from the demands of love and death, and his refusal to stop this futile striving. In the Pirates of the Caribbean cosmos, attempts to defy these primal forces are doomed to be cyclical, unending – a thematic point reflected in the film’s circular structure, and confirmed by not one but two scenes where characters are trapped in literal circles. In both cases, one of the haplessly revolving characters is Will, whose surname is beginning to seem increasingly apropos.
This adventure begins in much the same fashion as the first. Will and Elizabeth, separated from each other in the orderly world of landlocked society, are forced to enter the chaotic world of the sea to find a solution. Their places in the plot are reversed, though: this time, Will is shanghaied onto a pirate ship and Elizabeth joins up with Jack Sparrow to try and rescue him. The trilogy’s structural parallels to Star Wars are even clearer here. Like Luke coming face to face with Vader, Will finally meets his father; like Leia with Han Solo, Elizabeth escapes aboard a ship and must reckon with her growing attraction to its roguish captain. The middle entry of a Star Wars trilogy is always a descent into the disorienting world of the unconscious, where ideals risk being lost. (Symbolically, a head is always severed from a body – symbolism that recurs prominently here.)
Once again, Jack acts as the young heroes’ guide through this unfamiliar territory. Per Gibbs, “What bodes ill for Jack Sparrow bodes ill for us all.” Yet Jack is even less trustworthy and even more selfishly motivated than before, and Will and Elizabeth are endangered by their connection to him. “That you would risk your life for Sparrow’s does not mean that he would do the same for anyone else,” cautions Governor Swann, and while he was primarily presented as a buffoon in the first film, here he has a point. When Will tries to appeal to Jack, explaining that Elizabeth is going to die for helping him, the pirate glibly replies, “There comes a time when one must take responsibility for one’s mistakes.” The intuitions of the childish Jack helped Will and Elizabeth navigate the world of piracy the first time, but now they are older and must light their own way (literally – both use fire to illuminate their paths at key junctures) if they are to grow.
In true Jungian fashion, Will and Elizabeth are learning to recognize and harness the repressed parts of themselves – which is to say, they are becoming more pirate-like. Will’s white tunic symbolizes his pure motives, but he wears a dark jacket over it (a costume change recalling Luke in Return of the Jedi). He is ready and willing to collude with Jack in order to achieve his ends, and performs a bit of light-fingered thievery to retrieve a crucial item – both acts that would be unthinkable to the straight-laced Will we met at the beginning of the previous film. However, this process of integration involves its own dangers, and Will’s misplaced trustfulness gets him trapped aboard the Flying Dutchman as payment for Jack’s debt to Davy Jones.
“I wonder, Sparrow,” asks Jones after Will has been tricked onto his ship, “Can you live with this? Can you condemn an innocent man, a friend, to a lifetime of servitude in your name while you roam free?” “Yep,” Jack replies blithely. “I’m good with it.” Will is nobler than Jack, but he seems to have taken to heart the pirate’s questionable belief that rules can always be sidestepped. He carelessly bets his immortal soul in a game of chance, inadvertently damning his father to an eternity of slavery in the process. Will took the fall for Jack’s recklessness, and someone else takes the fall for his.
As our young heroes mature, their fathers are crucial to their development. Elizabeth is freed from prison by her father; Will promises to free his. Recalling the first film’s focus on Will’s “pirate blood,” Bootstrap Bill confesses to his son, “It was always in my blood to die at sea… I could say I did what I had to when I left you to go pirating, but it would taste a lie to say it wasn’t what I wanted.” The miserable immortality endured by Bootstrap and the sailors of the Flying Dutchman offers an even more vivid picture of the dark side of freedom than the fate of Barbossa and his mutineers. Man is intrinsically beholden to love and death, and the perverse freedom Davy Jones offers is far worse than either of those things. It makes men inhuman, “losing who [they] were, bit by bit.” Augustine teaches that true freedom consists in the ability to exercise one’s will in the pursuit of virtue, to fulfill one’s telos. Freedom to indulge one’s vices, to forsake the ultimate aim of one’s existence, is no freedom at all. Bootstrap Bill “freed” himself from the responsibility of paternal love by abandoning his child for a life of piracy on the high seas; it is only a fitting punishment that he should be enslaved to sail those seas forever. (Jack, like Bootstrap Bill, bought his freedom at a steep price – he owes the Black Pearl to Jones, who raised it from the depths in exchange for his soul.)
