The Pirates of the Caribbean films, in aggregate, are the best depictions of western magic ever committed to celluloid. Ever.
Obviously, I am about to 'spoil' four films but actually, I think they were spoiled by people watching them spread out over a number of years. So I am unspoiling them for most of you, I suspect. You see, there is a trick to unlocking the Pirates saga -a sequence, if you will:
- The first film can be watched as a standalone.
- The second and third instalments must be watched back to back, preferably in the same sitting.
- The fourth film can be watched later.
You can achieve this over a weekend, incidentally. Then all the components that lazy viewers considered confusing or messy make complete sense. What is erroneously seen as confusion is actually Captain Jack's true power -seizing the opportune moment. The whole saga is a dizzying switcheroo of alliances, goals and outcomes because that's what Jack is. He is the best filmic depiction of a Trickster in decades. Not for nothing do I describe the saga as "Bugs Bunny does Homer's Odyssey."
And I am straight-faced serious about the Homeric component. I felt strongly enough to buy a copy of the book it is kinda-but-not-really-based-on for Jake Stratton-Kent -Tim Power's On Stranger Tides- because it opens with a fullblown Orphic ritual conducted on Caribbean soil: They dig a pit for sacrifices and then summon and bind the Restless Dead. (You will struggle to find better novelistic depictions of magic from non-practitioners than Tim Powers.)
So it is a literal Bre'er Rabbit story of benign chaos and trickery reordering the world through disordering it. And it is filled with ancient gods of the New and Old Worlds, as well as multiple depictions of the spirits and the dead, and it's novelistic DNA is truly goetic. Is that it for its relationship to western magic?
Because Pirates isn't really about pirates, as any Golden Age nerd will tell you. It's based on a theme park ride so it's about mid-twentieth century depictions of pirates, it's about Hollywood, Errol Flynn, it's about the stories we tell ourselves. So it is about how the past is a modern construction, and how that construction itself goes on to develop its own history.
The Curse of the Black Pearl
The first film approaches perfection as a 'studio film'. Well cast, tight script, strikes the balance between taking itself seriously and having fun with what is objectively a silly premise and begins the long-running, meta-awareness of jokes and tropes that echo the Disney ride that gave the movie its name.
But it also 'hoists its colours' from the opening scene. This confident production is not going to keep its weirdness at arm's length. This is to be a surrealist underworld journey.
An inverted parasol. Up is Down -which returns a number of times- is the watchword. What happens next comes straight from the gloom of the unconscious/underworld.
This is followed by one of the best entrances of a protagonist in cinema history.
You learn almost everything about Jack's approach to life -his mastery of chaos- before he utters a single word. And when he does utter his first line, you learn the rest.
Harbourmaster: Hold up there. It's a shilling to tie up your boat at the dock. And I shall need to know your name.
Jack: What do you say to three shillings, and we forget about the name?
Harbourmaster: Welcome to Port Royal, Mister Smith.
Jack then pays the harbourmaster and steals the coin purse from his desk as he walks past him. This is the secret to Jack Sparrow in every film, this is the true lesson of Orphic Bugs Bunny and a full command of probability that must form the basis of effective practical enchantment:
From the moment Jack sets his foot on the dock, he has one goal: to leave Port Royal in The Interceptor -the fastest ship in the Royal Navy. He has no idea how he will accomplish this. Instead, at each step, in each encounter, he maximises the probability of his preferred outcome in that single interaction. So, anonymity is preferred to retaining two shillings. Then having more shillings outweighs the risk of getting caught for theft in the next couple of days. And so on it goes.
By the time he does leave in The Interceptor, he has held someone hostage, been arrested, sprung from prison, survived an attack on the port, used a donkey to break his irons and sabotaged a warship. When we first learn his name, Captain Norrington calls him "the worst pirate" he has ever heard of. By the time he leaves Port Royal, Norrington is forced to admit he is "the best pirate" he has ever seen. It is pure Trickster. Bugs versus Elmer with cutlasses.
It is Jack's 'If/then' approach to life that makes people think the later films are hard to follow as the world of the story spirals into wider and wider loops of chaos. But it is all there in the first act of the first film:
- We introduced to the difference between 'ultimate goal' and 'preferred outcome in the current situation' by way of the second-best MacGuffin in screenplay history (after the One Ring) in the form of his magical compass.
- Jack tells us/Will Turner this precise philosophy:
The world of the Pirates saga defines 'spirit haunted'. Not only are there actual spirits and the undead but the whole thing is haunted by the ghosts of empire, of assaults on freedom and its consequences.
