Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

Pearls Before Swine

An action-adventure movie based on a kids ride at a theme park is hiding a real national treasure.


Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.

—Marshall McLuhan

By the end of the twentieth century, the Walt Disney Company seemed all out of story. They had exhausted every option available to them:

1.) remaking old favorites (Herbie the Love Bug, Cheaper by the Dozen)

2.) buying new properties for cheap (such as the Winnie the Pooh franchise from Sears)

3.) hit-and-missing with new material (Pocohontas. Mulan. Hercules?)

4.) recycling their animated properties into live action films (101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book)

5.) making sequels, prequels, and midquels enough to kill the most avid fan (Long John Silver, 102 Dalmatians, Hercules: From Zero to Hero)

6.) recycling a live action film into an animated film.

Nobody believed this last one could be done, but by 2002, when Treasure Planet came out, the wailing and gnashing of teeth for the glory that was Disney became audible. As if it couldn’t get any worse, the company then turned pathetically to a technique no one had considered before in the quest for novel storylines: 7.) their own theme parks.

First came The Country Bears in 2002, based on the Country Bears Jamboree show, with one bear channeling Jerry Garcia and the rest of them channeling The Eagles. Then, in what looked like a final act of desperation, 2003 saw the release of Pirates of the Caribbean, a ride most people remembered as being not terribly fun even when they were eleven years old.

Wait a minute. Just a sec.

Did you just say, “Pirates of the Caribbean?

I love that movie!

Hang on . . . Oh now I remember: Everyone loved that movie:

  • Gross Receipts for Treasure Planet: $109 million
  • Gross Receipts for Pirates of the Caribbean: $654 million
  • Gross Receipts for the entire Pirates franchise: $2.7 billion

Why the sudden turnaround and change of fortune? It’s because these movies aren’t based on a ride at the theme park. Just as the 2001 Planet of the Apes was not a remake of the 1968 Charlton Heston original but rather a remake of the 1956 Charlton Heston film The Ten Commandments, so too is Pirates of the Caribbean doing something exceedingly clever, original, and startling. It’s not a narrative makeover of a Disney ride; it’s a remake of the ride of your life. Pirates of the Caribbean is an allegory of the current politico-economic system—executed so beautifully, so stylishly, and so accurately that no one has recognized it for what it is. Until now.

If you bought the line (from the DVD’s extras) that the writers of Shrek just made up Pirates of the Caribbean as they went along, then it’s time to watch it again. Because when you look closer, what you discover is a plot so complex, dialogue so precise, characters so cleverly named, and a narrative so perfectly structured that you can no longer view it as just a random series of swashbuckling action-adventure moments strung together by tight bodice close-ups and powderkeg explosions. So where does the plot come from, who are these characters, and why the need for “undead” pirates? How can this story be so intricate, detailed, and complex if it is little more than a desperate bid to spice up a tired and worn-out genre?

The reason is simple. Pirates is a story about water, and we are the fish. As someone famous once said, we don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t a fish. When something is everywhere, you don’t see it. Ubiquity is invisibility. And it is this very fact that it is a story about something so familiar that makes it such a compelling and enjoyable film. So we let down our guard in the false belief we are partaking in an ancient tale about fictional characters in exotic locales, only to find that we resonate with these very characters and the strangely familiar reality they inhabit.

Best pirates ever

Our guide on this journey is Captain Jack Sparrow, a minister of the New Covenant who is as adept with the word as he is with the sword. Actual acts of piracy we witness him commit in a movie all about pirates: One. Near the beginning we do see him run off with someone else’s ship. At that point we can at least agree that he’s “got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.”

But he is still just a pirate, so can he truly be our hero? One of the amazing achievements of the film is that it keeps us questioning right up to the bitter end who the real hero is, or indeed, if there is any hero or actual “good guy” at all.

Initially, we want Will to be our hero, especially when we see how courageously he fights to rid the world of the scourge of piracy. And as the boy of low estate who secretly loves the woman of high breeding, he seems the natural choice. But before long we find that Will is Jack’s understudy, and not only must he come to terms with his piratical parentage, but he is soon all too eager to betray the very teacher who has done him no wrong.

Once Will whacks Jack over the head with an oar in the pirate cave, we find ourselves lost in the middle of an adventure without any hero to guide us at all. This sense of unease is intentional. It is designed to help us come to terms with the fact that we are all pirates, and thus we must all learn from Jack how to be the best possible pirates we can be.

