Is Johnny Depp’s first pirate adventure an all-time cinematic classic? Oscar puts down the rum to tell us why.
Who made it?: Gore Verbinski (Director), Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio (Writers), Jerry Bruckheimer (Producer), Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
Who’s in it?: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce.
Tagline: “Prepare to be blown out of the water.”
IMDb rating: 8.0/10 (Top 250).
I am going to be straight up with you, dear readers. I am a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Not just the first film, although that is undoubtedly the best as this review shall demonstrate, but the series at large. Despite the many flaws in the sequels and the ways in which they test the patience of many critics and cinephiles (and good friends), I cannot help it; they satisfy my craving for pirate swashbuckling action and adventure. Plus, said genre pretty much lives or dies with this franchise, so it’s worth considering just why the first was not only so successful but a damn good film.
On the HMS Dauntless’ voyage to Port Royal, Jamaica, Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) and his daughter Elizabeth retrieve a wayward boy, Will Turner, a survivor of a shipwreck. Around Will’s neck is a golden skull medallion, which Elizabeth keeps in order to protect him from being hanged as a pirate. As the Dauntless sails on, a black pirate ship vanishes into the nearby fog…
Eight years later, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) attends the promotion of James Norrington (Jack Davenport) to the rank of Commodore with her father. During the ceremony, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) arrives in Port Royal to commandeer a ship, and saves Elizabeth from drowning when her corset makes her faint. In the water, the pirate medallion sends a pulse through the waves, causing the winds to blow towards Port Royal. Jack escapes arrest from Norrington and hides out in the smithy where he encounters the grown up Will (Orlando Bloom). At night, while Jack is imprisoned, the pirates of the Black Pearl attack Port Royal in search of the medallion, capturing Elizabeth. Recognising it as the ship she saw as a child, Elizabeth demands parley with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Concealing her identity as the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth claims her last name is Turner and Barbossa takes her as prisoner. After failing to convince Norrington to join forces with a pirate, Will frees Jack, who agrees after inferring that Will’s name is also his father’s name. The two commandeer the HMS Interceptor and sail for Tortuga to recruit a crew, including Jack’s friend Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally). Barbossa reveals to Elizabeth that the medallion is from a cursed Aztec gold hoard on the Isla de Muerta, and that every piece must be returned and the blood repaid, or else he and his crew will be cursed to be undead for eternity.
Leading this massive and excellent cast is Depp as the now iconic Jack Sparrow. With a character built on excess in both appearance and mannerisms (and modelled on the likes of Keith Richards), his charismatic, unpredictable nature gives the film a huge boost of personality, and it can truly be said that there hasn’t been another on-screen pirate as entertaining to watch. Bloom is put to good use as the straight man to the eccentric scoundrel and holds his own, but not much is made of him. Knightley also adds class and spirit to Elizabeth, and plays off Bloom and the various pirates nicely. Rush is another piece of inspired casting, with Barbossa being a perfect foil for Jack and is especially entertaining in the way he chews the scenery with his West Country accent. McNally is a fun supporting character, clearly having fun in the role. Davenport makes for a likable romantic rival and foil for Will in Commodore Norrington. And Pryce has a warmth and flustered humour to him. Future science fiction darling, Zoe Saldana, has a small supporting role as Annamaria, a lady pirate with an amusing grudge towards Jack. To provide extra levity, we have Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook as a bumbling pirate duo Pintel and Ragetti, and Giles New and Angus Barnett as dimwitted Royal Navy marines Murtogg and Mullroy.
Gore Verbinski’s direction displays a brilliant balance of quirky, offbeat humour and gritty action that never feels cartoonish or gratuitous, ultimately pushing the envelope for what a Disney live-action family film could do. The 18th century attire and setting is recreated with immaculate detail, and the pirates come across as particularly rough and scraggly, quite different from any of Captain Hook’s pirate crew. There’s a very Old Hollywood feeling to the production and director’s vision, yet it also has the sensibilities of a modern blockbuster. It’s a big, sweeping epic that still understands that a strong story should evolve out of the wants and needs of its characters. Scenes will often do more than one thing, with exposition going hand in hand with character development and subtly introducing plot points. Essentially, the action helps to tell the story and doesn’t happen for its own sake.
The ship battles are all done practically, too, with the use of dressed-up barges and a real ship for the Interceptor: the brig Lady Washington. This ties nicely into the old-fashioned adventure aspect of the film, and their efforts have paid off because these vessels look incredible today. For the storm sequence and when the Interceptor is blown up, they use a very well-crafted miniature. Verbinski follows the golden rule of visual effects – in order to make a special effect credible, you need to combine it with something real, and what little CGI is present is bolstered by plenty of in-camera effects and sets. The skeleton pirates do look somewhat dated now, but there is still a lot of detail and personality infused into them. For my money, they are the best movie skeletons since Harryhausen’s stop-motion undead army in Jason and the Argonauts.
The varied cinematography by Dariusz Wolski has a lush, beautiful aesthetic that makes the Caribbean islands and sea come alive with colour. The striking blues for the moonlight scenes add to the atmosphere of the finale and creep factor of the skeletons. The action scenes are well-shot, show considerable scale and momentum, and are well-timed to the music. Better still, the writing in these sequences is excellent, developing story and character with humour. For instance, the duel between Jack and Will shows who is the better swordsman, who likes the cheat, and that Will is capable of thinking on his feet like a pirate. Each of the key set-pieces show an escalation of stakes and tension and take the action to new heights, so you feel invested throughout. While the battles come with great spectacle, they don’t rely on it as a crutch.