When Elizabeth is abducted by Barbossa, he tells her "you best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You're in one." And she is. And they all are. And so are we. The gold coins that cursed the crew of the Black Pearl were melted down South American idols, meant as a gift for Cortez himself. It was the indigenous gods of the Americas that laid a curse on it -a curse of unending wetiko. Hunger, thirst, eternal dissatisfaction.
Greed is a ghost virus, but passionately wanting is not. Jack wants the Black Pearl back not because it is his possession (we find out in later films it isn't) but because -as he tells Elizabeth- of what a ship is: It is not sails and a rudder and a hull. That's what a ship needs. What a ship is, is freedom.
It is the interplay between the ghosts of empire and its agents that forms the great moral lesson of all four films. The pulse sent out from Port Royal as Elizabeth's pirate medallion hit the ocean not only summoned the Pearl, but it set in motion the great opposition that defines the series. This would be what Catherine Austin Fitts calls the 'human' versus the 'inhuman'. Empire versus freedom, organic versus mechanical.
Jack's hyperpragmatism extends to the supernatural. In fact, in a proper and correct way, there really isn't a 'super' natural in the saga. The spirit world is a component of our world (or vice versa). In the face of gods and monsters, Jack is still Jack and there is a folk magical lesson in that for us all. He takes extreme 'super'natural events in his stride. It is best seen in his showdown with Barbossa during the first film's climax:
He has stolen one of the coins so as to curse himself to undeath in order to defeat his rival. But of course it means neither of them can be killed.
Barbossa: So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgment Day and trumpets sound?
Jack: Or you could surrender?
When watched with at least a little attention, the first film sets you up to notice the typological echo of the human/inhuman, the repeated jokes and sequences, reversals of rescue and abduction and the general unwinding of order into chaos as it is unleashed across the remaining films.
Dead Man's Chest
I rather suspect a lot of the criticism this film received was down to it ending on a cliffhanger that was far too cliffhangy for theatrical releases. Of course, this is instantly solved today by starting immediately on the third one.
Which is good because Dead Man's Chest is not only the best-titled, but it introduces the 'true' villain of the saga as well as the wider point of what it is Jack is fighting for in the first place.
Lord Beckett -incomparably played by Tom Hollander whom I love in everything- represents the 'true' villain we all face today. A public/private force of centralisation that is sucking the dignity, humanity, magic and joy out of the universe. The early scenes in his office demonstrate this by precise, balanced framing. In his presence, the world is 'ordered'.
Beckett: The world is shrinking. The blank edges of the map are being filled in. Jack must find his place in the new world or perish.
Beckett speaks these words to Will as a great, giant clock face is hoisted in front of him. Which might seem a bit on the nose but a lot of people seem to have missed that while the East India Company is about 'maps' and 'ordering the physical' that mapping is fully topological. It extends to time, as well.
Time is one of the crucial themes in the second film. Artificial time, narrative/oral time, places without time, and so on.
When Bootstrap Bill appears to Jack to give him a message from Davy Jones, his first words are "time's run out, Jack." Because it is about time, it is about Pacts, about Bargains. About what we choose to give up and about what we absolutely refuse to. Beckett says as much when roping Will and then Norrington into the Company's service.
But honesty to one’s word is the principal metaphysical preoccupation in each of the first three films and points us at to a world of sustained agreement and interrelationship with the spirit realms. Jack had Davy Jones raise his magical ship from the depths for a period of thirteen years, for which Jack promised a century before the mast of Jones's own ship, The Flying Dutchman.
Beckett's letters of marque, Jack's agreement with Davy Jones, Will gambling for his father's agreement, Jones's broken agreement with the goddess Calypso, her original binding by the Pirate Court: We are fully into a world of spirit pacts and shifting alliances.
Beckett: There’s something to knowing the exact shape of the world and your place in it.
There are echoes of Deep State hypocrisy in Beckett's mind war. He seeks to forcibly impose an ordered world without sin -drained of piracy and magic- and how he plans to do that is by getting his hands on a magical compass Jack bargained from an actual goddess so that he can pressgang Davy Jones into eliminating his enemies. So he is using magic to rid the world of it -like a pirate version of MKULTRA/OFTEN.
Team Magic has its own problems, of course.
It becomes apparent that the natural/magical 'order' of things is also disordered. The first half of the story is told in the second film, and the final half in the third. Which is where I think it lost people.
