Favorite Films: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

“You are, without doubt, the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.”
“But you have heard of me.”

Ahoy me hearties and landlubbers alike! Today be September 19, a most special day on the calendar. Fer in the year o’ our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-five, two scurvy scallywags from the town o’ Albany, Oregon did land themselves a whale o’ an idea fer a holiday. Callin’ theirselfs Cap’n Slappy an’ Ol’ Chumbucket, these two bilgerats declared the nineteenth o’ September to be “Talk Like a Pirate Day”, dedicated to recreatin’ the authentic sound o’ the inauthentic romanticized view o’ the Golden Age o’ Piracy. The two kept the date as a joke between them for sev’ral years, until finally they shared it with the luminary Dave Barry in two thousand and two, and the holiday truly went international. The very next summer, a new motion picture did debut that were all about pirates, and though the producers may claim it just a coincidence, and indeed probably ’twere so. But ’twere a most fortuitous coincidence indeed, as the film inspired a resurgence o’ love fer all things piratical, an’ cemented the success o’ the newly inaugurated International Talk Like a Pirate Day. And so, on the tenth anniversary o’ that auspicious day, I can find no more appropriate tribute ta the day than ta spend it talkin’ wit’ me chums and mateys about the wondrous film that fueled the fire, as it were. So grab a mug o’ grog, and we’ll talk o’ Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

“You’ve seen a ship with black sails that’s crewed by the damned, and captained by a man so evil that Hell itself spat him back out?”

As with many great films, it not only tells a saga, but it had a saga of its own to go through, as it were. The film began life in the early 1990s, when scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio first put together a screenplay based on the Disney amusement park ride. But another pirate film made it ta the screen afore the script went anywhere, and Cutthroat Island was released ta great fanfare and a most ignominious failure. The attempt at reviving the swashbuckler genre instead killed it anew, an’ the craven curs in Hollywood no longer wanted anythin’ to do with the subjects o’ pirates and swordplay. Though no less a luminary than Steven Spielberg expressed interest in directin’ the project, Disney declined at the time.

Later in the decade, however, a scurvy dog by the name of Dick Cook lit upon a notion that were either most savvy or most daft. Brandin’ be everythin’ in entertainment, and cross-promotion can bring in doubloons in amounts otherwise undreamed of. Everybody knew o’ the Dumbo flying elephant ride at Disneyland, or the Toon Town theme park inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit… but many o’ Disneyland’s other long-standing rides had no such established fan base comin’ in. Cook’s solution was ta make films ta tie into these rides: more than a mere two-hour commercial, the goal was to create tales that would make the lubbers in the audience associate the rides with a greater mythology.

“This is either madness or brilliance.”
“It’s remarkable how often those two traits coincide.”

But trials and tribulations are part and parcel o’ a pirate’s life, and no less were true of a pirate movie. Though Cook convinced the Disney executives, it were not without a degree o’ skepticism in their ranks. When the public heard about it, that skepticism were reflected further. And then the project ran aground in the shoals. The Country Bears, first o’ the ride-based films and released while production was still ongoin’ for Pirates of the Caribbean, were reacted to as if ’twere syphilitic, and nary a soul went ta see it. No doubt also recallin’ the failure o’ Cutthroat Island, Michael Eisner did fear greatly that his treasure might go down with the ship, and cried out “avast!”, puttin’ a stop ta the film. But helmsman Gore Verbinski and bosun Jerry Bruckheimer had already fallen in love with the project. Verbinski kept workin’ on the film in the shadows, and Bruckheimer held parley with Eisner, telling him that a large budget were the only way to compete in this business again’ the likes o’ The Lord o’ the Rings. The Commodore of the Disney fleet conceded the point, and the film resumed production in a more official manner, as it were.

“You know, for having such a bleak outlook on pirates you are well on your way to becoming one.”

The story and characters went through a change or three as time went on, o’ course. The original script was a fairly standard pirate tale, as one might have encountered in the old days o’ Hollywood. But bosun Bruckheimer said he didn’t want to be no bosun to a familiar film like that. Buried treasure and mutinies and kidnappin’s be what makes a pirate movie a pirate movie. But lootin’ and huntin’ for buried treasure, we seen before, says he. Mutinous first mates, we seen before, says he.

“I think I feel a change in the wind, says I.”