The monstrous Jones, too, is fleeing from the love that makes him human. He cut out his heart to be free from human feeling – compared to the pain of loving a woman who he could not possess, “It was not worth feeling what small, fleeting joy life brings.” Jones’ heart makes him vulnerable not only to love, but also to death. The plot revolves around everyone’s attempts to capture it so they can force its owner to comply with their wishes.
Jack and Will learn Jones’ tragic backstory from Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), a swamp-dwelling sage whose eccentric demeanor and strange speech patterns belie surprising supernatural power (Remind you of someone, does she? Eh heh heh!), and whose relation to Jones is foreshadowed by their identical heart-shaped music boxes. She explains that he was a “man of the sea” who ran afoul of “that which vexes all men”: a woman, according to Jack, or the sea, according to Gibbs. “Same story, different versions,” says Tia Dalma, “And all are true.” The next film will reveal how Jones could actually fall in love with a woman who is also the sea, but when left ambiguous, the exchange is perfectly elegant as a thematic lynchpin. All men are vexed by the dual desires for the stability of a woman and the freedom represented by the sea – for love on the one hand and independence on the other.
This is the cross on which all human hearts are stretched, and it is apt that Jones buries his heart on Isla Cruces – roughly, “island of crosses,” continuing the cruciform motif. (Characters make the sign of the cross twice in the film – the first time in irreverent jest, the second time sincerely, as a plea for deliverance.) Those unwilling to cut out their hearts are forever tormented by them. Regarding Will and Elizabeth, Jack needles Jones: “Dividing him from her and her from him would only be half as cruel as actually allowing them to be joined in holy matrimony.” Davy Jones’ doomed love reflects Will and Elizabeth’s troubled romance, which is haunted by the possibility that the latter is indeed “a woman as changing and harsh and untamable as the sea.” (Jack’s romantic history with Tia Dalma further highlights the parallel: he is an interloper in both relationships.)
Just as Lord Beckett predicted, Elizabeth is drawn to the freedom Sparrow embodies, over and against the stable, faithful marriage Will represents. These contradictory desires are revealed by Jack’s magic compass, which points to whatever the person holding it wants most in the world. After securing his freedom at the end of the previous film, Jack finds himself at a loss before the void of infinite possibility. The pointer spins aimlessly; hearts are fickle and inconstant things. Jack has the freedom he desired, but has no idea what to do with it. Elizabeth has the marriage she wanted, but is now unsure if she really wants it.The compass places Elizabeth between Norrington (honor) and Jack (freedom).
Jack and Elizabeth are also linked by their hats. (Nothing more foolish than a man chasing one.) Jack, spooked by Jones’ monstrous Kraken in the film’s early scenes, loses his hat overboard, and it is no coincidence that Elizabeth gets a nearly identical tricorne when disguising herself as a pirate. The hat connotes freedom, independence; Jack loses his when faced with the prospect of servitude to Jones, and Elizabeth gains hers upon escaping her imprisonment (and wedding).
Elizabeth’s hat is a direct contrast to her wedding dress. Stowing away aboard a trading vessel, she tricks the crew into taking her to Tortuga with a bit of puppeteering trickery using the dress – which the sailors interpret, not quite inaccurately, as belonging to “The ghost of a lady widowed before her marriage… searching for her husband, lost at sea.” Later, when the ship is destroyed by the Kraken, the dress floats in the water among the wreckage, and – in the film’s most striking transition – Verbinski fades to an image of Elizabeth’s pensive face. Though she enjoys playing the part of a pirate, Elizabeth rues the loss of her old life. “I just thought I’d be married by now,” she complains. “I’m so ready to be married.” Jack scoffs at the idea of taking marriage seriously, but offers instant gratification – an offer that Elizabeth refuses, but clearly finds tempting.