It also lost people because 'Jack Sparrow not knowing what he wants' (his compass is malfunctioning) is apparently supposed to be due to a growing love triangle between him and Elizabeth and Will. Actually it's a quadrangle when you throw in Norrington.
This is the biggest story failure of the whole franchise as it doesn't really come off. I don't blame the actors for this. It was a bad writing move. Jack's is not a love story. But when you watch it through and get a bit lost, remember there's a very poorly executed romantic subplot that is likely tripping you up.
Back to Tia Dalma.
Tia Dalma's explanation for what's off in the world has a surprising level of phenomenological sophistication for a sequel based on a movie based on a theme park ride. She tells the story of why Davy Jones cut out his heart. ('Dead man's chest', see?) She explains it was because of that which vexes all men -the love of a woman. When Gibbs interrupts her, saying it was the sea he fell in love with, Tia Dalma is annoyed.
Tia Dalma: Same story, different versions. And all are true.
Tia Dalma also hangs a lamp on the very Classical view of destiny that picks up in this film -being about time and all- when she says to Will Turner "you have a touch of destiny about you." Turner goes on to play an important role in the proper functioning of the spirit world by the end of the third film but that 'wheel of time/Fortune' motif is taken to levels of joyous absurdity in one of the most comic swordfight sequences ever filmed:
A literal wheel of fortune rolling through a graveyard to the world beyond. Which is where the film ends -with Jack trapped in Davy Jones's Locker and a plan hatched to retrieve him.
Tia Dalma: If you go and brave da weird and haunted shores at world's end, then you will need a captain who knows dose waters.
At World's End
When you watch the third one immediately after, there is no confusion about what is going on and you see the third film getting to do basically the only things third films do best: give you loads and loads of payoff. Firstly, the world is finally, fully built out.
The polyform approach to the spirits -particularly the Dead- peaks here. Sometimes there's zombies, sometimes ghosts, different afterlives depending on how one died and an 'ecosystemic' -almost classically shamanic- treatment of what can happen and what should happen to departing souls.
This is, in fact, the cause of Tia Dalma/Calypso's heartbreak. Her lover, Davy Jones, has ceased doing the cosmic task she set him, which is to ferry souls lost as sea to the Afterlife. It is a profound imbalance in the natural/magical 'ordering' of the world, manifested in Jones's increasingly monstrous appearance.
But Jones couldn't do anything about his transgression even if he wanted to. He has been captured by Beckett and put to use destroying the remaining pirates in the ocean.
Beckett: This is no longer your world, Jones. The immaterial has become immaterial.
The immateriality of the immaterial -the catastrophic loss of a spirit ecosystem- is actually the thing that turns Jack's mind toward making his last stand with the rest of the pirates. He's oddly moved by Beckett's murder of The Kraken -the monster that actually ate him and sent him to the Locker. I've written about this in the context of re-enchanting the world before. The Kraken does not belong in the world of clocks and international corporations.
By the third film -as the chaos and storylines grow bigger and bigger- the tension between centralisation/freedom or inhuman/human have moved up to disenchanted/enchanted.
The Pirate Lords plan -and last hope- is to release Calypso from the bondage prior generations had put her in to make the seas safer for piracy. (These earlier pirates learned the binding magic from Davy Jones -heartbroken by Tia Dalma's failure to show up on the one day every ten years he can spend ashore. So everyone has a dog in this hunt. See? It's easy to follow when I Runesplain it!)
Releasing Calypso is re-enchantment by apocalypse. It is ontologically flooding the entire universe. It is forcing the ghostbusters to shut down their containment facility. And it is surprisingly moving in a 'love conquers all' way -which is, of course, the true re-enchantment of the world.
And it works -albeit with consequences. The re-enchantment leads to a restoration: the Flying Dutchman gets a new captain and souls lost at sea are ferried once again.
All is right in all the worlds again. All thanks to Jack's mastery of opportune chaos. 'Proper' cosmic functioning has been restored by the Trickster-Shaman.
Do you think he plans it all out or just makes it up as he goes along?
On Stranger Tides
Although named for Powers's book, the fourth film bears almost zero resemblance to it. (So also get the book. It's good.) The ghosts of empire remain but the battle lines have shifted from dis/re-enchantment to how one lives authentically in an enchanted world. The cosmos remains animated. So Stranger Tides is about 'right living' in a way. This is shown in the contrast between the two empires that open the film.
First, the sexy, passionate Spaniards.
And then to London, where Jack gets his second-best screen intro and once again nails the 'right living' theme in his first few lines.