The fun part about telling a story to fish about water is that it is unnecessary to hide the “hidden” meaning. Quite the opposite, in fact. So if the real-life meaning you wish to communicate is that the walking dead are under a curse because they took some gold coins and spent them, then here’s how to hide the meaning from them: make a movie that shows the walking dead under a curse because they took some gold coins and spent them.

The audience can’t see it because the audience can’t see it. The movie goes on and nobody in the audience has any idea . . .

Drink up, because now I’ll have to repeat what I was just about to say:

You are a pirate.

You are among the walking dead.

You entered this condition because some gold coins were spent.

Water, water everywhere

You did take a drink back there, didn’t you? It’s important to dull the pain by making the unbelievable tolerable through laughter. Jack prepares us for this right at the start of the story:

Mullroy: What’s your purpose in Port Royal, Mr. Smith?

Murtogg: Yeah. And no lies.

Jack: Well, then, I confess, it is my intention to commandeer one of these ships, pick up a crew in Tortuga, raid, pillage, plunder and otherwise pilfer my weasely black guts out!

Murtogg: I said no lies!

Mullroy: I think he’s telling the truth.

Murtogg: If he were telling the truth, he wouldn’t have told us.

Jack: Unless, of course, he knew you wouldn’t believe the truth even if he told it to you.

Since Scripture of old, the key to interpreting any text is always found within the text itself. Pirates can disclose the absolute truth to us, without alteration, because that truth is too fantastic for us to believe. After all, who among us actually believes we are under a curse? Nobody. Of course not. It was a silly suggestion. So let’s just read on now about the curse the crew of the Black Pearl is under, secure in the knowledge that any fanciful “interpretation” of that curse could not possibly be applied to us. You’re here for entertainment, not enlightenment, which is what pulled you into the cinema of Plato’s cave in the first place, right? Why spend five hours a day in the cave if not to avoid the light and stay in the dark?

Our guide through the dark is Captain Barbossa, as despicable and loathsome a bad guy as ever graced the silver screen. We initially take comfort in having a real bad guy we can hate, and whose penchant for evil is predictable . . . until, that is, we figure out that he never tells a lie. This makes him a bad guy whose word we trust even more than some of the good guys. So consistent is he that even when accused of lying, he immediately proves himself blameless:

Pintel: [to Elizabeth] Go on, Poppet, go! Walk the plank!

Will: Barbossa, you lying bastard! You swore she’d go free!

Barbossa: Don’t dare impugn me honor, boy. I agreed she’d go free, but it was you who failed to specify when or where.

As you will recall, the curse was placed upon coins made of real gold, and it was through spending and trading away these gold coins that the pirates lost their ability to enjoy living. Yet they did not and could not die either. Captain Barbossa takes up the longest monologue in the film explaining this to Elizabeth:

Elizabeth: I hardly believe in ghost stories any more, Captain Barbossa.

Barbossa: Aye. That’s exactly what I thought when we were first told the tale. Buried on an Island of Dead what cannot be found except for those who know where it is. Find it, we did. There be the chest. Inside be the gold. And we took ’em all. We spent ’em and traded ’em and frittered ’em away on drink and food and pleasurable company. The more we gave ’em away, the more we came to realize—the drink would not satisfy, food turned to ash in our mouths, and all the pleasurable company in the world could not slake our lust. We are cursed men, Miss Turner. Compelled by greed, we were, but now we are consumed by it.

[Elizabeth takes a butter knife and hides it]

There is one way we can end our curse. All the scattered pieces of the Aztec gold must be restored and the blood repaid. Thanks to ye, we have the final piece.

Elizabeth: And the blood to be repaid?

Barbossa: That’s why there’s no sense to be killin’ ye—yet. [offers her an apple] Apple? Arr.

[she stabs him with the knife; he takes it out]

I’m curious—after killin’ me what was it you were plannin’ on doing next?

[she runs out and sees the pirates, all skeletons under the full moon]

Look! The moonlight shows us for what we really are. We are not among the living, and so we cannot die, but neither are we dead. For too long I’ve been parched with thirst and unable to quench it. Too long I’ve been starving to death and haven’t died. I feel nothing—not the wind on my face, nor the spray of the sea, nor the warmth of a woman’s flesh. [walks out into the moonlight and reveals himself as a skeleton]

You best start believing in ghost stories Miss Turner. You’re in one!

