Fourteen years ago, Disney took a relatively massive gamble. They decided to adapt a 40-year-old theme park ride into a blockbuster film, with the producer of Top Gun and the director of The Ring. Today, Dead Men Tell No Tales, the next installment in the $4 billion franchise that is Pirates of the Caribbean (PotC), releases. It’s safe to say that it was a good bet for Disney.
However, the franchise’s financial and critical success has waned since the release of the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl. While it is still a box office and merchandising juggernaut, the groans were audible when the newest movie was announced. And there are legitimate reasons to be tired of the franchise, including convoluted storylines and a severe lack of character development.
Given the current state of things, it is no easy task to write a defense of PotC. But it is worth re-watching, if for no other reason then a fascinating and original narrative on immortality. The following is a passionate defense of the original trilogy (no one can save On Stranger Tides) based on this narrative alone, and why it is still worth your time.
*Note*: This is in no way a defense of Johnny Depp, who has been accused of domestic abuse. Like many, I feel morally conflicted about watching his films, based on his behavior. Boycotts against his past and future movies are legitimate. That being said, I hope you still choose to read, as this defense is purely based on narrative and character construction. Enjoy!
Hungry on Immortality
Jack’s character motivation, or his want, is freedom. We are introduced to this early on in Curse of the Black Pearl: a pirate brand is revealed on his wrist, and he desperately tries to get out of the Port Royal jail. This want is made very clear when he is re-marooned on a deserted island, this time with Elizabeth Swann. In a rum-induced stupor, he confides in Elizabeth why he so desperately wants his ship back:
Jack: “Wherever we want to go, we go. That’s what a ship is, you know. 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.”
Jack’s first encounter with immortality comes toward the climax of the film. In the caves of Isla De Muerta, Jack reveals that he has stolen a gold piece from the treasure of Cortez, and is now an immortal pirate zombie. He then rejects the piece, returning it to the treasure chest and ending the curse, allowing him to kill Barbossa. This act is the first blatant rejection of immortality. Nothing is stopping Jack from taking the piece and living out his life aboard the Pearl, essentially granting him freedom from life and law.
Yet Jack’s rejection of the gold piece illustrates his conception of immortality: another restriction of freedom. In this case, the restrictions are more material. Barbossa, Jack’s mutinous ex-first mate, describes the curse that came from their immortal gold:
Barbossa: “The more we gave [the gold pieces] away, the more we came to realize the drink would not satisfy, food turned to ash in our mouths, and all the pleasurable company in the world could not slake our lust. We are cursed men, Miss Turner. Compelled by greed, we were, but now we are consumed by it.”
While the gold would grant Jack immortality, the consequences remove his freedom. He is no longer able to eat or drink what he wants. He would be bound to a greed he would be able to sate. So he rejects the gold, and returns to the Pearl, bound for the open ocean and freedom. At least, for awhile. PotC would prove in the sequel films to have an incredibly intricate view of the relationship between immortality and freedom.
The Freedom of Death
In Dead Man’s Chest, Jack’s back story is built out more, and it is revealed that the Pearl is not quite the haven of freedom that it seems. Jack had struck a deal with Davy Jones, the immortal cephalopodic captain of the Flying Dutchman. In return for Jack’s soul and a hundred years of servitude aboard the Dutchman, Jones would raise the Pearl from the depths, and Jack could be captain for thirteen years. Unfortunately for Jack, payment had come due. The Pearl as a narrative device is then changed from a means of freedom to a reminder of Jack’s inevitable enslavement. He is floating on his demise.
To escape, Jack enters into a contradiction: he beaches his prison of freedom, the Pearl, on an island that he cannot escape, to be free of Jones. He is seen as a god by the indigenous people of the island, yet is completely at their whim (author note: this plot line sucks). The entire sequence mirrors Jack’s struggle with his freedom throughout the film and his eventual conflict with a new form of immortality.
Jack discovers that Jones has a weakness: his removed heart, still beating inside a buried chest. If he can get the heart – the embodiment of Jones’ immortality – then he can bargain his way out of eternal servitude. Perhaps more importantly, he can escape having his ship eaten by the Kraken. Unfortunately, he loses the heart and instead finally meets his fate.
In one of the most pivotal character moments of the trilogy, Jack is chained by Elizabeth to the mast of the Pearl while the rest of the crew escapes from the incoming Kraken. With a little pirate luck, Jack frees himself and dies fighting. This climactic sequence is a bit on the nose but reaffirms Jack’s underlying character motivation. At this moment, Jack has achieved freedom, both physically and figuratively. The outcome remains the same: he will die at the hands (mouth) of the Kraken. But he chooses to stand and fight, to run into the maw of the beast. There is no other force enacting on him at this moment. In death, Jack is finally free.
