Pirates Through the Movie Industry's Eyes

What is it about piracy that makes it so appealing to the movie going audiences? Since the beginning of moving pictures, pirates have managed to find their way into the theaters. However, there has been a dramatic shift in the manner in which piracy is portrayed in film. Back in the 1960's, there were still a few films depicting pirates as ruthless killers and revenge driven predators. As the years went on, pirate movies have become comedies, musicals, and even family movies suitable for children. The blood thirsty pirates of history have been replaced with dancing and singing pirates that don't seem to pose any threat what-so-ever. There hasn't been a classic pirate movie with a crew worth being afraid of since Disney's

Swiss Family Robison back in 1960. Only recently has there a movie that even remotely comes close to the age old portrayal of no-good, evil, greedy, blood thirty pirates. Surprisingly, it is Disney putting out the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, the same company responsible for The Swiss Family Robison. The rest of the movies over the past thirty years have typically illustrated pirates as goofy and stupid, handsome or gallant, or deserving of pity.

The first basic image of pirates in modern film is that of foolish, inept crews that can't even carry out the most basic of tasks or understand basic concepts. In Steven Spielberg's Hook, the crew is entirely reliant on Captain Hook and Smee for direction. They don't understand jokes with big words, and don't even notice when their own Captain is belittling them to their faces. Captain Hook, almost proudly, calls them "stupid, sorry, parasitic sacks of entrails," and yet they cheer. The entire exchange between Hook and his crew is a perfect portrayal of a pirate crew of mindless, yet violent and greedy, sheep.

Hook isn't the only movie perpetuating this image. Muppet Treasure Island is yet another prime example. What better way to depict pirates as goofy and ridiculous than to make them Muppet characters? Not a single one of the pirates in Muppet Treasure Island can even come close to being taken seriously except Long John Silver, who is actually played by a human actor. Again we see a movie that tries to make the general pirate crew appear entirely inept. They don't listen to orders, and they are driven by greed and therefore commit foolish acts. How can anyone begin to fear a pirate that is played by a talking goat with an earring and eye patch? In addition to having most of the pirates played by Muppets, Muppet Treasure Island takes the foolish pirate stereotype further by giving them a variety of musical numbers to sing. Singing and dancing pirates don't elicit fear, they elicit laughter and smiles.

Muppet Treasure Island and Hook turned piracy into a subject for family movie night.

Of course, pirates didn't start dancing and singing with Muppet Treasure Island. The movie version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance had the entire crew swinging through the rafters singing silly songs and acting more like a circus act than a malicious pirate crew looking to pillage ships. The Pirate King, with his long curly hair and debonair grin, dancing on the decks of his ship is hardly viewed as a threat to the audience.

The second major depiction of piracy is more related to the captain than the crew. The image of a dashing, brave, and handsome pirate captain is becoming more frequent. In 1976, Swashbuckler was released. The Captain, "Red Ned Lynch", is often described in reviews and synopses of the movie as "dashing" and an "alluring rouge." His perfect black hair and beautiful red outfit make him appear as though he should be on the cover of a romance novel, not the star of a pirate film.

This particular trend continues with 1983 film version of The Pirates of Penzance. Here, the Pirate King is played by the young and handsome Kevin Kline, who sports a long curly black wig, tight black pants, and a shirt that always leaves his tanned chest exposed. Even his apprentice, Frederic, has a similar appearance. Again we see a tan young man with long curly hair, tight pants and a pretty face. There isn't a missing tooth, scar, deformity, or eye patch on either one of them. In fact, they both look as though they had a long hot bath that very morning, when historians point out that conditions could actually be quite poor on a pirate ship. The pirates don't even act fierce during the movie. In fact, the crew seems more concerned with getting married to a pretty lady than treasure or pillaging.

Just a few years later, in 1987, The Princess Bride was released in theaters. This furthered the concept of a dashingly handsome pirate captain that always manages to pull off the tight pants and exposed chest. In this movie, the Dread Pirate Roberts is portrayed a young blonde man with perfect hair, a perfect smile, and entirely capable of pulling off the tight pants and exposed chest. The story also reveals that the Dread Pirate Roberts that came before Westley (the main character with the perfect looks) spared him because the concept of needing to stay alive for "true love," and "a girl of surpassing beauty and faithfulness" intrigued him. This is yet another reference to a captain that isn't depicted as blood thirty and disgusting, but one who understands love and beauty.

