RECAP: Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean (2003): Gore Verbinski

Yo ho yo ho a pirate’s life for me.

So begins the out-of-nowhere leviathan that became the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. From its start as a fun, water-based ride in Disney’s Magic Kingdom, this movie, the original, spawned four sequels (and counting?), grossed more than $4.5 billion worldwide, and remade Johnny Depp into a Keith Richards clone. Quite the success.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A loopy pirate recruits a reluctant blacksmith and a governor’s daughter to help him capture a cursed pirate ship roaming the British-era Caribbean. 

Hero (9/10)

Johnny Depp helps give Captain (make sure you say the “captain” part) Jack Sparrow one of the all-time best character introductions.

Outside the docks of Port Royal (on an unnamed island in the Caribbean) we see Jack standing beside the crow’s nest of a ship. Until the camera pans back and we see it’s a tiny boat, and that boat is filling with water. Jack scrambles down to dump water out.

Classic entrance for Captain Jack Sparrow.

Jack realizes his quest will fail, so he climbs up the mast again. The boat slowly sinks as it coasts toward a Port Royal dock, sinks at exactly the proper speed, so that Jack can step from the sinking boat onto the deck at the same level. A brilliant entrance that Jack pulls off with the confidence of a British fleet admiral stepping onto Napoleon’s command ship.

Jack removes his cap to honor hanged pirates and steals a bag of coins from the dock clerk. We know he’s a pirate, but he’s an odd bird so has our affections.

It’s not long before we learn other things about Captain Jack Sparrow: he appears to be the worst pirate in history, yet, he’s perhaps the most famous pirate around and, also, its best. Confused? So are the members of the Royal Navy.

Consider the stealing of the Navy’s newest toy, the fastest ship on the ocean, the Interceptor. Jack arrives in Port Royal to steal said vessel, tied up at the same docks as his boat (so to speak, as it now rests on the bottom of the sea).

As most of the soldiers and sailors in town are attending Norrington’s (Jack Davenport) promotion to Commodore, Sparrow finds only two dullards blocking his route to the ship. They tell him civilians are not allowed on the docks. Jack responds, “If I see one I shall inform you immediately.” They almost fall for that.

Jack tells the two redcoats that he’s planning to steal the Interceptor. He has little reason to lie, and I don’t think Jack Sparrow, sorry–Captain Jack Sparrow–lies once during the movie, because his truths are too fanciful to believe. Who would try to steal a ship-of-the-line all alone and tell someone they were going to do it?

Many events transpire before we return to the stealing of the Interceptor. Jack finds a recruit in local blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, trading archery for fencing) to help steal the ship.

Will and Jack use an overturned boat as a primitive scuba system and weight to walk on the seafloor toward another ship at anchor in the harbor called the Dauntless. The two men climb the ropes and inform the crew that they will steal the ship. They are laughed at.

Some hijinks ensue, and the newly minted Commodore Norrington sails the Interceptor toward the Dauntless and boards it with all his men to search for Jack and Will, at which point those two swing onto the now-empty Interceptor, turning the wheel and speeding away in the fastest ship on the ocean, thanking Norrington for making her sea-ready.

A genius method of piracy that worked. Captain Jack Sparrow embarks on several others in Pirates of the Caribbean. He has a singular goal in the movie, but the other characters, side plots, and Jack sleight-of-hand often conceal that goal.

Captain Jack Sparrow doing some captaining.

Much transpires before we learn this, but Jack once captained a ship of pirates, famed throughout the New World, called the Black Pearl. Then one day, 10 years before the events of the movie, Jack’s first mate, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) led a mutiny overthrowing Jack and casting him onto a lonely island, leaving him with a lone possession: a pistol with a single bullet.

Jack’s carried this gun around and its single shot for 10 years, and it’s meant for none but Barbossa. Jack recruits a crew of miscreants from the pirate town of Tortuga, and together they sail after the Black Pearl.

We see the curse on Barbossa and his crew, revealed in the moonlight, as Jack sees it. He’s intrigued that the curse is real. It’s not until the final fight that Jack learns he is also cursed. Or so we think.

There’s no chance Jack would not know of his undead-ness. Ten years and he never caught a glimpse of his body in the moonlight? Doesn’t add up. Of course he knew, and he played everyone for thinking he didn’t.

That’s partly the script tricking us. Jack claims he can take the Black Pearl because he knows where it will be and why. We believe him, because he’s a resourceful pirate, and not yet because he once captained the ship. The characters he speaks with DO know he was once its captain, and they behave accordingly.