Impersonating a judge, he says to the Court -and to Gibbs, on trial as Sparrow- "the crime for which you have been found guilty of is being innocent of being Jack Sparrow." Pure Tricksterspeak. But beneath it is Mystery. Bro, do you even Trickster?
The entire London sequence -his capture and escape- is a wonder of golden age swashbuckling cinema. But it also serves the 'authentic living' theme not only in the contrast between the Spanish and English monarchs, but also Jack's exchange with King George. Human forms of glory and aggrandisement don't work on him. This is Trickster as Jester in an actual King's Court.
Courtier: You are in the presence of George Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, Archtreasurer and Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, King of Great Britain and Ireland...and of you.
Jack: Doesn't ring a bell.
The vanity and absurdity of human structures of meaning are perfectly embodied by Barbossa's turn as a privateer in the King's employ. There is a wonderful scene where he is eating an apple with a fork on the deck of his naval ship that really nails it. He looks so extremely out of place, and the teacup and napkin look ridiculous -because they are ridiculous. But then Geoffrey Rush is pitch-perfect in all the films.
McShane's Blackbeard is one of the few nods to the original book. When he first appears, he has lit matches wound into his beard. In the book, they are a protection spell calling on Chango to keep his killer at bay. This is a nice little wink at the Americanness of his magic.
He is trying to forestall or outwit his fate through magic and treachery. Not a lot of people go into this film with the 'right' approach to an authentic life -in fact just Cruz's Angelica and Barbossa. Sparrow himself says of the fountain of youth: “I shall taste those waters, Master Gibbs. Mark my words.”
The fourth film has a decidedly new world blend of Classical Europe and the gods and spirits of the Americas -and a surprisingly mature treatment of the risks of tangling with them seen with the mermaids, the eventual fate of Blackbeard and the postumous presence of the vanity of Ponce de León -who shares a bed with Jack and Barbossa in a very memento mori frame. There has never been a filmic blend quite like it.
From about this point, the main characters take a pivot toward the authentic. It emerges that Barbossa only became a privateer to get close to Blackbeard so he can kill him for sinking the Black Pearl -which is his own version of 'authentic', I suppose. The priest in Blackbeard's crew widens out his cosmology to fall in love with a captured mermaid.
The vanity of human forms and ambitions reaches a head when the pirates, the British and the Spanish all converge on the fountain of youth.
The British are thwarted in their attempts to physically claim it in the name of King George. The Spanish tear it down, claiming "only God can grant immortal life" -which is a slightly nicer but still very lazy cosmology that gets one off the hook of exploring the authentic.
Even Jack ends up reaching a conclusion for how one 'lives rightly' in a magical world seen in the final interplay between him, Blackbeard and Vanessa.
The end of the film finds him on a beach at sunset -basking in that liminality again- having completed the small cycle of this one film and the larger super-cycle of all four. He has the Pearl again. But he also has wisdom -after a fashion. He succinctly explains his mastery of the moment and gives it a philosophical depth we can all appreciate.
Jack: The Fountain does test you, Gibbs. But better to not know which moment may be your last. Every morsel of your entire being alive to the infinite mystery of it all. And who’s to say I won’t live forever, eh?
And that is the correct response to the challenge of the fountain of youth. Like the Holy Grail, that's its point.
Why this post and why Pirates? Firstly, because it annoys people. When I say I think they're the best films about magic in the English language, I feel a bit like Peter Griffin and The Money Pit.
But also because I promised I would get these thoughts out there one way or another. Originally, some version of this post was going to be an appendix essay in Pieces of Eight. Now it's here instead. (This is not where the book gets its title from, by the way. Or if it does, only in a roundabout fashion.) I wanted to use the Pirates films as a less common example of how contemporary fiction should work in a chaos magic context. Enjoying these films does not mean one should invoke Captain Jack. His value comes from adopting his attitude -particularly to goals and tasks at hand. To really think 'what would Captain Jack do?'
And it looks like that thinking may have further to run next year:
The Pirates series satisfies my rule having sufficient mythological depth from which to drink but it also satisfies my Puckish need for it to emerge from something so unlikely as an old amusement park ride. There were no lofty goals of using fiction to re-enchant the world here. It's a Bruckheimer series, for fuck's sake. the magic is almost entirely without intention.
If anything the opposite is in play. I imagine the 'reach goals' for the franchise were to build more rides, see if the world can be built out into a Disney travel experience or standalone theme park. To find inspiration in such poor soil serves as a reminder of the objective value of joy and silliness and the essential component fun should play in even the most dour magician's life. Because we could all do with a bit more joy.
And rum. Always more rum.