By Ira Smolensky
Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum
Everybody loves a good pirate movie.
Well, maybe not everyone, but enough of us for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest to gross 130 million smackeroos when it opened up all across the nation two weekends ago.
About fifteen dollars of that lofty amount was contributed by the Smolensky’s. My wife Marge and I plunked down the cash at the Kerasotes Showplace 8 in Galesburg and sat with about 300 other enthusiasts waiting for the much anticipated sequel to get underway. The smell of salt water (with just a feint hint of rum?) hung in the air. Like a pirate crew lusting after gold, the crowd was abuzz. But mutiny was also in the air. Expectations ran high. This night just might end with an unlucky landlubber strung up to the yardarm, or walking the plank.
Thus was not the case. The movie provided plenty of thrills, spills, and laughs, and the crowd went home happy. (Alas, those who failed to wait for the virtually endless credits to finish missed out on the most important plot development of the movie, particularly as would concern animal-rights advocates.)
The question is—why do pirates work so well at the box office?
For some, the answer is simple and comes down to a pair of words: Johnny Depp. Admittedly, I’m thinking mostly of women here, any number of which seemed to swoon at the mere mention of the actor’s name. (Of course, Marge is an exception. “Johnny who?” she asked a female friend, exhibiting supreme disinterest. She did, however, admit later that she knew who Johnny Depp is, adding that she thought he had a nice personality).
Like most simple answers, the Depp explanation doesn’t quite explain the facts. Pirate movies entranced audiences long before Johnny Depp was born. Some of these movies had heartthrob heroes such as Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster. Indeed, the original Pirates of the Caribbean pays open homage to Lancaster’s Crimson Pirate, which is a favorite of mine as well. But not all movie pirates were of the swashbuckling variety.
Indeed, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island has been filmed several times, with its Long John Silver probably still surviving as the best known film pirate of all time. Long John was a good-hearted cutthroat who befriended young Jim Hawkins. Up in years, missing a leg, Long John was no swashbuckler. And he is even less of an angel, drinking, killing, pillaging, and betraying with the worst of his colleagues. Nevertheless, when, at the end of Treasure Island, Long John is facing the gallows for his many crimes, there are few readers (and/or viewers) who want to see justice done.
My favorite portrayer of Long Silver was Robert Newton (1905-1956), who played the role in the 1950 version put out by Disney. Newton was British and he was a “ham” if ever there was one. But he could never ham it up too much for me. I never have tired of watching him or imitating him (thus my comment to Marge as we were leaving the theatre last weekend—“arrrrgh, harrr,harrr”. . .).
In the case of Long John Silver, the cutthroat is rendered morally ambiguous by his relationship to Jim. True, he has led a lawless life, but there is more to life—and morality-- than the law.
Robert Newton also played the lead role in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952). Blackbeard (aka Edward Teach) is thought to be a real life figure. In the film, he is portrayed (some think inaccurately) as a ruthless figure with no morally redeeming characteristics. There is no Jim Hawkins for him to befriend, and no sentimentality to the character whatsoever. And yet Blackbeard comes across as an awesome and appealing figure. Why?
Because he is a pirate.
Pirates, in real life and in film, have ranged from absolutely horrific to mildly redeemable. By definition, they are “outlaws,” that is, rebels against nation states and other recognized authorities. Which gets us to the nub of the matter. For all their idolatrous pomp and ceremony, the governments that hunt down and hang pirates also range from absolutely horrific to mildly redeemable. Thus pirates are sinful adventurers in a sinful world. If nothing else, they help us to see the world’s moral complexity, even if they do not tell us what should be done about it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest continues this tradition. Though its orientation is toward pure (perhaps even mindless) entertainment, the pirate genre itself is based on a morally complex view of the world. To be sure, Captain Jack Sparrow is no angel. In fact, when you come down to it, he’s a pretty rotten guy. But he never ran a concentration camp, robbed a people of their natural resources, or oppressed a race. Which is quite OK in my book.