Much has been made of Depp’s basing Jack on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Depp leans in and out of character interactions like those inflatable, punchable dolls. His eye-lined eye lids open and narrow without pattern, and those teeth sure are pre-dentist English teeth. It’s a performance for the ages that certainly deserved its Oscar nomination for best actor.

Villain (5/10)

Barbossa captains the Black Pearl for most of its journey around the Caribbean. As cruel as they come, Barbossa enjoys laying waste to anyone and anything, and mostly for those reasons.

He’s spent the past 10 years trying to recover one last piece of stolen, cursed Aztec gold, one of 882 original pieces given to Cortez to prevent him from destroying Aztec society, which he did anyway.

The treacherous Barbossa.

The stolen gold cursed the pirates who took it, making them zombified, neither living nor dead, and moonlight reveals their true forms. Skeletons with rotting flesh, the pirates of the Black Pearl cannot enjoy a woman of comfort to “slake our lust,” as Barbossa says, nor the taste of drink nor food. “Too long I’ve been starving to death and haven’t died,” he tells Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly).

Elizabeth carried the final missing piece of gold, and when it touched the sea near Port Royal it called the Black Pearl, setting off the events of the film.

Barbossa needs that piece of gold and the blood of the only other member of their brood not with them: a man named Bootstrap Bill. Somehow, Barbossa is convinced, Elizabeth is a relation of Bootstrap.

The cursed piece of gold.

Barbossa drags Elizabeth to Isla de la Muerta, where all their pirate booty is held in large piles. Once he believes the curse is broken, he and his pirates want to make certain. Barbossa rolls his eyes and shoots a compatriot. When that man doesn’t die, or even bleed, they know the curse was not lifted.

Barbossa is the kind of man to shoot a friend to test out a theory. He also committed mutiny, which, Captain Jack Sparrow points out, means Jack’s is the word worth taking. Barbossa doesn’t believe much in taking prisoners because, “People are easier to search when they’re dead.” You can’t trust Barbossa for a moment.

Action/Effects (4/10)

One fun action scene bisects the film. Elizabeth leads the pirates on the Interceptor. The fastest ship in the Caribbean, she’s losing sea to the Black Pearl. Elizabeth tries to help the ship speed up by dumping everything into the sea, lightening the ship.

It was a good plan, but not enough to outrun the undead pirates. The living pirates load everything they can find into the cannons. They drop starboard anchor, careening the ship hard right. Soon the ships are yards apart, and their cannons are loaded.

As the ships coast past each other, they fire everything. Somehow, they stop moving as soon as they shoot. Poor Jack sits in the Pearl‘s brig watching cannonballs tear his ship apart. One of those blows a whole in the brig door.

Will searches the Interceptor for the medallion he left behind. More cannons blast apart the two ships as the undead pirates grapple onto the stolen British ship.

Lots of fighting ensues. Will gets stuck and nearly drowns in the hold. Jack swings onto the Interceptor and monkeys around. I spotted a blunderbuss. Pretty soon Barbossa is dangling the medallion and all Jack’s pirates end up in the brig. They watch an enormous explosion destroy the Interceptor.

The key effects were the undead pirates. Regular humans until moonlight hit them, the pirates of the Black Pearl were monsters, cursed for 10 years to wander the seas neither living nor dead until they returned the stolen gold and paid a blood price.

They were scary and kooky at times, depending on the scene and the characters. Revolutionary at the time, already the effects looks dated.

Sidekicks (5/8)

The writers often conceal information from characters and the audience in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack’s and Barbossa’s motives I have discussed before, but no character is concealed more than Will Turner.

Captain Jack Sparrow is the hero of this tale, but it’s Will and Elizabeth who open it, as children, on the day Elizabeth arrived in Port Royal from England 10 years ago.

Orlando Bloom at his mist caddish.

That day the Black Pearl attacked a British ship, burning it on the water. Norrington and Elizabeth’s father, the governor of Port Royal, spot an unconscious boy floating on flotsam, and they haul him aboard.

Elizabeth stands over the boy, young Will, and wakes him, but not before discovering the menacing skull-emblazoned gold medallion hanging around his neck. Thinking him a pirate, she takes the medallion and keeps it, hiding it in a drawer near her bedside.

Fast forward 10 years to Norrington’s promotion ceremony. Elizabeth, object of the Commodore’s eye, wears the medallion to the ceremony, along with her new corset that prevents proper breathing.