Immortality is a Prison
Except At World’s End shows that Jack did not die, and so did not gain freedom. Instead, he and the Pearl were sent to Davy Jones’ Locker, an endless void that lies beyond the edge of the mortal edge. He is imprisoned by a forced immortality. That is until he is freed by the rest of the ensemble cast. During this jailbreak sequence, Jack reveals his new conflict through hallucination:
Jack Left: “Clear as mud, Jackie. Stab the heart.”
Jack Right: “Don’t stab the heart.”
Jack: “Come again?”
Jack Right: “The Dutchman must have a captain.”
Jack: “Well that’s more than less than unhelpful.”
Jack Left: “Sail the seas forever.”
Jack: “I love the sea.”
Jack Left: “What about port?”
Jack: “I prefer rum. Rum’s good.”
Jack Left: “Making port.”
Jack Right: “Where we can get rum, and salty wenches, once every ten years.”
Jack Left: “What did he say?”
Jack: “Once every ten years.”
Jack Left: “Ten years years is a long time, mate.”
Jack Right: “But eternity is longer still.”
Jack: “Even longer given the deficit of rum.”
Jack Right: “And how will you be spending it? Dead? Or not?”
Jack Left: “The immortal Captain Sparrow.”
Jack: “Oh, I like that.”
Since his death, Jack has begun to flirt with the idea of immortality. But he is not convinced – instead, he is presented as incredibly conflicted. If he stabs the heart, he will be able to enjoy the earthly pleasures that the treasure of Cortez would’ve denied him – but only once every ten years. Jack likes the idea of immortality and is considering giving up freedom in return. This is made clearer in a conversation with Will:
Jack: “Death has a curious way or reshuffling one’s priorities. I’ll slip aboard the Dutchman, find the heart, stab the beating thing. Your father goes free, and you’re free to be with your charming murderess.”
Will: “And you’re willing to carve out your heart and bind yourself to the Dutchman, forever. Jack: No mate, I’m free forever. Free to sail the seas beyond the edges of the map, free from death itself.”
Will: “You’ve got to do the job though, Jack. You have to ferry souls to the next world. Or end up just like Jones.”
Jack: “I don’t have the face for tentacles. But immortal has to count for something, eh?”
Mirroring the island sequence from Dead Man’s Chest, Jack is again stuck in a contradiction: he can finally gain freedom by being bound to a job for eternity. He can become immortal by cutting out his own heart. Jack continues to struggle with this to the climax of the film when he faces the ultimate choice: to stab the heart – become immortal – or not.
Jack chooses not to stab the heart and instead allows Will to do so, thereby saving his life. Once again, Jack has chosen freedom, his underlying desire, over the immorality that would rob him of it. To stab the heart would be to damn Will to death, to earn the eternal hatred of Elizabeth, to be the pirate that the brand on his wrist says he is. In this case, immortality is shown as restricting a freedom of conscience. To achieve immortal life would require him to both literally and figuratively become heartless.
The very end of the film reaffirms everything about Jack, and the entire narrative point of the trilogy. He is alone in a dingy, in theory sailing towards the Fountain of Youth, once again in search of eternal life. And yet, this is clearly not what he wants most.
For the first time in the franchise, Jack can use his famous compass, which points to what the user desires most. The intense conflict he felt throughout the films between immortality and freedom made it so that he was not able to use the compass. But now that conflict has settled, and the needle points to the rum in his dingy. Jack is no longer searching for immortality because he must; now it is because he can. He has the freedom to search for the Fountain, or to drink rum, or to be a pirate. After all those years, Jack is finally free.
Still Worth Your Time
On Stranger Tides showed what came next for Jack and his search for the Fountain of Youth, but it had little to do thematically with the original trilogy. Aside from the antics, Jack may as well be a completely different character. So it can be ignored.
Jack’s handling of his conflict between immortality and freedom makes the original trilogy, despite all of its other problems, worth watching. Something interesting and novel is being told underneath the jokes and overstuffed plots. In the end, the narrative does not even provide closure to the conflict. It isn’t clear if Jack has decided what is right, if immortality always conflicts with freedom if the consequences are worth it. What is decided is that rum, and having the freedom to find those answers for yourself, is always a good thing.
What do you think? Is The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy still worth watching? Let us know what you think on Facebook, Twitter, or the comments below!