The third image of pirates being perpetuated by modern film is that Captains are worthy of pity and compassion. The most blatant example of this is seen in

Hook. Throughout the majority film, Captain Hook does come across as cruel, often saying things like: "once you shed blood and dole out cruelty, it's hard to stop. It's a pirate's life, my lad!" However, whatever credibility he had as a cruel and legitimate pirate dissipates by the end of the movie. As the great Hook is on his knees, without his plumed hair and wig, he becomes this pitiful looking character. In the end, Hook is "just a mean old man without a mommy." He even cries out, "I want my mommy" as he finally dies. What legitimately cruel and evil pirate calls out for his mommy in the end? Even Long John Silver from

Muppet Treasure Island isn't thoroughly evil. After all, he spares Jim's life when his crew mutinies, and sings and dances about simply being misunderstood and victim of bad press.

However, there are a few contradictions and exceptions. Some movies have attempted to give pirates some realistic pirate characteristics. Ironically, Muppet Treasure Island seems to have the most hints of reality. The opening song is an example of this:

And they sailed their ship cross the ocean blue

A blood-thirsty captain and a cut-throat crew

It's as dark a tale as was ever told

Of the lust for treasure and the love of gold...

And those buccaneers drowned their sins in rum

The devil himself would have to call them scum

Every man aboard would have killed his mate

For a bag of guineas or a piece of eight...

When the mainsail's set and the anchor's weighed

There's no turning back from any course that's laid

And when greed and villainy sail the sea

You can bet your boots there'll be treachery

"Shiver My Timbers," (the name of the song) gives the audience the impression that they will get a healthy dose of actual buccaneers raping and pillaging the seas for treasure. You'd never know you were about to be introduced to a singing crew of merry Muppets. The historical buccaneers did spend drown themselves in rum, start mutinies, and sail the sea in search of eight, just as the song suggests. In fact, "Shiver My Timbers" even mentions Davy Jones, a character still honored in modern maritime activity. However, the song, while remotely accurate lyrically, is being sung by crabs and alligators, therefore it's hard for the audience to concentrate on the lyrics, much less assign them any credibility. Any and all signs of historically accurate information are drowned out by silliness, hyperbole, and comedy.

The modern film industry has been flooding the pirate movie market with comedies, musicals and unrealistic representations of pirates. The realities of traditional (meaning 1500-1700's) piracy have become so far removed from our memories that anything to do with the subject has taken on an air of fantasy. Pirates have been reduced to the same mythical status as dragon slayers and wizards. The pirates of recent film have been foolish, handsome, or worthy of pity, and that's hardly the image brought forth by historians. In fact, historians like David Cordingly wonder why "few of the [pirate] films follow the historical events with any accuracy."

Of course, Long John Silver of Muppet Treasure Island would have you believe that while "[s]ome say that pirates steal and should be feared and hated. [He says they're] victims of bad press it's all exaggerated." In fact, there's an entire song in the movie dedicated to proving the historians wrong. After all, take Sir Francis Drake, who was adored by the English and hated by the Spanish. Pirates and Buccaneers have bad reputations, because "[i]t's how you look at buccaneers that makes them bad or good."

The movie industry may attempt to go back to a more historically accurate portrayal of pirates, relative to the movies of old.

Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Peal includes seemingly historical references, including elements like the H.M.S. Dauntless, H.M.S. Interceptor, and Port Royal, Jamaica in the movie. Of course, the real Captain Barbarossa of history was a Muslim pirate also known as Red Beard, and he didn't come from Port Royal. Henry Morgan was the famous pirate from that Jamaica city. In addition to throwing out familiar names and locations, this movie seeks to bring back the image of the good-for-nothing ruthless pirate willing to kidnap, steal, fight, and cause all kinds of trouble. The trailer includes the vicious, dirty and sinister Captain Barbarrossa, who kidnaps a beautiful maiden (who is the governor's daughter of course) and seeks to kill anyone who may cross his path. Of course, there are still elements of the pirate movies stereotypes mentioned earlier. One look at the movie's Will Turner, and its easy to see he'll be filling the debonair, suave, and handsome pirate role.

It may take years before the movie industry decides to make a truly accurate pirate film based on real plunderers and real captains. The past thirty years have seen singing and dancing pirates, Muppet pirates, and any number of men with teeth and hair too perfect to ever really be pirates. For now,

Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean may be the closest the industry will get to bringing back pirates we actual fear and loathe.

by Kelly Rowles

Posted by Under The Black Flag on 1:07 π.μ.. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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