The score by Klaus Badlet and Hans Zimmer is easily one of the most iconic and recognisable film scores composed; bombastic, adventurous, ominous, jaunty, feeling both native to the swashbuckling setting and modern at the same time. Because of the heavy use of electrical instruments and synthesisers, it doesn’t sound as grand and as rich as the scores in the sequels do, but it’s a treat to listen to by itself. While Badlet assembled the score into the form we know in the movie, Zimmer composed the various themes that went with it, notably the very rambunctious and recognisable “He’s a Pirate” theme, serving as the recurring motif of the series.
Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio built on the generic idea of pirates kidnapping a governor’s daughter by Jay Wolpert and Stuart Beattie, subverted the formula by showing pirates trying to return the treasure rather than uncover it, and mixed in the supernatural element of skeletons which ended up tying nicely to the aesthetic and playfully morbid character of the Disneyland ride. A lot of the characters have their own desires and goals, even those without the most screentime feel believable as people, with their actions driving the plot forward. The film’s sense of humour feels relatively well-placed in the period, with a nice mix of visual jokes and great lines. It is interesting that the villainous pirates’ goal is to become human beings again; yes they’re immortal, but they’re also barred from the pleasures of life. But what makes their goals so odious is their murderous and bloodthirsty methods, traits which Jack is hunted for.
If there is an obvious theme, it’s that you can be be both a lawbreaker (read: pirate) and a good man, and Jack dances back and forth over that line throughout the film. Sparrow as a character completely lacks a traditional arc and operates separately from the rest of the characters, nudging them in a direction that benefits him and, in a roundabout way, benefits them as well. He is dangerous, devious and duplicitous to both sides, but he is ultimately likable and loyal, and clearly doesn’t have Barbossa’s thirst for blood and mayhem. Because his goal is atypical for what a pirate character is usually after, it makes him more easy to invest in, supporting the theme.
As much as we all love Jack, Will and Elizabeth are more or less the de facto main characters, being introduced first and having the most clear-cut arcs. Jack is needed to provide humour and energy to the film as a fun side character with his own B-story; to use a Disney metaphor (also penned by Elliott and Rossio), Jack is the Genie to Will and Elizabeth’s Aladdin and Jasmine. There is chemistry between Bloom and Knightley, but it’s usually framed in the context of two people trying to love each other despite their societal differences. She dreams of excitement and believes in the romantic ideal of piracy, but is instead being offered to Norrington as a potential bride. The physical representation of a corset that is laced too tightly is an analogy that, while perhaps a bit on the nose, does a wonderful job of conveying the essence of Elizabeth’s internal conflict. If she had her way, she’d be having adventures out on the high seas, but is instead bound by public status. Both Will and Elizabeth are shown struggling under the literal and figurative constraints of their places in society, and both of them are able to enjoy a life of adventure thanks to a little chaos introduced by Jack. This works for the themes of the film, but it also means that the two leads are too tightly bound to carry the film themselves.
If I had to point to any notable flaws in the film, it’s that it does feel a bit on the long side, and it does slow down between key action and adventure scenes. These slower moments, like Jack and Elizabeth being marooned, do serve a narrative and character purpose but they are a sharp contrast to the more entertaining aspects of the film. One notable plot hole is the pirates reacting with pain during the attack on Port Royal and some parts of the climactic battle. At first, it works if you don’t know they’re cursed and can’t feel pain, but on subsequent viewings it looks like they’re just shouting and reacting for no reason at all. Some people may still take issue with the idea that Barbossa and his crew would give up immortality to feel pleasure again, but that’s really not such a big plot hole.
Ultimately, after the infamous critical and box office that is Cutthroat Island, it seemed like the pirate genre really was down and out. And yet, everyone involved in this film pulled off the impossible by making pirates awesome again. Pirates of the Caribbean is a big, loud blockbuster with a brain behind it, and quite the boon to Disney. It had the right mix of modern day subversiveness and sincere appreciation for the genre, allowing the audience to relish in the pirates life of adventure. Even with the divisive nature of the sequels (and Depp’s similar roles in other films), it’s all down to the strength of this first film and everyone’s favourite savvy pirate that it remains a highly beloved film and a mighty pillar of the pirate genre.
Jack sure knows how to make an entrance…
- Originally, Johnny Depp wanted Jack Sparrow to have no nose, and be afraid of silly things like pepper and the common cold. Disney rejected the idea.
- According to the DVD commentaries, Geoffrey Rush has a theory that people watch the screen from left to right, just like when they read a book. Therefore, he tried to be in the left side of the screen as often as possible. He was particularly intent on doing this in the scenes with the monkey and Keira Knightley, because he didn’t think anyone would look at him otherwise.
- The scene where Orlando Bloom impersonates Depp’s performance was devised by Bloom, who asked Producer Jerry Bruckheimer if he could put it into the movie.
- Knightley claimed she was so sure she was going to get fired after a few days work on this film, she only packed a few things to go with her to start filming.
- One of the film’s last lines – “Bring me that horizon” – was conceived by Depp on the morning the scene was filmed.