I did it for you, my lovely.
All of it. It was the only way I could ever inflict the Pirates sequels upon myself again (a person whom I hold in high regard) and so I bore the cost without flinching. Two hits of LSD; at least 150 micrograms of that dreaded lysergic acid.
Not for the drug itself, or the high – which I mostly enjoyed with a beautiful sunrise and some youtube fractals – but for the long come down that comes after.
If you’ve done it, you know exactly what I’m talking about: suddenly bereft of the drugs you’ve been swimming in, your brain becomes a beached whale on the shores of some unfamiliar day; you feel like once-vivid play-dough that’s been all worn out and mixed together to form that bland, beige, non-color of broken dreams; it feels like you haven’t slept in a week and may never sleep again; you have nothing but time and nothing to feed it to.
I could not, obviously, recommend that anyone watch the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, much less the execrable sequels; but neither could I recommend that anyone watch them in any other state but this: mind like a wrung-out sponge and led like a fatted lamb to the slaughter. It was in this peculiar and particular state that I watched Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End as the five hour mindless marathon that God and Gore Verbinksi intended, and, fortified by this infantile helplessness I had inflicted upon it, my brain feasted.What I discovered during the ordeal was something that I think might have been overlooked in the initial boom and bust of the franchise; that Elizabeth Swann (portrayed with a heartbreaking sincerity by Keira Knightley) is a fucking action hero superstar. A bona-fide kicker of asses and taker of names.
When At World’s End was first released, people were mostly talking about how Johnny Depp’s schtick was starting to wear thin (which, oh my god 2007, you had no idea), how bland and boring and butter-faced Orlando Bloom’s character was, and how they wished Geoffrey Rush could be the star of all these films. If anyone talked about Keira Knightley at all it was mainly to comment on how wrong she was for the material, or how out of place she seemed. But mostly she was just ignored; signal lost amid the static of too much plot stuffed into too little movie.
Now for the most part, the critical consensus is correct: Johnny Depp can fuck right off, Orlando Bloom plays a piece of driftwood for all we care, and Geoffrey Rush literally is a Pirate. He must be. What other role could he possibly play? (Note: apparently 63 other things, things that I won’t see because he’s not playing a fucking pirate, is he now?)
So in and amongst all these players and happenings, you could be forgiven for missing the trojan horse that is Elizabeth Swann, the Hero’s Journey. I honestly think this was something that was carefully considered (and maybe even sketched out on the back of a napkin at some Hollywood lunch), because it’s too calculated to have happened organically. Of course, what happened then is they took this kernel of an idea and slathered it in 7 hours of excess, before shoving it down the throat of summer consumption.
I mean, they put it right there in her name, Swann, because our lovely Elizabeth is the Ugly Duckling. Not in appearance obviously, because this is Hollywood and we still need to put asses in seats, but in every other way, Elizabeth Swann is a woman born into the wrong world and fighting for her true destiny. The opening scene of the first movie portrays this exquisitely: 10 year old Elizabeth, dressed up like a doll, with her hair perfectly curled singing ‘yo-ho, yo-ho, a Pirate’s life for me’. I mean, this is a real staring at the setting suns of Tatooine moment:
We don’t know this right away because it’s literally the first thing in the movie, but the rest of the scene soon sets us straight. After her song is silenced by the superstitious Gibb and talk turns to pirates, her father shuts the conversation down, saying, “I’m concerned about the effect this subject will have upon my daughter.” To which our Elizabeth brightly replies, “Actually, I find it all fascinating.”
“Yes,” this loving, well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed man says. “That’s what concerns me.”
The rest of Curse of the Black Pearl is basically like Star Wars, more-or-less, give or take; with Jack Sparrow as Han Solo and Orlando Bloom’s character as Princess Leia. You gotta kinda squint at it, but it’s the whole thing about taking our hero from her false life and into the greater destiny that awaits her. Along the way she falls in love with a boy -as one does when you’re a saucy action star- but most importantly, the boy she chooses. The one who has always represented that other world to her. Honestly, aside from some plot-stuff he has to do because of the plot, Orlando Bloom is just a trophy for Elizabeth to lose and pine for, and then tuck under her arm at the movie’s end. Seriously, it doesn’t matter.