The bosun brought up the scribes, and put them ta work on a rewrite. Keep the standard piratical tales, aye; but put them in the past. Set sail for the horizon, and see where the winds take ye. What if the mutiny happened ten years ago, an’ the captain — no hero himself, mind ye — had to fight to recapture a ship he had lost so long ago it were no longer truly his? What if the treasure had already been buried, found, and spent? Pirate legends always told of the pirates cursing the booty should any other rotten scallywags find it, but what if the gold were already under a curse? Bruckheimer had the scribes take the simple nature of the tale and make it supernat’ral, with a tale of cursed Aztec gold and a haunted ship crewed by scurvy dogs who were no longer among the living, yet neither were truly dead. Industrial Light an’ Magic created the effects o’ the skeleton crew, a process that had to be begun at the very start o’ production. Scenes had to be shot both with an’ without the actors, in order to give the effects crew reference points for their animations. The actors then had ta perform it all agin on a motion-capture stage so that the undead pirates would look nat’ral — or as nat’ral as any unnat’ral bein’ could, anyhow.

“You best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You’re in one.”

Belike ye be sayin’ that Curse of the Black Pearl still kept the traditional kidnappin’. Aye, ’tis true, the crew o’ the Pearl do abduct the fair maid Elizabeth Swann from Port Royal. But e’en this ’tis no quite square with tradition. Swann is no ordinary damsel in distress; aye, indeed she do be the cause o’ distress in many o’ the other characters. Though her character develops more inta a true action heroine in the sequels, e’en here she is the one who takes the initiative ta get onta the Pearl, who negotiates with Cap’n Barbossa and guides the pirate crew o’ the Interceptor in battle tactics. The girl would dearly love ta be a pirate herself, a fact foreshadowed both obvious and so subtle-like it may even be accidental, as it were. First, she introduces the film by singin’ a song from the Pirates o’ the Caribbean ride. And second, and far more sneaky, the Black Pearl, like any good pirate ship, flies the Jolly Roger. But the partic’lar variation o’ the flag used, with crossed cutlasses ‘stead o’ bones, was used on the ship o’ real-life pirate o’ the Caribbean, Calico Jack Rackham — whose crew included his lover Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two o’ the few known real-life female pirates. An’ between Miss Swann and Anamaria (Zoe Saldana), the fate o’ the Pearl in this film is dependent, among others, on two female pirates.

“It’s frightful bad luck to have a woman aboard.”
“It would be far worse not to have her.”

A few women were bandied about for the role o’ Elizabeth Swann: Jessica Alba, Amanda Bynes, and Jaime Alexander were all considered at various points. The role was eventually given to a relative unknown at that point, Keira Knightley. Knightley was so convinced that she would get fired from the role that when the film started shootin’ on location in Saint Vincent, she only packed one bag so she wouldn’t have much to carry back with her. But the cast and crew took a shine ta her, and she performed well, and when the film was released it catapulted her ta stardom.

Likewise, several young lads were considered for Will Turner, who in the initial script was a jailer, but became a blacksmith durin’ revisions. Christian Bale, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, and Tobey Maguire were all considered early on, but when it came time fer castin’, it was down ta Heath Ledger an’ Orlando Bloom. Bloom won out due ta his star power earned in The Lord o’ the Rings, and the initial trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean debuted in front o’ The Two Towers to capitalize on it. Will Turner is the erstwhile hero o’ the piece — though admittedly o’ershadowed by the charismatic Captain Jack Sparrow — and much time is given to his actions in the film, including givin’ him the focus in some o’ the sword fights. Those fights were choreographed with a number o’ swordmasters, includin’ the late Bob Anderson, who worked on other such swashbucklin’ yarns as The Princess Bride and Star Wars, and was a coach for no less than Errol Flynn hisself in The Master of Ballantrae.

“I practice three hours a day, so when I meet a pirate, I can kill it.”

The breakout character o’ the movie, however be Captain Jack Sparrow, who was intended as a comic sidekick ta the hero but wound up bein’ so popular his role was expanded e’en as the film was bein’ shot, goin’ forth into the sequels, until he eventually starred in one without the original main characters. A great many actors were considered for the role over time. In his early comic bungler stage, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Bill Murray were all considered. When the film was considered for direct-ta-video status, Cary Elwes and Christopher Walken were named as possibilities. Hugh Jackman was considered such a strong possibility the scribes named the character Jack in a nod ta the actor. The role was even offered to Robert DeNiro at one point, but he considered pirate movies passe and passed; he regretted this decision later, leading him to take a role as one in Stardust. But the final casting went to Johnny Depp, who proceeded ta make the character his own. Depp bought in wholeheartedly ta the romanticized vision o’ the golden age o’ piracy, and reasonin’ that a pirate was a lot like a rock star, took inspiration from his friend Keith Richards (who, in a castin’ gag, would play Sparrow’s father in the third movie.) Many o’ Sparrow’s lines and mannerisms, from his use o’ the word “savvy?” to his peculiar motions, were improvised by Depp, and audiences ate it up.

