The Curse of the Black Pearl | Digital Traditions

by Brittany Anderson. Anderson is a Theatre major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This review was written for the Spring 2012 class "Folklore and Film."

If a person were to tell me that they never once dreamed of being a pirate when they were younger, I would say that person is lying. To be a pirate is to disregard all consequences and live the thrilling, daring, immoral life that you wish. Pirates of the Caribbean has become a franchise that embraces the adventures of the cowboy of the seas, and much of its success has come from this adventure, especially The Curse of the Black Pearl. In this film, a blacksmith with mysterious origins, Will Turner, tries to woo the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann, until their town is pillaged by the fearful Captain Barbossa and the crew of the Black Pearl and Miss Swann is captured. With the help of the crafty, odd pirate Jack Sparrow, Will encounters the mythical legends of the ocean as well as experiences piracy for himself to save Elizabeth. However, the adventure of this story is not its only appeal. In The Curse of the Black Pearl, the pirates are a folkloric group who influence the culture and superstitions of the civilians in the film, and much of the success in the movie lies in the characters’ relationships to the movie’s folkloric elements that we wish to experience in our own lives.

Folk speech, intrinsic knowledge, and proximity define pirates of the Black Pearl as a folkgroup in the movie. Pirates’ folk speech is largely occupational due to the fact that the closest location they have to a home is their ship. Therefore nautical terms and phrases such as “starboard,” “port,” and “swabbing the deck” are used daily. It is essential for a pirate to know pirate lingo, for not only is a pirate’s home on the ship, but their trade, conquests, and survival depend upon the functionality of the ship. The close proximity forces a bond between them; they depend on each other daily as well as in battle against other pirates or the navy. Also, pirates have specific opinions about certain words from civilians’ opinions. An example is the word “parlay,” which is frequently used throughout the movie as a gag dependent on folkloric difference. When used by civilians, the word is a comfort because saying it demands that a pirate’s prisoner be taken to the captain of the ship to arrange negotiations for the prisoners’ capture. It was apparently instated by a document called “The Pirates’ Code,” which was created by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew but has not been viewed by any character in the movie. Civilian characters in the movie take comfort in the existence of this code even if they have never or plan to never encounter a pirate because as it is the only way they know that a nonmember of the pirate folkloric group can negotiate with them on terms the civilians are familiar with. However, the code and the word “parlay” are laughable notions to pirates. It is one that is associated with pirates but is not regularly used by them; sometimes the meaning of it is not even known by pirates. For example, when Captain Jack Sparrow is running from the pirates of the Black Pearl on the Isla de Muerta, they are shocked when he says the word (which he does only because he had heard a civilian say it), and then they do not know what to do when he does. The connotations of the word are best described in the scene when Elizabeth Swann has been captured by the pirates of the Black Pearl after they have pillaged her town. The first attempt to use it as a means of negotiation aboard the ship earns her a slap across the face from a large, intimidating pirate. The second is used when speaking to the captain of the ship, Captain Barbossa.

Elizabeth: "Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren..." Barbossa: "First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner."

This quote clearly shows how differently a nonmember and a member of the group think of the word as well as establishes a key characteristic of pirates: their “rules” are entirely rooted in informality rather than by written law. To be a pirate is to intrinsically know how to treat one another or a civilian. To the pirates of the first movie, “the code” is an urban legend, just as pirate legends are to civilians, that is not seen or proven real until the third movie in the series, At World’s End. No one goes to school to become a pirate; you cannot learn about the ways of the group unless you are a part of it. Folkloric elements are not limited to pirates in the film, though, as occupational and narrative folklore are used among civilians as well. Regarding occupational folklore, William Turner, the boy who was orphaned and saved in the beginning and grew up to be a blacksmith’s apprentice, learned his trade through experience and informal training. Most tradesmen during the time the film portrays learned their skills through a master, unlike the navy men, who are officially and formally trained in weaponry and battle strategies. Narrative folklore is a much more present force in the movies, and it consists mainly of pirate urban legends, which are used for entertainment and warning. The largest proponent of the storytelling is the character Gibbes, Jack Sparrow's first mate on the quest to reconquer the Black Pearl. He is the all-knowing storyteller that spreads legends and superstitions about the sea. He tells Will the story about Jack Sparrow escaping a lonely island by tying together a couple of sea turtles to float on after having waited in the ocean shallows for three days, which would seem like more of a tall tale if Jack’s character were not so prone to offbeat ideas. Gibbs also tells Will about the curse of the Aztec gold that was set on Captain Barbossa and his crew that prevents them from dying, a story which is actually proven true. Most notable, however, is Gibbs’ belief in superstitions, such as it being bad luck to wake a man up while he is sleeping and it being bad luck “to be singin' about pirates with us mired in this unnatural fog,” which he tells to the young Elizabeth in the beginning. His use of the singing about pirates superstition plays into the culture of a sea port town. Tales of piracy, including The Curse of the Black Pearl and in the second film the legend of the cursed Davy Jones and the Kraken, were told to ward children from mischief, selfishness, and greediness; these legends are about people who went too far with their own desires. Since pirates were an actual threat of the town, there was enough truth in the cautionary tales to be believable, such as how we find truth in a “friend of a friend” in “a town nearby.” An example takes place when the Black Pearl attacks the Port Royal, and Jack Sparrow is imprisoned in a cell next to a cell containing a group of petty criminals. Man in Jail: "The Black Pearl? I've heard stories. She's been preying on ships and settlements for near ten years. Never leaves any survivors." Jack Sparrow: "No survivors? Then where do the stories come from, I wonder?"