So that’s that for the movie I didn’t watch strung out on acid; and onto the ones that I did. Dead Man’s Chest also opens with Elizabeth (because she’s our secret protagonist), this time at her rained-on, broken-up wedding. To which you might be inclined to think oh, of course they have to water down the female character by making her pine for her lost wedding day, but fear not; the point of this is for our hero be motivated by love; not treasure or revenge or power or prestige – all these things will come her way in time, but at the beginning her motive must be pure. She is a hero and therefore she seeks true love, through which her destiny of adventure shall find her. And yes, you could quibble over her choice of Orlando Bloom, but it’s just something we’re going to have to deal with; who knows, maybe she fell in love with him as Legolas – certainly she wouldn’t be the first.
After that a Pirates of the Caribbean movie happens, so it can be a little hard to follow everything; what with the cartoonishly horrible racism and fucking Jack Sparrow acting like we’re not going to get waaaaaay sick of his shit in the decade to come. But threaded through all this, a golden thread through the labyrinth of shit, is Elizabeth Swann, who fucking straight up owns every single thing she comes across.
‘Oh, what’s that? Official pardons and letters of marque? I’ll steal those by pistol-point, thank you very much, and then disguise myself as a boy to stowaway on a ship and sail for Tortuga. Then I’ll be the one to make Jack’s magical compass work to point me in the direction of the titular Dead Man’s Chest, quietly saving the entire movie in the process.’
The best is at the end, however.
That’s when she saves literally everyone by betraying Jack and chaining him to be devoured by the Kraken. And how does she effect this betrayal? Like a fucking boss is how; with guile and deception and a wicked-sexy goodbye kiss.
“I’m not sorry,” she says, even though it’s pretty obvious that she’s sorry. Heroes get to be sorry, after they’ve TCB’d the living shit out of everything on screen. Jack’s response to all this is one word, which he bestows with something near pride, as if knighting a squire or awarding a diploma: “Pirate.”
And yeah, that’s true; while she’s definitely a pirate now, it’s still telling that in the movie’s last scene, where they all resolve to fetch Jack back from ‘the weird and haunted shores’, Elizabeth is the only one to say ‘yes’ while those around her say ‘aye’ – her transformation is not yet complete, and she still has a foot in her old life.
At World’s End does not begin with Elizabeth.
Instead, rather jarringly, we get a noose and the hanging of a 10 year old boy, along with an implied hundreds of other people who have been guilty-until-proven-innocent-accused of being Pirates. It’s a meandering and ultimately pointless prologue that only serves to pad the running time of this obnoxiously long film, as well as create a delightfully jarring dissonance between the Disney logo and the opening shot, pictured above.
When the real movie begins five minutes later, it is of course Elizabeth with whom we open, only now she looks like this:
We can see immediately the passage of time, from her carriage and the look in her eye, it’s apparent that this Elizabeth has undergone a bit more seasoning than when we left her last. Indeed, while undergoing a strip search moments later, we see that she’s concealing a personal arsenal: at least five pistols on her person, and a grenade for good measure. Looks like our little girl’s all grown up.
Now, it should go without saying, but right around here is again where a Pirates of the Caribbean movie happens, with all the needless plotting, racist caricatures and relentlessly-redundant comic relief that such a movie implies. A lot of bloat, in other words. From Singapore to Davy Jones’s Locker to Shipwreck Cove to wherever we went after that (honestly you can blame the drugs, but I can’t properly recall). From sub-plots, to sub-sub-plots, to exposition and double-crosses, and triple-crosses, and that meta-commentary cameo that’s as pointless as it is prolonged and of which the less is said the better… the film as a whole is an exhausting, meandering slog.
(And just to make sure it wasn’t my unique mental state tripping me up, I read a few of the reviews of the time and no, I was not expected to truly follow or care what was happening here with anybody. This is a bullshit movie by any measure.)