On the voyage to Isla Cruces, Jack and Elizabeth spar verbally over the kinship neither is willing to acknowledge. Elizabeth insists that they are separated by a “sense of honor and decency, and a moral center,” but Jack counters, “We are very much alike… You long for freedom. You want to do what you want to do because you want it, to act on selfish impulse.” Jack tells Elizabeth that she is a pirate, but she tells him that he is a good man. The flirtation between the two is charged with moral dimensions – or perhaps their moral conflict is driven by sexual appetite. “Seeing as you’re a good man,” Elizabeth says suggestively, “I know you’d never put me in a position that would compromise my honor.” This mutual seduction is cut short by their arrival at Isla Cruces, where Elizabeth is outraged to discover that Jack lied to her about how Will fell into Davy Jones’ clutches, and exclaims: “I’ve had it with wobbly-legged, rum-soaked pirates! This is madness!”
Jack is able to dupe Will and Elizabeth because they place too much trust in him – a contrast to Norrington, who scoffs disbelievingly at Sparrow’s antics even when he is telling the truth. Elizabeth meets Norrington, another fugitive from the Company, on her brief sojourn through the sordid muck of Tortuga (the “only free port left in these waters”), where she discovers – in one of the film’s more amusing reversals – that he has done an about-face from straight-laced foil to comic drunk. Yet this change of fortune also holds thematic significance. The inebriated former commodore is vomiting in the background throughout the scene where Elizabeth joins Jack on the Black Pearl – a very physical illustration of suppressed things rising forcibly to the surface. In the first film, the desire for freedom was repressed by the imposition of order. Now, freedom is dominant, and the desire for stability is roiling under the surface. The cycle never ends.
Ultimately, it is Norrington – another man whose marriage to Elizabeth was rudely interrupted, whose desire to regain his lost honor has gone largely unnoticed by characters too preoccupied with their own selfish aims – who gets the heart of Davy Jones. Everyone must serve someone, and Norrington brings the heart to Beckett, who has used the Governor’s love for his daughter to press him into his service. The honorable characters are the ones Beckett is able to coerce first, but there is nothing honorable about the Company. In fact, Beckett is simply a better-dressed, more organized pirate. He has no family, no principles, and he only cares about treasure. “Loyalty is no longer the currency of the realm,” he gloats. “I’m afraid currency is the currency of the realm.” The similarity is driven home by the opening scene, which uses the same visual language to depict the arrival of the Company in Port Royal as the pirate attack in the first film; indeed, Elizabeth incorrectly assumes that Beckett also wants the treasure of the Isla de Muerte. (His desires, he assures her, “Are not so provincial.”)
“Jack Sparrow is a dying breed,” Beckett tells Will as a massive clock face is hoisted (none too subtly) into frame. “The world is shrinking. The blank edges of the map filled in. Jack must find his place in the new world or perish.” The passage of time is on the side of the Company. The “new world” it seeks to bring about is a modern one, where love, death, and other cosmic forces are subject to the dictates of mammon. In such a world, the concept of human dignity is eroded, along with the freedom that dignity implies. “If the Company controls the chest,” warns Gibbs, “They controls the sea.” If Davy Jones will not consent to be governed by the demands of love, he will be governed by the demands of commerce.
Jack and Elizabeth, in contrast, make dramatically free choices, and prove each other right in the process. Jack gives in to cowardice when the Kraken attacks the Black Pearl, rowing away in a longboat while others die in his place, but – after consulting his (moral, in this case) compass – masters his passions and performs a selfless act, returning to save the day at the eleventh hour and showing himself to be a good man.