Will shows up that day at Elizabeth’s house, to deliver a sword he as a gift for Norrington. The sword he presents is perfectly balanced, ready for action, and, ah, here comes Elizabeth descending the stair in her new dress.

Elizabeth clutches at her chest when he spots Will. Then she goes and tells him she dreamt of him last night (the opening scene with the two characters as kids). Elizabeth’s father, the governor, recognizes that statement for what it is–a come on–though the younger pair don’t.

Elizabeth and Will are wrapped up in Captain Jack Sparrow’s adventure and Norrington’s quest to stop him. Elizabeth, captured by Barbossa in a night raid, withholds her real last name, thinking it dangerous to be known as the governor’s daughter, for a last name even more dangerous, that of Bootstrap and Will.

Elizabeth thinks the name Turner will mean nothing to Barbossa, but of course it’s the only name Barbossa wanted to hear. Are there no other Turners in the Caribbean?

Will and Elizabeth are every bit as daring and courageous as Jack, Norrington, and any of the pirates. Will hates pirates, and immediately becomes one after meeting a pirate for the first time. Elizabeth engages in piracy against pirates. Does that negate piracy or make her a double pirate?

Henchmen (2/8)

There’s a case to make for Norrington being the film’s hero. He’s trying to stop Barbossa, as is Jack, and it’s he, not Jack, who changes by movie’s end. Norrington allows Jack a day’s head start after he escapes his execution. He concedes Elizabeth to Will. He agrees with the governor who, out of nowhere, says that sometimes “piracy itself can be the right course.” Even Jack said he was rooting for Norrington in the Will-Elizabeth-Norrington love triangle.

But no, Commodore Norrington is a stick far too deep in the mud to be our hero. Guy’s so nervous when he proposes to Elizabeth that he can’t notice she can’t breathe. He’s less than concerned about rushing out to rescue Elizabeth after Barbossa takes her.

The British bureaucracy represented as cowards and fools.

Norrington underestimates anyone below his status in life. Is there a better definition of an elitist? Perhaps few people in history have possessed the cockiness of a British naval officer at the height the empire, and Norrington’s got it.

As for Barbossa’s crew, their antics were for the kiddos. Good for them. I didn’t care.

Stunts (6/6)

Let’s talk about sword fighting. Pirates of the Caribbean excels in sword fighting. The first, and best, fight occurs in Port Royal.

Captain Jack Sparrow, fleeing from Norrington and some redcoats, runs through Port Royal. He steps inside a shop full of swords. Will walks in, finds everything in its right place, except a hammer.

Turning around, Jack’s got a sword in his face. Will quickly finds a sword and the two parry and thrust, feeling out the other’s moves. Jack’s impressed, but how’s the footwork? Will matches Jack step for step on the dirt floor.

Jack’s quickly bored–he must be on his way–and makes for the door. Will throws his sword into the latch–a perfect shot. Jack again finds Will in his way, Will again finds himself without a weapon. He picks up a sword from the kiln and fights with that. Now sparks literally fly.

The two combatants leap onto turnstiles and fight that way, using the column to block attacks. Jack notices all the swords. “Who makes these?” he asks. Will answers, “I do.” That’s an uh-oh moment for Jack. This guy knows his swords. Does he practice with them? Three hours daily. And why? So he can kill a pirate when he meets one. A pirate like Jack.

Pretty soon they’re standing on a two-wheeled cart that wobbles like an untethered seesaw. Each man takes a side. Jack, of course, still has his cuffs on, though the chain is broken. Will manages to wrap one chain around a sword and drive that sword into a rafter. Jack retaliates by stomping a board that hits Will in the face cartoonishly.

Jack pulls himself up, hanging from the sword. His weight finally loosens the sword, and he falls onto the cart, which shoots Will up onto a rafter. Will cuts a sack of rocks that falls onto the cart where he stood, shooting Jack onto the rafters. We’re in full cartoon mode now.

More sword play ensues on the narrow footholds above the shop floor. Will forces Jack to lose his sword, so the pirate hops down to the floor. Will follows. Jack finds a large bag of powder (used to heat the kiln fires?) and puffs that in Will’s face. Will wipes away the filth in time to find Jack’s gun pointed at him. “This shot,” Jack says, “is not meant for you.”

Oh what fun! This fight, and the final fight between Jack and Barbossa, bring swashbuckling into the 21st century. Playful, unrealistic, and creative, these fights chew the scenery.

