Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Dir. Gore Verbinski. Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom

Certainly they won’t love it like the people who grew up with it do, but I’m not sure future generations will even remember Curse of the Black Pearl. I think the best case scenario for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is Planet of the Apes, a high-concept special effects gonzo which is lost to the popular imagination by now – muddled, surely, by many sequels and unconscionably funny Simpsons gags – but whose strongest images are indelible. I don’t know if this presupposes that forty years from now we’ll see some new adaptation of the Pirates series which has cameos from Knightley and Bloom and callbacks to “parlay” and “poppet,” but it wouldn’t surprise me. The disadvantage Pirates has in this scenario is that instead of relying on the Statue of Liberty, the most famous image of Curse of the Black Pearl is Johnny Depp doing something Jack Sparrow. (The debate over which line of this movie will take the place of “Damn you all to hell!” has been over for a decade: “But why is the rum gone?”) Maybe it’s the first image of Depp, atop a ship with the sun behind him in a very different time of day the one we see him come into port with. Maybe it’s the image of him from all the commercials, where he’s got his pistol on his shoulder, turns his head back that shoulder, and smiles real big. Maybe it’s him looking at his weird compass in the middle of a raging storm. It’s very possibly the look on his face when he turns up the corners of his mustache for Knightley on the beach. To people like us, those images are at least a little tarnished from overuse. The four sequels to Curse of the Black Pearl could have been made by assigning character names to the elements of a pinball machine and charting where the ball strikes. Curse of the Black Pearl is not innocent of that incessant ebb and flow – how many times does Jack need to be imprisoned before the shine wears off? – but there’s enough novelty in it, and Depp is so surprisingly engaging, that I’m inclined to forgive it for being a little bloated with its own permutations.

The brilliance of Curse of the Black Pearl, a genius which is reportedly Depp’s doing, is its refusal to turn Captain Jack Sparrow into Errol Flynn (or, reportedly, Burt Lancaster, who I have gushed about time and again in this space and who would have been a disastrous model for this movie). Think about that first scene with Jack, where we see him first from behind on a sunny day, maybe a little before noon; we turn to face him and the colors have changed. This is sunset now, with all of its sexy implications. He stands atop his mast, the flag waving. He is impassive, even though the wind is obliterating his long hair. His eyes are locked on some point in the distance. There are two pirates in pop culture: there is Blackbeard, the hideous buccaneer monster with death in his hands, and there is Captain Blood, who is charming and intelligent and, honestly, more maritime than piratical. It looks, upon first impression, like the Depp character is going to favor the latter. Depp is not lit badly in some dark hold, scarred and filthy; he looks like he could shanghai Olivia de Havilland with a wink and a half-smile. In two seconds, we can make the guess that this pirate possesses the brain of Peter Blood and the motivations of Edward Teach. It’s not until a few moments later that we remember that this is still a pirate in the body of Ed Wood, and we quickly discover that he’s alone on a rapidly sinking little boat. This is an immensely bold choice for Curse of the Black Pearl, but it of course pays off massive dividends. This movie isn’t going to be a straight-arrow pirate flick, and if it had been I think post-9/11 audiences would have scorned it. Culturally, I think we were searching for a little irony. Depp’s Jack Sparrow, whose body language is that of a man who just got a killer massage (and whose mental process is that same man when he remembers he has no money to pay for it), was irony in a magnificent package.

The movie lets us in on Jack’s point of view with some frequency, often in understated ways but with outsize effect. It’s a little risky to give us so much insight into the movie’s avowed man of mystery (you know, the one who escaped from a deserted island by, finger quotes, harnessing sea turtles with his back hair), but it also keeps Jack from being a cipher. Sometimes it’s done to keep us invested in a scene, as when we see the battle between the Interceptor and the Black Pearl. Jack is in the brig, as per usual, and he only has a little chip in the wood to observe. We get his perspective again when, from where he’s lying, we see a cannonball has taken a giant chunk out of the hull. Jack’s response is one of my favorite lines of the movie – “Stop blowing holes in my ship!” – but I think part of the reason it’s funny is because we’re a little relieved not to have been obliterated by a solid sphere of iron. Earlier in the movie, when Jack is handcuffed and looking for a way to free himself, we follow what must be his gaze as he looks up to the gears that the donkey in the blacksmith’s shop is connected to. The plan itself comes into motion quickly as he, voila, snaps his cuffs and extricates himself for a moment before Will (Bloom) walks in.

The movie’s in a rough place with its leads. Jack Sparrow is the most interesting person in the movie by a nautical mile, but the movie is also invested in its romantic pairing. Elizabeth Swann (a teenaged Knightley), so named when we as a people weren’t convinced a young woman was attractive unless her surname was swan-related, and Will Turner are presented as basic white bread types. Will’s arc is not very interesting, perhaps because Orlando Bloom has never been very interesting, or perhaps because “your absent dad was a pirate” is probably not the most crushing news anyone had ever given an eighteenth century smith’s apprentice. Elizabeth is much more interesting, perhaps because Keira Knightley is much more interesting. Our first encounter with her as a grown-up is the struggle of her having to wear a corset, which, uh, I dunno that she needed, strictly speaking, followed not long after by a proposal from a stern sailor type, Norrington (James Davenport). The first unexpected thing she does is invoke “Pirate Code” at a pair of pirates who are about to kidnap her. Later on, she will attempt to stab a pirate to death, come up with advanced and novel tactics for a naval battle at a moment’s notice, and burn an entire island down to create a signal for the Navy to find. Knightley does not have to play the conventional girl for very long; even in her first scene with Will, she smiles favorably at him in a way she does not look at Norrington, signifying that she’s not just any rich young woman. It is not a stretch to see in her someone with ambitions much greater than being a housebound wife and mother. Knightley certainly does not look seventeen in this movie, although she didn’t turn eighteen until after the shoot ended, although I kind of like it as a kind of unnecessary yet welcome historical accuracy. It would hardly have been unusual for the royal governor’s daughter to be married off in her late teens; Knightley’s style, which has always been a little starchy, is right for the young woman she’s playing. Elizabeth is given ample leeway to make choices in Curse of the Black Pearl, and her decision-making is, on the whole, pretty solid.

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