Elizabeth, however, shows herself to be a pirate, distracting Jack with a kiss and chaining him to the mast so she and the others can escape. In one sense, Elizabeth chooses Will over Jack, renouncing the temptation of the latter to save the life of the former. In another sense, she gives in to temptation by sinking to Jack’s level, living out the pirate impulse to self-preservation. Curse of the Black Pearl concluded with Elizabeth’s triumphant declaration, “He’s a pirate,” but Dead Man’s Chest offers a stark subversion of that catharsis. “Pirate,” Jack smiles at Elizabeth as she leaves him to die.
While the others make for land, Jack dons his hat and accepts his death as a free man, charging courageously into the Kraken’s maw. “He was a good man,” eulogizes the guilt-ridden Elizabeth. Barbossa returns from the grave, promising that death may be cheated, but love is more exacting. Will and Elizabeth are freer than ever, but freedom, in itself, has turned out to be a hollow thing. If they are to be united in holy matrimony, they must make sacrifices to regain their honor.
Part III: At World’s End
The trilogy’s closing installment, At World’s End, is its clumsiest and most uneven entry, and accordingly, its least beloved. Nevertheless, it is well crafted, rousing, and – most importantly – indispensable as a conclusion to the trilogy’s mythic and thematic drama. At this point, it likely comes as little surprise that this third film bears some resemblance to Return of the Jedi, the third Star Wars film. What may be surprising is just how exact the resemblance is. Beyond sharing comparable strengths (satisfying character conclusions) and weaknesses (silly digressions), not to mention a penchant for bringing the trilogy full circle with persistent parallels to the first film, At World’s End copies virtually every major plot point from Return of the Jedi.
The first act is an elaborate rescue attempt, as our heroes descend to save one of their number, who was lost at the conclusion of the previous film, from an underworld. In the second act, they reflect on the impending end of an era, gather their fellow rebels for a council (led by a woman), and prepare for a last stand against an evil empire with a much larger fleet. The third act is a climactic large-scale battle, during which lovers are finally united and a son redeems his father (who, in turns, sends his villainous master hurtling down an abyss).
The dire prologue of At World’s End lays it on a bit thick, featuring scenes of mass executions that suggest Dickens or Hugo more readily than a Disneyland ride. However, it does effectively establish the film’s more somber tone and grandiose scale while setting up key thematic points.
We begin with the death of a child, an indication that the end of Will and Elizabeth’s childhood is nigh – and as they cross over to adulthood, the entire Pirates of the Caribbean cosmos will transition from the age of myths to the modern era. This is the titular world’s end (though there is another, more literal meaning). The boy, whose resemblance to the young Will Turner is hardly coincidental, sings a song called “Hoist the Colours,” and after the title, we cut to Elizabeth, who is singing the same song as she rows a boat through fog into Singapore. We have come full circle to the prologue of the first film: once again, Elizabeth is sailing obscure waters, singing about pirates. (Note also that, in each film, Elizabeth is the first main character we see, reinforcing her centrality.) The lyrics of “Hoist the Colours” lay out the key themes of the film:The King and his men stole the Queen from her bed And bound her in her bones The seas be ours, and by the powers Where we will, we’ll roam Now some have died and some are alive And others sail on the sea With the keys to the cage and the devil to pay We lay to Fiddler’s Green The bell has been raised from its watery grave Hear its sepulchral tone A call to all, pay heed the squall And turn your sails toward home Yo ho, haul together Hoist the colours high Heave ho, thieves and beggars Never shall we die
The first verse puts forth a narrative about men imprisoning women to secure their own freedom, recalling the dichotomy between women and the sea from Dead Man’s Chest. The discussion of death and immortality, a thread running through all three films, is also present: “Fiddler’s Green” is a legendary afterlife for sailors, and the sea is framed as a middle space between life and death. There is a focus on union (“haul together”), for the individualistic pirates will be forced to band together to survive, and other opposites will be united at the film’s end. Finally, there is a call to “home,” the stability that Will and Elizabeth currently lack, but must secure if they are to become adults. As the song ends, a coin drops, and the pirates are summoned by its “tone” – a return, again, to the first film, where the cursed medallion drew the Black Pearl to Port Royal.