And the stunts don’t stop when the swords are sheathed. Characters are swings on ropes, boarding ships, climbing ships, fist fighting, and fighting in tandem. They took a 2-D Disney ride and made the action three-dimensional.

Climax (3/6)

The final pirate party gets going when Barbossa returns to Isla de la Muerta, this time with Will, the real blood relative of Bootstrap Bill. As they did with Elizabeth, the pirates surround the gold hill and the chest of Aztec gold atop it. They get ready to spill Will’s blood, all of it, just to be sure.

In walks Jack. The pirates are a little confused. Didn’t they leave him stranded on an island a day ago? Jack tells Barbossa he might not want to be slicing young Will’s throat just yet.

Barbossa delivers a terrific eye roll and asks why. Because the fine sailors of the British Royal Navy have surrounded the cave’s exit and will kill most of the pirates as soon as they regain their ability to die.

Jack lays out a new plan, in which the pirates pause the curse lifting until they’ve pillaged the navy. That way Barbossa will have himself a fleet, and can call himself Commodore Barbossa. Jack will throw in a fancy hat for a man who digs big hats. Jack also takes the time to use sleight of hand and steal a piece of the gold.

The pirates agree that Jack’s is a good plan. They commence the underwater undead pirate walk. We see a great shot of the fog-enshrouded pirates strolling along the sea floor toward the Dauntless, where most of the troops are not.

Undead pirates walking underwater.

Norrington and the redcoats are still in the boats awaiting the pirates to row out of the cave. Instead they see two pirates dressed as women. For some reason they do not investigate. Surely the sight of two well dressed ladies rowing a boat in the night in pirate-infested waters deserves attention, eh Norrington?

Back on the Dauntless, the governor tells Elizabeth, who is locked in the captain’s quarters, that he’s proud of her for accepting Norrington’s marriage proposal. Countless balls and feasts await. Elizabeth’s not listening, because she’s tied cloths together to escape out the ship’s rear and is rowing toward the cave to save Will.

The pirates board the Dauntless, and each side fights hard. It’s a long time before Norrington notices. Sound carries well over water, and the night was dead calm but for the clash. How could he not hear until a dying sailor rang a large bell?

Meanwhile, in the cave, Jack lays out his theory of honesty. Dishonest people, you see, can always be trusted, because they will always do something dishonest. It’s the honest ones you must out for, because you never know when they will do something stupid. That’s when Jack draws his sword to fight the pirates with Will.

Fighting undead pirates is kind of stupid, but Jack hates Barbossa, so it wasn’t much unexpected. Jack fights Barbossa while Will fights the few others waiting with their captain.

Elizabeth detours to the Black Pearl to free Jack’s crew, who promptly sail away, refusing to save their captain. Pirate’s code and all that. Whoever falls behind is left behind. “Hang the code and hang the rules,” Elizabeth implores. They don’t listen.

Norrington and company, in their boats, row toward the Dauntless, though the pirates control the cannon and fire them at the boats. The British don’t seem to take any casualties until they reboard their ship.

Back in the cave, Jack stabs Barbossa. We know that won’t work, but Barbossa responds by stabbing Jack in the gut. Jack stumbles back. Into the moonlight. To reveal that he is also cursed. Jack observes his decayed flesh as if for the first time, marveled. He also flips the stolen gold piece along his knuckles. “Couldn’t resist mate,” he says. yet I don’t think that’s the reason he stole it.

Jack’s cursed after all.

Elizabeth reaches the cave and joins the fight as the pirates start to overwhelm the sailors and soldiers on the ship. Light comedy ensues. Elizabeth gets a good one-liner in there. “You like pain,” she says, “Try wearing a corset.”

The giddy grenade guy from the Port Royal raid gets giddy again and lobs grenades all over. Elizabeth and Will find a gold spear and use it to double team the remaining pirates, who appear to be grenade guy and two others. Somehow they shish-kabob these three, so they can’t easily remove the impediment. Will jams a lit grenade into grenade guy’s torso that blows the three to smithereens. That won’t kill them, but it’ll slow them down plenty.

Barbossa and Jack lunge and parry and thrust all over the cave. These are the last pirates in the cave. Barbossa asks if he and Jack will cross swords into eternity. Will and Elizabeth rush to rejoin Jack.

The next sequence excels in editing, pacing, drama, and cinematography. All these elements work perfectly to deliver a crackling climax.