So those who don’t believe in ghost stories soon fall victim to them. First the pirates, and now Elizabeth. Reality eventually makes a believer out of the most hardened skeptics. Even in the dark, the glow of the moon is enough to enlighten us.

Will you?

But what in this far-fetched tale, you ask, has the slightest basis in reality? Yes, it explains the curse to us, but surely such a fantastic story is just the work of an over-active imagination. It resembles nothing from our everyday lives, does it?

Sorry you asked.

For the answer, we must visit our friendly local lawyer and ask how much he charges to draft a Will. Then we can get our money’s worth by asking him more questions than he’s ever had from a client. Check his answers against those below:

Q: What does a Will create?

A: An Estate.

Q: What is an Estate?

A: It is a legal construct to hold your property (everything you own) after you die.

Q: Why do I need a Will or an Estate?

A: Because your Will appoints an Executor to manage your Estate (holding your property) according to your instructions, usually by distributing the property to your heirs in the manner directed in your Will. Otherwise the government appoints an Administrator who follows standard rules that won’t necessarily be what you wanted. Without a Will, some of your heirs could end up with nothing.

Q: What is an Executor?

A: An Executor is a person appointed by you who gets to deal with your property as if he were you. His only limitation is that he must follow the instructions in your Will. An Administrator has exactly the same power to act as if he were you, but is appointed by the government and must follow instructions found in statutes (written laws), in absence of a Will.

Q: So an Estate creates a situation where all my worldly goods (and land) are controlled by someone else after I die, because I am no longer able to control them?

A: You’ve got it!

Q: Should I leave my metallic mint green 1964 Buick Skylark to my cousin Vinny?

A: Ah, finally, a normal question.

Leaving aside the rest of the normal questions for now, we only have one third of the picture painted so far. The normal part. People die, and those people are . . . dead. So Estate law is the law that deals with dead people and their property. Hardly worthy of a ghost story.

Estate law for the . . . living

Now that we’ve met dashing, young Will, we need to meet his pirate father, Bootstrap Bill. A Will creates an Estate, whereas a Bill creates a debt. And you thought they were both short for William!

Debt is fine if you are able to pay it, but when you cannot pay, the law comes along once again and starts meddling in your private affairs. In the olden, golden days, money was gold and an unpaid debt was tantamount to theft. So off you went to debtor’s prison. The harshness of the common law is the stuff that Charles Dickens built his writing career on.

So what happened? Where are Dickens’s debtor’s prisons today? It appears that too many people read his stories, and agreed that there had to be a better way. We call that better way . . . Bankruptcy.

And bankruptcy law is where things start to get interesting. Next we must visit another lawyer for advice on declaring bankruptcy. Let’s bring in all our credit card statements and tell him we can’t pay them.

Q: What happens once I am declared bankrupt?

A: The government appoints an administrator who takes all your property and divides it up among your creditors.

Q: Can I keep my holiday home in Hawaii?

A: No, all of your worldly goods (and land) must be given to the Administrator so he can pay off as much of your debt as possible.

Q: This doesn’t sound like such a good deal after all.

A: Do you agree it is a better deal than going to prison until every last penny is repaid?

Q: Agree. So how does the Administrator decide who to pay and how much?

A: You give him all of your Bills, and those show him who your creditors are. He uses what assets you have available to pay each creditor in proportion to the amount owed on his Bill.

Q: What if I want one creditor paid completely before anyone else gets paid?

A: Sorry, you have no control whatsoever over this process. Your property has been taken out of your control and given to the Administrator who holds it in a Bankruptcy Estate and deals with it in your place.

Q: Loss of control? Administrator? Estate? Hey, what are you smoking? This sounds just like Estate law. I’m not dead!

A: Correct. Bankruptcy law is Estate law. Bankruptcy kills you on paper so that your property can be dealt with as if you were dead, even though you are not. Your creditors simply take the place of your heirs.

Q: So you mean if I spent some gold coins and didn’t pay them back, I could be bankrupted, and I would be treated as if I were dead even though I was not, and the only way to end this curse is to pay back every last gold coin?

A: You’ve been watching too many movies.

So a Will creates an Estate, and an unpaid Bill creates a Bankruptcy Estate, and they are in fact related, just like father and son . . .

. . . and anyone under bankruptcy protection is the walking dead.


Interesting, you think. A bit spooky even. But then you smugly retort, “I’ve never been declared bankrupt!”

Watch out for the water, my fishies. You might be all wet without knowing it. Reality will sneak up on you when you least expect it. Remember, we have only seen two-thirds of this picture so far.