Many pirate stories throughout the series have no known origins in the beginnings until they are proven true during the plots. The success of the film was obvious when the movie premiered in 2003, and it was largely due to the presence of folkloric elements that were later lost in the initial trilogy, causing the success of the movies to suffer. In the film, we as an audience got to witness urban legends coming true in a colonial England setting. The beginning of the movie resembles real life as we imagine it to be during that era, but it contains fantastical elements that we know could never happen but wish they could. It is a secure combination of believability and imagination. If all the entertainment value had been in the love story or solely in the fantastical creatures, its range of appeal would have been much narrower. The second and third films do not work as well because the fantastical world becomes overpowering and does not retain any mystery. Rather than the pirates seeming like the marginal group that must be discovered (as in the first film), the pirates become the “normal” people thrown into an abnormal fantasy adventure. We as an audience cannot relate to the pirate lifestyle as much as Will and Elizabeth’s lifestyles, and thus the following movies lose much of their appeal. We enjoy having a taste of the weird and then returning to normal life, which is how the ending of the first movie presents itself for Elizabeth and William. This relates to folklore in that as a society we like to enjoy urban legends at a distance with the expectation that it will not greatly affect our normal lives. There exists an element of disbelief, thus why an urban legend with no known origins is talked about around a campfire with excitement and a factual terrifying story keeps the campers indoors with locked windows. The thrill of this adventure story (and similar half-real, half-fantastical movies such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Jumanji) is that when all is said and done, the characters have shared a literally unbelievable experience that they can keep secret. In a sense, it is as though they have witnessed and perhaps participated in a certain folkloric group but are not members; they can return from the abnormal. We want to believe that at the end of the film Will and Elizabeth will be married and have their happy ending, but the second and third films uproot that entirely then go so far as to make the two of them into pirates.

Also, the success of The Curse of the Black Pearl lies in the fact that the pirate world remains mysterious to the audience, which is later wrecked by the plots of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. In the first movie, we as the audience feel like Will and Elizabeth, that is that we have gotten a taste of a pirate adventure but not that we are a part of the group. In the two sequels, however, we encounter different cultural groups of pirates that must bind together to defeat a common enemy, and the relationship between the pirates becomes oddly political. The actual “Pirate Code” is consulted in the third movie, dismantling the belief that pirates view the rules as guidelines. The making of Elizabeth into “The Pirate King” disrupts the stereotypical behavior of a pirate that dictates that the only authority he respects is the captain of his ship. Even the mystery of Jack Sparrow is lessened when his father Blackbeard appears on the screen, which neither adds anything to Jack’s history or character, and during the scene in the briggs where we see inside Jack’s mind that contains several versions of himself, which adds too much explanation to his character. Ultimately, the sequels take away the intrinsic knowledge and behavior of the pirate folk group set up in the film as well as justify elements of Jack Sparrow’s character that make him legendary.

In conclusion, The Curse of the Black Pearl mixes folkloric elements with adventure to make a story that is unbelievable but contains enough truth to where it is enjoyable for a wide variety of audiences. The series’ popularity declined when the later movies replaced recognizable characters with over-the-top fantasy and attempted to turn the pirate folk group into a multicultural pirate government. However, if one views the first movie in singularity, it is without question that the audience enjoys the idea of supplanting Elizabeth Swann and William Turner with themselves to imagine the experience of living with pirates, which is exciting in both real life and movie contexts.