In both cases, the repressed elements of society summon the pirates in response to constriction. From the beginning, At World’s End frames its story around the trilogy’s crucial theme: the push and pull between honor and freedom. In a complete reversal of Curse of the Black Pearl, though, honor has been systematically cast aside by the very structures that are supposed to uphold it. Verbinski is keenly aware of how societal systems can be corrupted and twisted to selfish ends, but neither does he advocate a lawless Rousseauan utopia. Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), the film’s Jabba the Hutt analogue (yes, really), is – like Barbossa and Davy Jones before him – a warning against the ends of freedom without honor. The pirates soaking slothfully in his bathhouse are encrusted with barnacles: a visual parallel to Davy Jones’ crew, other slaves to freedom. Aptly, our heroes enter this lair of debauchery by sneaking around underwater (i.e., in the unconscious).
“[Sao Feng]’s much like myself,” Barbossa tells Elizabeth, “But absent my merciful nature and sense of fair play.” Indeed, Barbossa is the trilogy’s most honorable pirate, consistently adhering to the rules of the Code, while Sao Feng is an opportunist more concerned with profit than honor. “The only way for a pirate to make a living these days,” he says, “Is by betraying other pirates.” When Barbossa laments that honor is a “hard thing to come by nowadays,” Sao Feng retorts, “There is no honor to remaining with the losing side. Leaving it for the winning side, that’s just good business.”
Curse of the Black Pearl ended with absolute freedom (“Bring me that horizon”), and At World’s End begins with the literal end of this freedom, as our heroes reach the horizon and go over it, into the void. At this point, the film stops just short of breaking the fourth wall. The ship going over the edge of the world is a water ride’s “drop” writ large; after it falls, the film goes black for about thirty seconds, during which the sounds of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride can be heard. Essentially, the characters have returned to their roots, meta-fictionally speaking – to the empty canvas, the creative vacuum, whence they sprang. The blank white space of Davy Jones’ Locker foreshadows sequences in Verbinski’s next film, Rango, which is overtly preoccupied with the way fictional characters interpret the stories they are part of. Jack Sparrow, having been written out of this story, reenters it by reliving his first grand entrance, standing triumphantly atop the mast of his ship.
“Death,” per the returned Jack, “Has a curious way of reshuffling one’s priorities.” After seeking freedom in life, Jack – ever the striver – now seeks to secure freedom from death itself, to be “Free to sail the seas beyond the edge of the map.” Yet the miserable immortalities endured by Barbossa’s skeletal mutineers and Jones’ damned crew are warnings against eternal life secured through the wrong means. As Jack’s father, Captain Teague (Keith Richards) puts it, “It’s not just about living forever… It’s about living with yourself forever,” and in Davy Jones’ Locker, Jack discovers what a hell living with oneself can be. Mortality does indeed shape morality; throughout At World’s End, characters seek to die well, in a way that gives their lives meaning. The heroes return from the land of the dead by literally turning the Black Pearl upside down: a physical reversal that mirrors a psychic one. The desire for freedom is subordinated to the desire for honor. Selfish characters learn to act selflessly. Jack’s splintered persona is reformed in another heroic choice, as he ultimately forgoes his chance at immortality for the sake of another.
It is not only individuals who are dying in At World’s End. A whole way of life is passing away. The pirates seem to know their days are numbered, a point driven home by the beached, bloated corpse of the Kraken, ignominiously left on a beach after Beckett ordered Davy Jones to kill it. The sight of a massive, rotting CGI monster bears no superficial resemblance to the dignified passing of a diminutive green puppet, but even so, the death of the Kraken mirrors Yoda’s death in Return of the Jedi. Both scenes take place around the same structural point, and both signify the end of an era. Yoda told Luke he would be the last of the Jedi; Jack, facing the prospect of his fellow pirates’ extinction, muses: “Quite like the sound of that. Jack Sparrow, the last pirate.” Barbossa is more clear-eyed, however: “You know the problem with being the last of anything. By and by, there be none left at all.” Both captains of the Black Pearl have returned from the underworld to the land of the living (hell spat them back out, as foretold in the first film). Nonetheless, Barbossa laments: “There’s never a guarantee of coming back. But passing on, that’s dead certain.”
