Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl was the open gate that led many, many people into the world of pirates. The movie was funny, fresh and full of adventure, and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow didn’t hurt the movie one bit.
But I believe that there’s more to the movie than meets the eye. Though it was inspired by the Pirates ride at Walt Disney World, it also gave a call-out to almost every other pirate production that’s ever been made. In short, the writers and producer made an effort to honor ever single pirate trope that’s ever existed. Let’s take a look at that, and have one more stroll through a grand movie.
But first – What’s a trope? The dictionary defines “trope” as “Something recurring across a genre or type of literature, such as the ‘mad scientist’ of horror movies or ‘once upon a time’ as an introduction to fairy tales.” There are dozens of pirate tropes. Let’s count them in the movie.
Will Turner is the sole survivor of a ship wreck (actually an attack by pirates.) The “sole survivor” or castaway goes back at least to Robinson Crusoe, which was first published in 1719.
The Governor’s Daughter
Has been the traditional love interest of pirates and naval captains in countless stories. And lest we forget Elizabeth Swan’s status, her maid stage whispers “You’re the Governor’s daughter!” just as the pirates attack.
Pirates Be ye Warned!
The sign beside the hanging pirate corpses as Jack sails into port.
The Dishonest Port Official
In real life, people like the harbormaster who agrees to call Jack “Mister Smith” were one of the prime mechanisms that allowed real-life pirates to operate. The character shows up in dozens of movies.
The Legendary Ship
The Black Pearl is a magical ship “crewed by the damned and captained by a man so evil that Hell itself spat him back out.” This goes all the way back to the legend of the Flying Dutchman.
The Tongue-Tied Man of Action
Commodore Norrington proves himself brave, intelligent, resourceful and efficient over the course of the movie, but he struggles mightily when trying to propose to Elizabeth. A stereotype dating at least to the Horatio Hornblower series.
Jack is considered to be one of the Bugs Bunny type, a sort of trickster hero who loves to laugh, but who fights with no holds barred, and often completely contradicts the rules of common sense or the laws of physics. (“I never studied law”) The trope actually pre-dates Bugs, and may have been invented by Groucho Marx, originator of Bug’s favorite threat, “I suppose you realize, this means war!” Notice that Jack is being a good guy until Norrington threatens to hang him, at which point Jack turns suddenly menacing, and makes a wild escape.
The Epic Sword Fight
Throwing a Sword
When Will throws his sword to lock the door, he proves he can do it (for later in the movie). He also harks back to many other pirates who have performed this classic, and impossible, maneuver. My favorite is Captain Lynch in the movie “Swashbuckler.”
Pirates Attack a Town
Captain Henry Morgan made his career from sacking Spanish towns, and Hollywood has used it consistently, largely because it’s a lot easier to choreograph a fight on land, and a lot easier to finance a town set than a full-scale warship.
Two Type of Pirates
TVtropes.com lists two different classic forms of movie pirates – the lovable ad mostly non-threatening bumbler, and the bloodthirsty cut-throat. POTC has both, in the forms of Jack and Barbosa. And Barbosa has….
A Magnificent Pirate Hat
Barbosa’s hat, remarked on by Jack later in the film. Also, William’s magnificent hat, when he decides to rescue Jack.
Parlay and the Pirate Code
Two non-historical pieces of pirate lore that have been driving pirate stories for decades. Elizabeth also gives a shout-out to real pirates Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Roberts.
Ghosts, curses, and zombies have been tied up with the lore of the Caribbean since slavery and Spanish conquest, which is to say, forever.
The Captain’s Exotic Pet
Exotic pets have been a pirate staple since Long John Silver’s parrot. A pet monkey specifically appears in the movie “Cut-Throat Island.”
Characters throughout the movie tell stores to each other, harking to the classic sailor’s past time of telling yarns, stories which, while entertaining, are not necessarily true.
A Son Picks up His Father’s Destiny
Will, like so many boys going to sea (including Jim Hawkins) faces his heritage as the son of a sailor.
