Hang The Code

Drink up me hearties, yo ho! This is a film I can truly watch any time, not just because it’s a Disney film. I will probably do a proper animated feature at some point as well, but let’s start slowly with this little beauty of live action first. Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003) is a film that should not be missing from this series, it certainly has some strong ideas when it comes to the concept of freedom. If I manage to do Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End as well, those ideas will be thrown in even more relief. I  first thought of including Pirates in this series when watching Serenity, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk about the phenomenon that is this film.

It was a big deal. Purely inspired by a ride in Disneyland (CA), most everyone was expecting it to flop.  An original pirate movie (i.e. one that was not adapted either from Treasure Island or Peter Pan) had not been made since 1999. A pirate’s movie that was even marginally successful had not been made since the mid-1980s. And then Jerry Bruckheimer waltzes in and brings the box office to its knees. In the year of its release, it ranked sixteenth on the list of all-time highest grosses. Of all films released the same year, it comes third, only leaving The Lords Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring and Finding Nemo before it. Obviously, people liked it. People still like it. As Jerry Bruckheimer says himself: “we had not only breathed new life into a dead genre, but had actually reinvented it” (from my copy of Pirates Of The Caribbean – The Visual Guide). And he’s right. Ever since that first film, piracy became cool again: the Assassin’s Creed game Black Flag is entirely populated by pirates. The TV series Black Sails is set in the same period and location. The number of videos on YouTube spoofing scenes  from this film is amazing. The cinematography is beautiful. Everyone can both recognize and hum the main theme, just like that. I’m sure there must be a video out there that has the main theme as sung by cats. I don’t think it would be much of an overstatement to say that piracy in general and this film in specific are some of the most pervasive popular culture icons.

As an icon of popular culture, the various messages it tries to get across have become a part of our social history as well. My poster of 101 Classic Movie Quotes includes the following monologue by Captain Jack Sparrow:

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.

And that moment solidified Jack’s status as everyone’s hero. You were never sure what side he was one, partially because he was always on his own side. Jack looks out for himself and uses whichever side can help him with that. This is where he is so very different from Commodore Norrington, who at one points says: “I serve others, not only myself.” To Jack, that would be inconceivable. One of the few moments in the entire film where he does something that might not directly benefit him is when he saves Elizabeth from drowning. Jack is a complicated character. His intentions and thought processes become clearest to the viewer when he’s drunk. That scene is where the message of this film is so similar to Serenity’s:

Wherever we want to go, we 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.

This also ties in with the theme of mobility as discussed in my previous post. Both Captain Reynolds and Captain Sparrow believe that to be free is to set your own course. But what would happen if everyone did that? There is no such thing as unlimited freedom. Everyone is bound by something, even if it is societal expectations. The pirates are bound by the Code. Jack’s crew abandons him and takes off with the Black Pearl after Barbossa dies, leaving Jack in the hands of the Commodore. He never expected that the rule of “Who falls behind gets left behind” would apply to him. Jack’s take on this is important as well, as he responds: “They done what’s right by them, can’t expect more than that.” He accepts his fate, because he knows he would probably have done the exact same thing had the roles been turned around. But then! His crew chooses to hang the Code, deciding it’s more a set of guidelines than actual rules. More than that, Norrington wants to let Jack go. He knows that Jack is a pirate and a good man, a notion that is repeated often throughout the film. However, as Governor Swann says: “Commodore Norrington is bound by the law, as are we all.” This continuous rivaling of the law vs. the pirates, the Code vs. choice is a strong theme in the film. It emphasizes that our choices make us who we are, and that agency is the biggest freedom of all.

As such, it is no coincidence that we see Captain Sparrow physically constrained almost every two scenes. Whether it’s on an island, in a cell (on land or not), or held by officers of the law, he is always fighting to regain his freedom and the Pearl. The same seems to be true for Elizabeth as well: the corset, Barbossa kidnapping her, and being constrained in the Captain’s quarters of the Dauntless all culminate to emphasize her powerlessness. As such, her quest for freedom can also be seen as a metaphor for personal power: she wants to make her own choices. And she does in the end, when she chooses Will over Norrington. It’s where her heart truly lies. Will’s search for freedom has more to do with finding who he is, which sets him free. He struggles to accept what Jack tells him about his father, but the message is hammered in by various people who tell Will that Bootstrap was indeed a good man. Someone who chose to die for something he believed was right. As soon as Will embraces that, he sets himself free.

If you want to know more about other messages and ideals in this film, you should check out Culturewatch’s interpretation. My personal ideal of freedom has always been to travel where I want and discover new places and countries. Whole new worlds can be found through books and films, which is why I love both so much as well. I’ll be travelling again soon, and hopefully life will continue to bring me that horizon.

The Four Freedoms series focuses on films covering a form of freedom (or lack thereof). It tries to link the discussion to historical context and current relevance. On the 24th of May, the Four Freedoms will be awarded to the determined laureates.  Find all posts in this series. What film should be covered next?

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