The third lawyer we must visit in order to complete the picture is one familiar with the nuances of contract law.

Q: Is it true that a contract between two parties is not enforceable unless each party has given the other something of value, also called “valuable consideration”?

A: Yes, of course.

Q: So if buy something of value, and pay for it with a piece of paper with numbers on it, how have I provided valuable consideration? Does the paper have value?

A: Well no, not exactly.

Q: So how come we can still enforce contracts where the monetary payment does not consist of gold or silver coins that have intrinsic value?

A: Can I see the contract you want me to review for you?

Alas, there is little chance of finding a lawyer who can explain this last bit for us. But with a bit of research into the history of money, we can confirm the following:

When people had gold and silver coins, they liked to store them in banks for safe keeping. The banker gave them a receipt that could be exchanged for the coin, called a promissory note. He also accepted their written instructions to pay the coin to a third party, called a check. People started accepting promissory notes and checks in place of the coins themselves, because of the convenience and because they could always get the coin out of the bank if they really wanted it. These banking papers became known collectively as “negotiable instruments,” and law developed to govern their use. Soon the average man thought of those bits of paper the same way he thought about the gold and silver coins that actually made his contracts enforceable.

But there was a price to be paid. A court of common law could only enforce contracts with valuable consideration on both sides. If a dispute involving negotiable instruments came to a court of common law, the one who paid with paper would lose every time. Thus these disputes could only be heard in a different jurisdiction, one that recognized negotiable instruments: a court of maritime law. Consequently, when one accepted the convenience of negotiable instruments, he also accepted maritime law as the law governing his contracts.

So you’re out to sea, and it’s the pirate’s life for thee.

Back on land, the common law protects a man’s right to “life, liberty and property,” but when the U.S. Declaration of Independence was written, it made a curious substitution. It merely affirmed a man’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Apparently the right to property was already under heavy fire in 1776. If you don’t believe that your right to property has been compromised, just try building a house on “your” land without getting permission from the relevant authorities. Or try not handing over a portion of your hard-earned pay with each pay check.

Today we cannot exchange our negotiable instruments for gold or silver coins at all. Gold coins were removed from circulation in 1933. This happened in every single country across the globe in the same year. Could it be that the entire planet was bankrupted that year? Well, Yes. Either that, or it was the greatest theft in the history of mankind, and the perpetrators have yet to be caught.

Uncharted waters

We now all trade under bankruptcy protection using negotiable instruments, which makes us the walking dead. Argh! We no longer get to enjoy the benefits of living, which are our property rights formerly protected by the common law. But if we want to trade commercially and have our contracts enforced, we have no other option in a bankrupted nation. Don’t like the water? Have some more rum.

Now for maritime law to apply, there has to be a ship, because the law of the sea applies to ships, not to men and women on the land. So somewhere along the line you were given a ship and taught how to navigate it. Your ship is quite easy to find, as it is the foundational document for every last contract you have signed. Especially with the government. If you want anything from the government, what do you have to present? A driver’s license? Passport? Close, but what did you have to have in order to get those? That’s right:

A Berth Certificate! Your ship was berthed the day you were born.

What’s that? Yours says “Birth” and you think that the “i” makes it a different word? Well, Mr. Webster, who wrote the original dictionary of American English in 1828, says otherwise.

And you will find on most documents, especially those issued by the government or involving the courts, that your name is written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, just like the name of a ship. The contract is with your ship, not with you. You are merely the Captain, . . . provided you remind people of this fact often and consistently, just like Jack does. You have traded the benefits of living, the protections of the common law, for the benefits of a ship that can operate commercially under bankruptcy protection, using maritime law.

[in the cabin of the Interceptor] Elizabeth: [trying to bandage her palm] What sort of a man trades a man’s life for a ship?

Will: A pirate.

But enough darkness. Step into the light of day, with our unlikely hero Jack Sparrow. He has somehow managed to escape this curse. Was it merely a twist of fate, or is it something more fundamental, like his very approach to life?

Fast forward to the final battle scene in the pirate cave. There we see Jack gladly accept the benefit of “limited liability protection” offered by the curse. Clearly he sees it differently to Barbossa, who just wants it lifted. To Jack, even when under a curse, one must wait “for the opportune moment.” So he levels the playing field by operating in bankruptcy while fighting Barbossa, and then chooses the exact moment for lifting the curse, by repaying his debt to the heathen gods at the same time he repays Barbossa with a single shot through the heart.