A real pirate haven, and a legendary city of vice and depravity. In fact, Port Royal was an even more legendary and debauched location, earning the nickname of the “Wickedest city on earth” long before the establishment of Las Vegas. Tortuga is an especially good name for a pirate port, because there are four islands named Tortuga in the Caribbean, so the writers can place their port in several locations.
Pirates and Prostitutes
Virtually every pirate book or movie has a prostitute or pirate wench in it somewhere. We also get to see drunken carousing and brawling.
Dinner with the Pirate Captain
Especially when the governor’s daughter arrives so famished she tears into the food with her hands.
The Legendary Treasure
It’s usual for there to be some kind of “special” Spanish or buried treasure in pirate stories. The glorious turnaround in POTC is that the pirates are not trying to find the treasure, but to give it back.
Robert Newton as Long John Silver started the use of this exclamation, but Geoffrey Rush says it with the conviction of a pirate who’s come up with it for the first time.
See Exotic Pirate Pet
Woman Disguised as a Male Pirate
In honor of Mary Reed and Anne Bonny
Motley Pirate Crew
In fact, pirate crews were varied, and contained people from many races. Having each member of the crew be a different nationality is traditional.
A classic trope since Long John Silver’s wooden leg. POTC combined the one-eyed pirate with the wooden leg to give us a pirate with a wooden eye.
A Storm at Sea
Features in nearly every pirate movie, even if the special effects are only a toy boat in a bathtub.
Seen as early as Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island (duh)
An actual pirate practice, noted in Treasure Island. Hollywood added the pistol to shoot yourself with.
Impossible on an actual pirate ship, where the captaincy was an elected position. Though a crew that mutinied often became pirates afterwards.
The Pirate Captain so Mean, He Shoots a Member of His Own Crew
Barbosa shoots a member of his own crew in the cave to see if the curse has been lifted. It doesn’t work, but the pirate does look indignant and say, “Hey, you shot me!” Appears in dozens of pirate movies, including Disney’s Peter Pan. The quickest way to show that a pirate captain is ruthless.
Throwing the prisoners in the brig
Hollywood pirate ships have large and well-used brigs
“I’ll have your guts for garters!”
Many pirate threats and phrases are used over and over. POTC hits almost every classic pirate word, including savvy, parlay, old hob, sweeps, scabrous dogs, broadside, whelp, off the edge of the map, here there be monsters, and The ship is ours!
Which a sailor jokingly claims flopped up on deck to tell Norrington about the pirates.)
Another standard. POTC minimizes damage to the Black Pearl by having the Interceptor throw all her cannon balls overboard before the battle.
Swinging From Ship to Ship on Ropes
Possible? Probably not. But it shows up I every movie.
Lead Character Trapped in a Sinking Ship
Will frees himself, but it’s more traditional for the trapped character’s romantic interest to save him/her.
Davy Jones’ Locker
Doesn’t actually appear, but Will talks about it.
East India Trading Company
Very often, the East India Trading Company is the bad guy in a movie where pirates are the heroes. In POTC the Company never actually appears, but it is mentioned twice, once in the beginning when Jack’s pirate brand is revealed by Norrington, and again on the tropical island when Elizabeth recounts Jack’s adventures.
Walking the Plank
An entirely imaginary pirate activity. The (very few) pirates who ever made anyone walk the plank had actually gotten the idea from pirate novels. But it’s a standard pirate trope.
Pirate Rescued from Hanging
May real pirates were hanged, but no one wants to see it in a movie. It’s heartbreaking to see a good guy pirate die, and not terrible enough for an evil pirate. The rescue, by a pirate ship coming over the horizon, is a classic.
So, I count 40 separate pirate tropes in one movie. Are there even more? If you can find them, please leave a comment. I’d love to find them.
Does this mean POTC is a cliché? Certainly not! By touching on so many of the classic elements of fictional piracy, the movie’s creators give their creation the feel of being part of a great tradition. And so it is.