The pirates are not facing the threat of subjugation, as represented by the Navy in the first film. Rather, the modern world represented by the Company wants to erase them entirely in the name of “good business.” Pirates, and the freedom they represent, will be consigned to nothingness; per Beckett, “The enemy has opted for oblivion.” Beckett’s materialistic regime leaves no room for the supernatural, either. “This is no longer your world, Jones,” he gloats. “The immaterial has become immaterial.” It is little wonder that, as the film nears its climax, Barbossa proclaims, “Dying is the day worth living for!” Though this sounds like nothing more than nonsensical pirate-speak at first glance, it is in fact the film’s thesis. The days worth living for are dying as myths pass away, as the spiritual is eclipsed by the material. The soulless Beckett does not even rage against the dying of the light. In the face of death, he can only repeat banalities. The hollow man is consigned to a watery grave, but we sense that what he represents could rise again at the slightest provocation. The tide of progress may be slowed, but it cannot be stopped.
Facing this bleak future, our young heroes turn to the past. Even though Jack admits that he has “Never actually been one for tradition,” it is precisely the previous generation that helps Will and Elizabeth navigate the treacherous path to maturity, warning them about the sacrifices adulthood will require. The Governor, murdered offscreen by Beckett, appears in the underworld to warn the heroes that whoever stabs the heart of Davy Jones must take his place as captain of the Flying Dutchman, ferryman of souls lost at sea. The death of Elizabeth’s father – as Freud would tell us – is another ominous indication that her childhood is at an end. It also brings about a final reconciliation between parent and child. Elizabeth, who was once eager to grow up and be free from her father’s authority, now mourns his loss.
While Elizabeth seeks to avenge her father, Will is still determined to save his. This plot mirrors Luke’s resolve to redeem Vader, but is complicated by Will’s love for Elizabeth – a problem the monastic Luke didn’t have. Like the Governor, Bootstrap issues a warning about Jones’ heart, and like the Governor, he ultimately affirms his love for his child, explaining to his son’s fiancé, “He can’t come because of you… If he saves me, he loses you… Tell him not to come. Tell him to stay away.” During a prisoner escape, Bootstrap kills Norrington, one of Elizabeth’s former suitors – clearing the path, in a twisted way, for Will to marry her, and dooming himself further in the process. At the eleventh hour, though, he comes to himself and turns on Jones to save Will’s life, just as Vader turned on the Emperor to save Luke’s. His subsequent choice seals his redemption: the man who abandoned his child for freedom willingly gives up that freedom to be with his son.
The parallels between Will and Luke are driven home by a composition that directly references Return of the Jedi. Will is still troubled by his “pirate blood” as he tosses bodies overboard, a breadcrumb trail to lead Beckett to his ostensible allies’ door. “I told myself, ‘Think like Jack,’” he says sardonically, driving the point home. Will’s inner darkness, like Luke’s, is linked to his father – a link symbolized by the knife Bootstrap gave him. Will looks at the knife just as Luke looked at the cyborg hand that represented his kinship with Vader. Both heroes are torn between a deep love for their fathers and a deep unease over the dark traits inherited from them.
The visual of Will dropping bodies into the water recalls the souls seen under the water earlier, floating to the underworld when they should have been in the care of Davy Jones. The parallel foreshadows Will’s fate as the Flying Dutchman’s new captain, who will ferry souls responsibly, carrying out the duty Jones forsook. Indeed, the knife Will is looking at is the very same one that will later cut out his heart to replace Jones’.