“This is the day you will always remember as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow!”

But strong heroic leads need foils as much as sword fights do, and any good movie needs a good villain. Pirates of the Caribbean found its villain in Captain Hector Barbossa, played by Geoffrey Rush. A veteran actor o’ stage an’ screen, Rush knew how ta chew the scenery with as much enthusiasm as Johnny Depp, and any scene which isn’t bein’ stolen by the one is usually bein’ stolen by the other. Where Depp found his inspiration in Keith Richards, Rush appears to be channelin’ Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in the classic Treasure Island. Cap’n Barbossa is a very traditional pirate in his portrayal, with just the right balance of seedy charm and class, and is a perfect counterpart ta Sparrow.

“Blast all to carcasses, men! Forward clear to the powder magazine! And the rest of you, bring me that medallion!”

O’ course, any strong tale o’ piracy requires a crew o’ characters to fill out the ranks around the leads, and Curse of the Black Pearl does no disappoint. Thar be Commodore Norrington, played by Jack Davenport, a stuffy do-gooder determined to see every pirate dangling from the gallows pole. Thar be Elizabeth’s father, a charming if daft old man played by Jonathan Pryce. Murtogg and Mullroy, pride o’ the King’s navy, give some comic relief ta the British fleet, and Giles New and Angus Barnett play their roles with deft comic daftness. Jack’s crew o’ pirates, gathered and led by the superstitious Joshamee Gibbs, played memorably by Kevin McNally and the only character aside from Captains Sparrow and Barbossa ta feature in all four films. And, o’ course, we must no forget Lee Arenberg as Pintel, and Mackenzie Crook as Ragetti, the bumbling cursed pirates who provide comic relief in the first film and were so well liked they were spared fer the sequels. Arenberg, Crook, an’ the other pirates spent hours each day in makeup to achieve their scurvy look, wore scleral contacts ta yella their eyes, and Arenberg says he did no cut his fingernails fer weeks in order ta keep them unclean and ragged. Arr, it do be hard work, makin’ a Hollywood actor look like a scurvy pirate.

“Hello, poppet.”

Makin’ an old time Caribbean set be no easy task, neither. The film was shot in a few diff’rent locations for its various needs. Port Royal was in reality the abandoned Marineland amusement park in California, while most of the scenes at sea were shot in Saint Vincent. Three ships were used in the film; the Black Pearl and the Dauntless were barges with set construction atop them, and the Interceptor was a repurposed replica o’ the Lady Washington. The crew literally sailed the ship down from California, through the Panama Canal, and inta the Caribbean fer filmin’. Initially Bruckheimer and Verbinski had wanted to use the same water tank in Rosarito, Mexico that had been used for Titanic, but at the time o’ shootin’, it was booked for Master and Commander (fer a genre that had been abandoned as toxic, thar was a sudden resurgence in interest in seafarin’ pictures.) Most scenes were thus shot on location, until Knightley’s boat sank durin’ a night scene, and they decided to shoot the rest o’ the night scenes in a studio.

“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.”

The press was far from convinced o’ the success o’ a pirate movie based on an amusement park, and thar was also some trepidation on the part o’ Disney in their first PG-13 movie under their own label. But fer all their initial concerns, as the final release date approached, Disney began to have a most tremendous confidence in the picture. Originally titled simply as Pirates of the Caribbean, a subtitle, Curse of the Black Pearl was added, specifically in the hopes that it would do well enough ta justify sequels and thus need the extra point o’ clarification in the title. This optimism paid off most handsomely, as two more films were created, makin’ the story a trilogy, and a fourth film with a new tale was released in 2011. A fifth and e’en sixth film are currently planned.

“So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgment Day and trumpets sound?”

And while the popularity and quality o’ the sequels are oft debated, the first film be quite well liked on the whole. The film were a smash hit at the box office, holding the number one spot for several weeks. Critics generally liked the film, at a rate o’ about four outta five givin’ it positive reviews. When the film was released to home video five months later, it set a new record, selling eleven million copies in the first week. It had its share o’ accolades as well, bein’ nominated fer five Oscars — includin’ a Best Actor nod fer Johnny Depp and the various technical awards. It did no win, but it did take home the People’s Choice Award fer favorite motion picture, dominated the Teen Choice awards, and won various technical awards from diff’rent organizations. When the AFI put together it’s 10th anniversary edition o’ their top 100 films, Curse o’ the Black Pearl was in consideration, as it was again fer their top 10 fantasy films. Fer me money, it should have made it in, and provided the fantasy list a bit more high fantasy.