But like a diamond in the flaw, at it’s core this movie completes the arc of Elizabeth Swann, and it’s by following and investing in her journey that an enjoyable time can be salvaged from this clusterfuck. Because, dude, Elizabeth Swann is fucking amazing in this movie.
After saving Orlando Bloom in Singapore, the two finally catch a moment below decks while they’re all trapped in the Locker (no it doesn’t make any sense, no it doesn’t matter). This is our first indication that, below the surface, Elizabeth is still grieving Jack deeply. Thus far Orlando has jealously interpreted this as capital-L love, but now he knows it was in fact guilt. A deep, overriding guilt which I think speaks well of her overall heroism; she made the tough call and saved the lives of the group over that of a single man. It was the right call, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t regret it, and will literally go to the ends of the earth to make it right.
Already, all of our massive cast of ascended extras have their machinations and plots in motion; Jack, Calypso, Barbossa, Beckett. (Don’t worry about any names you don’t recognize or remember, it doesn’t matter.) Orlando Bloom’s character himself has a convoluted multi-movie motivation for all the shadiness he’s been up to. Through them all, however, Elizabeth’s purpose is the purest: as in the previous movie she wants to rescue a man that she loves from danger.
“If you make your choices alone, how can I trust you?” Orlando Bloom’s character asks, still thinking this movie trilogy is about him.
“You can’t,” says Elizabeth, like a Pirate, and then just walks off because she’s done with it. She has her own shit to deal with without worrying about the moody, bitter recluse her boyfriend has turned into in the past movie and a half.
Specifically, she has to cross a massive threshold in her own character development. The movie just blows right by it, but we’re not, because this is another one of those things that the writers either planned from the start like geniuses, or just fell backwards into like lucky assholes.
In the next scene Elizabeth sees the ghost of her father float by in a small boat; that’s how she learns she’s been orphaned, and that the last tie between her and her former life is now severed. From the opening scene of the franchise (“I’m concerned about the effect this subject will have upon my daughter”), Governor Weatherby Swann has wanted a very different life for his daughter than was her destiny. And though obviously a loving and well-meaning and doting father, he still spent many years trying to force a square peg into a round hole; controlling the conversation, as it were.
Her only real doubts in the past movie and a half were early on in Dead Man’s Chest when her father urges her to work within the law and establishment, exhibiting a faith in the institutions that have now betrayed him to his death. More than just the death of her father then, this is the death of that entire world for her, and from here on out we see she goes full-pirate in response. With nothing to hold her back any longer, she’s now free to become her true self.
Now, there is this bit of unpleasantness we need to deal with, wherein the Fu Manchu stereotype played by Chow Yun-Fat tries to rape Elizabeth Swann. I would love to blow right past this -as the movie itself does- but since it leads to actual super-important shit we’ll dive into it; hold our noses, and give it the serious side-eye it deserves.
Here’s the set-up: our crew have returned from Davy Jones’s Locker where they are double-crossed and captured by Sao Feng (said racist stereotype) who is one of the nine Pirate Lords. Sao Feng has been collaborating with the East India Company who are themselves trying to wipe out Piracy on the High Seas. On the deck of the ship, Feng defends this treachery by pointing out that Beckett and East India are kindof owning this whole thing, and he intends to be on the winning side. Barbossa says ‘but wait!, our side has Calypso, goddess of the sea in human form’, and you can see that from the looks he gives, that Feng thinks our Elizabeth is Calypso. He names her as his price to switch sides.
Elizabeth, like the hero she is, agrees to be Feng’s prisoner to gain freedom for her friends. Will’s not cool with it though. “Elizabeth,” he protests, “they’re pirates.”
“I have had more than enough experience dealing with pirates,” she informs him.
So now Elizabeth is prisoner aboard his flagship, the Empress, and has been given a pretty dope outfit:
Sao Feng saunters in and after a bit of backstory on Calypso and some creepy blocking, we get this exchange of dialogue:
Feng: I offer only my desire.
Swann: And in return?
F: I would have your gifts, should you choose to give them.
S: And if I choose not?
F: Then I will take… your fury!
And then he sexually assaults her.