In At World’s End, we learn that Davy Jones cut out his heart because of his love for Calypso, goddess of the sea. “Ten years I devoted to the duty you charged me with,” he confronts her. “Ten years I looked after those who died at sea. And finally, when we could be together again, you weren’t there.” Calypso promised Jones the stability of love, but gave him the chaos of the sea, and in retaliation for this betrayal, he showed the Brethren Court – the pirate council – how to bind her in human form (as Tia Dalma) and claim the sea for themselves. This mutual betrayal imprisons both parties; their only onscreen conversation takes place through prison bars. “My freedom was forfeit long ago,” cries Jones, who still loves Calypso despite everything.
“If you make your choices alone,” Will asks Elizabeth after learning she left Jack to his death, “How can I trust you?” The sentiment is echoed by Jones, who justifies his decision to betray Calypso to the Brethren Court by protesting, “She could not be trusted. She gave me no choice.” The parallels between Jones and Calypso’s romance and Will and Elizabeth’s are underlined by Sao Feng, who mistakenly believes Elizabeth to be Calypso’s human form.
The “dreadful bond” of love situates men and women in a cruciform reality (recall “Isla Cruces”) – one where they are perpetually stretched in two directions. Though they are united in marriage, man and woman are inevitably drawn back to their separate worlds and separate realms of being. The land is sectioned off from the sea, the home from the workplace, and the rule Davy Jones and Will must follow – ten years at sea and one day on land, or ten years at work and one day at home – is a hyperbolic expression of a profound and universal truth. The cost of maturity is to be torn between two different worlds. Davy Jones kills the newlywed Will, sundering him from his bride, with the sword he forged for Norrington at the beginning of this entire story – an emblem of the workplace, which sunders a man from the life of the home.
This is why Will must be the captain of the Flying Dutchman, though Jack entertains the idea. Jack is not the responsible sort, but Will is: he will “do the job” and ferry souls to the next world. Will is not obsessed with freedom, as pirates are, which is why he makes a good ferryman and a good husband. Throughout At World’s End, men are beholden to women. Jones loves Calypso. Will loves Elizabeth. Barbossa owes his life to Calypso, who raised him from the dead on the condition that he free her from her human bonds, and he reacts by locking her in the brig, saying, “Too long my fate has not been in my own hands.” Sao Feng takes Elizabeth (who he believes to be Calypso) prisoner and tries to rape her. Men’s attempts to tame women reflect their attempts to tame the sea. As Sao Feng tells Elizabeth, “All men are drawn to the sea, perilous though it may be.” Yet as At World’s End comes to its conclusion, the pattern is reversed and the cycle is broken. The first Brethren Court imprisoned Calypso to claim the sea for themselves; “The King and his men,” as the lyrics of “Hoist the Colours” say, “Stole the Queen from her bed / And bound her in her bones.” The fourth Brethren Court frees Calypso and elects a woman as Pirate King.
Calypso, whose untamed heart is fickle and inconstant, does not help the pirates after she is freed – thereby reneging, one assumes (although the terms are unclear), on her bargain with Barbossa. Just as the responsible Will is a contrast to the bitter Davy Jones and the ungovernable pirates, Elizabeth is principled and resolute, a contrast to the cruel and capricious Calypso. She has mastered her own dark impulses – her “pirate side” – and reached true maturity. Her title as “Pirate King,” then, has a double meaning. She is able to rule others because she is able to rule herself. Elizabeth rouses the pirates to make their last stand against the Company with a speech she delivers while standing on the Black Pearl’s rail, standing above them while they look up to her, and Will is the first to follow her lead.
Unlike Davy Jones, Will does not resent being beholden to the woman he loves because she has earned his love. Because of Calypso’s unfaithfulness, Jones hates that she has power over him; looking up to her in the clouds, he feels her rain upon his face and screams. In contrast, Will looks up to Elizabeth with admiration. He loves her, trusting that she will be faithful to him, and she does not betray his trust.