Jack sees the explosion and Elizabeth and Will rushing to his aid. Jack places the stolen medallion into his hand and slices his palm, adding his blood to the piece. Will climbs the gold mound. Jack and Barbossa take two swings at each other. Jack tosses the gold piece. Will catches it.

Then–I love this part–Barbossa, looking at Jack, draws his pistol. He cocks the pistol. The camera shifts as Barbossa turns his head to aim at Elizabeth. Elizabeth steps twice on rocks and stops. Zoom on Elizabeth’s scared face. Zoom on Barbossa’s smirking face. Cut to Elizabeth. Gunshot.

Draw, aim, look. Step, step, stop. Zoom. Zoom. Bang. Echo. Echo. A rhythmic pace to these crucial moments. In the final moments we don’t see Will’s face, only parts of him, so it’s easy to forget that he’s standing above the chest.

Who was shot? Barbossa, confused, turns to Jack, an all-business Jack, and his smoking gun. “Ten years you carry that pistol and now you waste your shot,” Barbossa jokes.
Jack, serious for once, kills Barbossa.

“He didn’t waste it,” says Will. Barbossa puts it together: two pieces of gold, a bloody knife in Will’s right hand. Jack never stole the cursed gold, though he shared in the curse, until moments before when he took a piece from the chest in front of Barbossa. He had to add that and his blood to break the curse. The pieces fall into the chest. It’s over.

Not a trace of humor graces Jack’s face. He watches Barbossa open his jacket. Blood blooms in his chest as he regains and loses his life at the same time. “I feel…cold.” Barbossa’s final words.

Pretty smooth sailing after that. The pirates quit fighting. All parties return to Port Royal. Jack is almost hanged, until he’s saved by another choice sword throw from Will, who’s sporting a new hat and the confidence to tell Elizabeth he loves her in front of her fiancé. Kid’s got stones now.

Jack, Will, and Elizabeth convince Norrington to let this be another day that they almost captured Captain Jack Sparrow. Jack falls over the edge delivering his line. But the Black Pearl has returned to gather its captain. Jack takes the wheel, and they sail on.

Drink up me hearties yo ho!

Jokes (2/4)

Most of the comedy comes courtesy of Captain Jack Sparrow’s strange behavior. Will and Elizabeth toss in some one-liners. The Black Pearl pirates were funny enough, lighthearted, to keep the movie briskly paced and fun.

When Barbossa asks how Jack got off the island on which he was marooned, Jack responds, “You forgot one very important thing. I’m Captain Jack Sparrow.” Great line, perfect for the character.

Setting (4/4)

For my money, it’s Captain Jack Sparrow and the fantastic settings that make Pirates of the Caribbean such a fun film.

The cave on Isla de la Muerta: Overflowing with gold, this cave houses all the gold ever stolen by the crew of the Black Pearl. I think. That’s never stated but implied. Gold shimmers below the water’s surface. A chest of Aztec gold sits flatly atop a mound of treasure.

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Gold piles

The camera tracks and rises throughout this cave. Clearly the production team made this cave in a sound studio, and they nailed it. Large and flashy, the characters explore all the nooks and crannies. I wanted to be there.

Port Royal: What more could you want from a fake tropical town? Steep, green hills surround the secluded harbor. The water is clear a calm. An imposing stone fort sits atop a gorgeous cliff. Port Royal has danger and beauty at once. It also has a fine Gerogian mansion for its governor his young lass. Even the town seems charming, devoid of mud, shit, drunks, and garbage that littered many a pre-industrial world street.

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Docks at Port Royal

The ships: These gleaming, large vessels are shot from dozens of angles. The Dauntless, Interceptor, and Black Pearl are the chief fighting ships. Space is welcome on these ships, far from reality, when hundreds of men slept in hammocks below decks of these warships. Barbossa’s cabin is particularly expansive. The Black Pearl has an actual staircase, which is insane.

Commentary (0/2)

Pirates aren’t so bad.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

A few black faces grace the screen, and more than one woman joins a crew or two. Elizabeth is every bit the equal of her male counterparts, and she does so in a corset.


  • I liked the early image of the Union Jack floating on the sea.
  • In Will’s first scene he breaks a candelabra from a wall, but never shows such buffoonery again. A cheap joke out of character.

Summary (40/68): 59%

Ridiculous sequels matched by ridiculous Johnny Depp antics make it easy to ignore how great Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl really is. Light and funny, all the actors knew the venture was a silly one, being based on a park ride, and they made sure to have as much fun as we did watching it.