I’m going with the legal (and proper) definition here, that sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. In this case, Feng pushes Elizabeth back against the mast, grabs her head in both hands and violently kisses her. She bites his face and knocks him back. Then, as he steps forward to resume the assault (with Elizabeth standing her ground I would add) he is suddenly and unexpectedly shot in the face with a cannon.
Now, this is because the Empress is now under attack from Davy Jones’s Flying Dutchman because blah blah blah Pirates of the Caribbean, but the main upshot is that Sao Feng (believing this to be divine punishment) gives Elizabeth his Piece of Eight, tells her to represent him at the Brethren Court and makes her Captain. That’s right, Captain Swann motherfuckers. Shit just got real.
A tertiary side effect of this sudden turn of events is that we don’t have to go farther down that road of attempted rape in a Disney movie, nor examine the causes and consequences of historical rape, rape culture, or indeed consider Elizabeth’s feeling on the matter in the slightest.
So our newly minted Captain Swann is captured, and then escapes, and finally arrives dramatically at the Brethren Court having already mastered the subtle art of making an entrance:
She brings the critical news that the East India Company knows where they are and are on their way. Her proposal – that they fight despite the odds – is literally laughed down; but in fairness, nobody’s plan receives unanimous support. Most want to hunker down, Barbossa wants to release Calypso, and Jack Sparrow comes down on the side of Elizabeth, but with the added proviso that they fight… to run away.
In the end they must elect a Pirate King to decide, an act that hasn’t happened since the first Brethren Court because Pirate Lords only ever vote for themselves, so every election ends in a tie. Not this time, though: Captain Sparrow casts his vote for Elizabeth, giving her a total of two votes to everyone else’s one, and Long Live the Pirate King. Elizabeth Swann has arrived at her destiny, completing the journey begun when she was a little girl, dreaming of pirates and resisting the efforts of the world to make her into something she wasn’t. Now, she is.
“Prepare every vessel that floats. At dawn, we’re at war.”
When the East India Fleet arrives the Pirates are ready and waiting for them, but it quickly turns out they are massively outnumbered. A parley is organized, at which Beckett gives the following proposal: They can fight and all of them can die, or they can surrender and only most of them will die.
Captain Swann, King of the Brethern Court dismisses this entirely. “You killed my father.”
“He chose his own fate.”
“And you have chosen yours,” she says, throwing it right back. “We will fight, and you will die.”
She is such a badass, omg you guys. It’s a pity then, that Barbossa double-crosses her to exact his own plan of freeing Calypso because this plan backfires horribly; although it does lead directly into our finale rousing action sequence, so there’s that. After growing to the size of a building and then exploding into hermit crabs (it’s a weird sequence, I’m not gonna lie) the freed Calypso vanishes and a fell wind picks up.
The plan has failed (it was a pretty stupid plan) and Barbossa, scurvy knave that he is, wants to cut and run. “Revenge won’t bring your father back,” he says, “and it’s not something I’m willing to die for.”
And that’s when the Pirate King gives the Speech, which I will now quote in full, because it’s a perfectly fine example of the Token Hollywood Speech to Inspire One’s Troops in the Face of Insurmountable Odds:
Then, what shall we die for? You will listen to me! Listen! The Brethren will still be looking here, to us, to the Black Pearl, to lead. And what will they see? Frightened bilge rats aboard a derelict ship? No. No, they will see free men and freedom! And what the enemy will see is the flash of our cannons. They will hear the ring of our swords, and they will know what we can do. By the sweat of our brows and the strength of our backs, and the courage of our hearts. Gentlemen. Hoist the colors!
On a scale of Braveheart to Independence Day, Elizabeth Swann holds her own; fuck it, actually, have a video and see for yourself, it’s only her moment of crowning glory after all:
So there you have it; from Governor’s daughter to Pirate King and General in just three overlong films. That’s the end and we can all go home now.
Except no, we can’t, because there’s still forty minutes left in this thing, a climactic battle between a massive Pirate fleet (everything that floats, remember) and an even massiver East India fleet and, wait:
Why are the Flying Dutchman and the Black Pearl just sailing alone toward each other? That’s a whirlpool forming between them which is bad news that we’ll get to in a moment, but you can see the East India fleet bobbing along way in the background, as if both parties decided to fight the battle one ship at a time.