In Curse of the Black Pearl, freedom was valued over honor; in At World’s End, honor is what the pirates must reclaim to preserve their freedom. In order to stand for freedom at all, they must put that freedom to honorable use, for honor is what allows a man to die a good death. Elizabeth brings these disparate impulses into harmony at the end of her journey to maturity, and the day is won by this union. Beckett – who is neither a truly free man nor an honorable one – is defeated by the Black Pearl, symbol of freedom, and the Flying Dutchman, now (under Will’s command) a symbol of responsibility. Balance is restored and the world turns on.
Although Will and Elizabeth have essentially saved the pirates of the world from extinction, they do not stay pirates forever. The battle is won and their adventure is at an end. They were married with swords in hand, but they leave their swords behind as they go to consummate that marriage. Jones and Calypso betrayed each other because they were unable to live with the steep price that love exacts, but Will and Elizabeth correct this pattern by freely choosing to love each other and accepting the resulting limitations on their freedom. The husband, leaving to perform his duty, yields his heart that the wife might possess it. The wife keeps it safe while she waits faithfully for his return.
As Elizabeth bids farewell to the crew of the Black Pearl and departs to join her husband, she tells Jack, “It would never have worked out between us,” and of course, she is right. Elizabeth cannot marry Jack for the same reason Wendy cannot marry Peter Pan: she wants to grow up. Elizabeth was first brought aboard the Black Pearl as she was leaving the world of adolescence, and she disembarks from it for the last time to enter the world of adulthood.
In the end, then, the trilogy comes full circle to where it started. Will and Elizabeth are in love, but separated by circumstance. Jack is all alone again, like a cowboy at the end of a western, starting from scratch to find another adventure, and Barbossa is sailing away with his beloved ship. Given the circular shape of the Pirates of the Caribbean cosmos, and the generational contrast between Jack and Barbossa, of course the two are eternally at odds. Youth and old age are indeed immortal forces that will be “locked in an epic battle till judgment day and trumpets sound.” Verbinski trots out a delightful visual trick for Barbossa’s last appearance: a circular hole, cut in his charts, that resembles the ending of a Looney Tunes cartoon. And what are Looney Tunes, after all, but farcical circles of endless striving?
This is not unsatisfying but fitting. None of the dichotomies have been fully and finally resolved, for all the best myths are built on the primal, irreconcilable contradictions that undergird man’s entire existence. The paradoxes of Christianity offer resolutions to these oppositions, but a pagan myth can only wrestle with them. The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was never going to reach any kind of eschaton – but neither was Homer.
The cosmos of the Pirates of the Caribbean films is pagan on the one hand – gods are present, but God is not – and modern on the other. The blank whiteness of Davy Jones’ Locker, the void underlying all reality, is a “godforsaken place,” a fertile nothingness offering no impediment to our efforts at self-determination. We are completely and radically free to make of ourselves what we will. This distinctly modern view of the cosmos should give any Christian cause to raise a dubious eyebrow, but the soul of the Pirates of the Caribbean films lies in the way they wrestle spiritedly with the implications of modernity. Verbinski is no classicist, and he is skeptical of tradition, but he is concerned with the absence of spirituality in an increasingly materialistic world. The film’s coda, which sees Sparrow off in search of “the water of life,” is a suggestive enough conclusion to the religious undertones that have been consistently present, though never prominent, in these films. We all know Who claims to offer living water.
At World’s End is about the end of an era, and its very idiosyncratic excess – while paradoxically bankrolled by one of the modern world’s most massive corporations – feels like a commentary on the state of blockbuster filmmaking itself. It is a film that seems to know it might be the last of its kind. Its release in 2007, together with the final installment of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, marked the end of an era for big-budget filmmaking in many ways. The following year, 2008, saw the release of Iron Man and The Dark Knight – both good films, but ones that set unfortunate precedents.
“The world used to be a bigger place,” Barbossa laments as he looks on the corpse of the Kraken. “World’s still the same,” Jack counters. “There’s just less in it.” And, until another major studio gives Gore Verbinski another massive budget, another grand canvas on which to let his imagination run free, that will remain sadly true.