Here is a man who does not think like us, and so we cannot figure him out right up to the bitter end. But lest there still be doubt in our minds, he sorts through the treasure and comes forward to Will and Elizabeth with a golden chalice and crown, looking every bit the misunderstood Messiah figure he actually is.

Jack has happily traded his life for a ship, as he told Elizabeth while they were marooned:

Jack: Not just the Spanish Main, love. The entire ocean. The entire world. Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is, what the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.

Negotiable instruments

Jack not only guides Will into the knowledge that he is a pirate. He teaches him how to be a “good” pirate—and in the process he teaches us as well. We too, learn that we are pirates, no matter how strongly we deny it. If we stop denying that reality we can learn from Jack how to be the best pirates we can be.

A good pirate knows that everything is negotiable. We watch as again and again Jack successfully negotiates his way out of seemingly impossible predicaments. To do this, one must have courage, confidence, and knowledge of the cards one holds that the other side desperately needs. A sword is useful, but knowledge is power, and so it is always his words that cause Jack to prevail in the end.

A good pirate lives by The Code. But he also knows there is a higher moral code that cannot be breached in the name of “keeping to The Code”. So written rules are good, as far as they go. But in the end, they are just guidelines.

A good pirate must be a man of his word. This is a point Jack makes leading into his final battle with Barbossa, and one that we finally believe, having seen that he never did give Will, or any of us, a reason not to trust him.

Barbossa: I must admit, Jack , I thought I had ye figured. But it turns out that you’re a hard man to predict.

Jack: Me? I’m dishonest. And a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It’s the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they’re going to do something incredibly . . . stupid. [unsheathes a pirate’s sword and throws it to Will; Jack starts fighting with Barbossa]

Barbossa: You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters.

And finally, a good pirate must never steal. Getting stuff for free is not a problem, but stealing is out. Remember Jack’s one act of piracy? According to him, it was not stealing at all:

Will: [Looking at the Interceptor] We’re going to steal the ship?

[Looks over to the Dauntless, where Jack is looking] That ship?

Jack: Commandeer. We’re going to commandeer that ship [pointing towards the Interceptor]. Nautical term.

What looks like piracy to us is not piracy to Jack. And yes, the word used does change everything. But let’s pick up this lesson at Tortuga, whilst meeting Jack’s new crew.

Anna Maria: You stole my boat!

Jack: Actually, . . . [Receives a second slap to the face]. Borrowed. Borrowed without permission. But with every intention of bringing it back.

Let’s end for now with the first time we met Jack Sparrow, and what he did that gave us the mistaken first impression that he was nothing more than a common, petty scallywag.

Upon entering Port Royale, he is immediately accosted by a bureaucrat who demands contract terms from him. It is a dubious contract at best, as Jack’s boat is now at the bottom of the harbor. But Jack does not argue. Instead, he negotiates the terms, and is even willing to pay more.

Harbormaster: [to Jack] What? Hey. Hold up, there, you! It’s a shilling to tie up your boat at the dock. [they both look at the sunken boat] And I shall need to know your name.

Jack: [hands him three shillings] What d’ye say to three shillings, and we forget the name?

Harbormaster: Welcome to Port Royal, Mr. Smith. [Jack walks past the Harbormaster’s podium, sees the Harbormaster’s money pouch and takes it]

If we listen carefully while Jack shakes it, we will hear [clink, clink] that there are almost certainly three shillings in that purse he lifted off the Harbormaster’s podium. So Jack has not stolen at all. He has merely balanced the books. The transaction cost him nothing. Is this the reason he did not argue? Did he know all along that it would work out this way?

Is it the theme and purpose of the Pirates movies to show us a world where everything is free? And if this is a movie about water, are we fishies already swimming in it, having never realized that all we need is right here, all around us, in limitless supply?

Drink up, me hearties, Yo Ho! :::

Snodgrass made a decision ten years ago to live as if everything was free, even if it wasn’t. As a consequence of the problem of too-much-time-on-his-hands that this created, he frittered his days away reading legal tomes and watching children’s movies.

His first epiphany came when he thought, “Hey, this is just like The Matrix”, while reading a legal treatise on jurisdiction.” Initially scared to watch Pirates because of the skeletons, he relented after he found that he had learned less about money from all his law books than a close friend knew after a few viewings of Curse of the Black Pearl.

posted by editor ::: May 01, 2011 ::: philms :::