I don’t want to criticize King Elizabeth (whom I love) but this seems like a peculiar strategy; I would have sailed all my ships forward and fucking blown the Flying Dutchman to bits, and I’d be screaming like a maniac the whole time to put the fear of God in my enemy’s hearts. And it’s possible – likely even – that Her Majesty would have come around to this way of thinking. We’ll never know because that’s when the maelstrom happens and everything goes to shit. Elizabeth immediately turns to the most experienced Captain -Barbossa – and gives him the wheel, which I think is a bamf move all it’s own and just as praiseworthy as a rousing speech. Calculated decisions that put ego aside to serve the greater good is good leadership, says I.
So the ships are circling each other down the drain, there’s lashing wind and rain and spray, everyone’s screaming orders to fire, cannons blast, wood splinters, bodies fly.
At some point in this chaos, the crew of the Dutchman somehow manages to board the Pearl, so that our hero and her companions are now fighting on deck. Amidst the dance of choreographed swordplay, Orlando Bloom proposes that they get married, right there and then; quickly warming to the idea, Elizabeth drafts Captain Barbossa to perform the ceremony. They exchange vows amid a hail of swordblows, like Pirates. And then they kiss:It’s a long, epic, camera-panning kiss and they’re honestly both lucky they weren’t killed right there. They aren’t though, and after a good deal more fighting, Elizabeth switches ships just in time to save Jack’s life as he fight Davey Jones. Because that’s our girl, and it’s all’s well that ends well except, wait, oh no, her new husband just got stabbed in the heart.
It works out though, for the most part; I won’t bore you with the details, much. Suffice it to say that Orlando Bloom’s character becomes the new Captain of the Dutchman, just in time to switch sides and help blast the shit out of the Endeavor, which has also just sailed out on it’s lonesome despite having an entire armada at it’s command. It’s curious. Handy though, because this way Beckett gets blasted to shit also, and King Elizabeth gets vengeance for her slain father, wrapping up her business nicely. After the Endeavor explodes there’s an extended cheering sequence across all the Pirate ships, even though none of them took part in the battle. And the Armada just leaves? I guess? Like the vanishing Maelstrom and Calypso, it’s not even mentioned because this movie is fucking stupid.
As a last bit of business, she and Orlando Bloom consummate their marriage before he fucks off for ten years as part of his undead contract as Captain of the Dutchman. There’s some brilliant, femdom erotica begging to be written about what must have been one day of near constant fucking, but Disney leaves it up to our imagination. It’s not hard to imagine though:
And that truly is that. Whether by accident or design, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy gave us a swashbuckling feminist icon, who would not be told her place, but instead blazes her own trail, carving her own path to the top to become – as Joseph Campbell would put it – Master of Two Worlds. She goes from almost being murdered by her corset in the first film to, well, all the myriad kick-ass things I described in excruciating detail above.
If these movies had been a little more focused, and a lot less in love with Jack’s shenanigans, and Will’s quest to save his father, and the antics of at least a half-dozen unnecessary comic-relief characters, it’s very possible these films would be remembered as modern classics, instead of being mostly forgotten.
They do have a darker legacy though, in the history of sequels and summer blockbusters. While far from the first of their kind, these things made such insane money despite their critical reception that Hollywood was now locked into this business model of bombastic, 3 hour-long, labyrinthian-plotted clusterfucks. Every Transformers sequel, or Batman V Superman owes it’s existence in part to the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean, and our movie landscape is the poorer for it.
As a strange epilogue to this overlong post, I’d like to point out an interesting confluence between art and life. In 2007, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at a now legendary keynote address. This was the unveiling of a product that would change the world and I’ve loaded it up at 20:20 so you can see for yourself:
“Let’s play Pirates of the Caribbean, the second one here – great movie by the way.”
Now, I love my iPhone but Steve Jobs has no idea what the fuck he is talking about here.