The film may not have had much in the way o’ critical accolades just yet, but with its endurin’ popularity among the public, it be only a matter o’ time fer it to be held up as one o’ the all-time great fantasy films, and most certainly one o’ the great pirate films. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl be a terrific supernat’ral swashbucklin’ yarn with great characters, great set design, and a rollockin’ good soundtrack. It be every bit as excitin’ as it ought to be, and it be one o’ me favorite films.

“That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.”
“So it would seem.”

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
This entry was posted in Favorite Films and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Favorite Films: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

  1. Jaina says:

    ARR!

    Have a lot of fond memories of this film. Thanks for the reminder of them. Big soft spot for this film, and I remember being pretty crazed about it back when it came out. Thought I knew all the facts until I read your tidbit about Cary Elwes. Man, that would have been sweet! Though, I’m just picturing the Dread Pirate Roberts lording it over them all.

    Wonder when the pirate genre will be tackled again.

    • It’s a good question, aside from the obvious continuation of the series. I kind of wonder if right now the genre isn’t ironically a victim of its own success — i.e., nobody wanted to do one after the failure of Cutthroat Island, and now nobody wants to do one for fear of being accused of ripping off Pirates of the Caribbean.

  2. ray brayne says:

    Aye matey I heard the tale the Black Pearl crew be dead men? Why raise me sword, t’would do no good, they be not o’this earth! Me’thinks this tale hinge on Cap’n Barbossa an quite strong me be. The rest of the crew, including dainty Jack, be nought but swishbucklers! Twas Lady Eliz’beth cursed the Pearl by deserting way she did. Where she be bound they have no clue and damn well may be sunk! Savvy?

    • Arrr, think ye that Miss Knightley be the strongest part o’ the movie after Rush? Well, a comely lass she be, but I reckon the franchise had gone as far as it could with her character.

      • ray brayne says:

        Walter Matthau and Matt Modine both played pirates with a comic edge that failed miserably. I don’t think Depp would have succeeded either without Rush. Say how about stealing a spanish galleon and crew and kidnapping the niece of the governor of Maracaibo? Sound familiar? Roman Polanski’s “Pirates”(1986) with Walter Matthau as Captain Red.

        • I’ll definitely agree that without Rush, the film wouldn’t have been near the success it was. Film like this, you’ve got to have a good villain.

          I haven’t seen Pirates yet (nor Cutthroat Island for that matter), though I am aware of both films and will see them eventually.

  3. CMrok93 says:

    It’s a pretty long flick, but also a lot of fun that ushered in all of this non-stop love for Depp and Pirates. Kind of wish they would just stop with this whole series now before it goes on a bit too beyond it’s reach. Nice review Morgan.

    • Thanks, Dan. I agree, it’s getting a bit silly that they just keep extending the series so much. Granted, I thought the fourth movie was actually better than the other sequels — it gains a lot by not being tied in to the earlier plots as strongly — but this doesn’t need to go on forever.

  4. I consider this to be a timeless classic, if its on the TV its hard not to watch it the whole way through and most people you ask will feel the same way 😀

  5. Fun review, Morgan! The series decreases in quality with each installment but this first part is awesome. I love it.

  6. Pingback: Farewell, 2012! | Morgan on Media

  7. jessica juhi says:

    Hey guys could anybody help me with this homework I have? Basically I need to write a review on pirates of the caribbean and I need help on talking about the plots and cast. Its also only supposed to be around 5-8 paragraphs. HELP.

    • First, watch the film if you haven’t done so recently. Then decide what you want to say about it — just in general terms. Whether you liked it, whether it’s innovative, whether it has a particular message or theme it’s trying to present, that sort of thing. Then start writing down examples from the film that support what you want to say. It doesn’t have to be articulate right away — just treat it like you’re sketching things out at first. Jot down details, worry about the wording later. Once you’ve got a nice list going, then you can start turning it into your essay. Don’t freeze up worrying about how to word things. Just write it the way you would say it if you were trying to convince an educated adult.

      That’s essentially how I write my normal reviews (except I “jot things down” in my head because I have a good memory and poor handwriting). The main thing is to simply not panic at the sight of the blank page. You might also find that talking about it with your friends and family will help you get things sorted in your mind.

Leave a comment:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s