Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl part 1
Who is the protagonist of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl? Casual viewers would probably say it’s Captain Jack Sparrow, since he’s the most memorable character. Others might say that, since the movie is, in part, a love story, that there are two protagonists, Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner. It could be argued that there are three protagonists, or even four, if you count bad-guy Barbossa.
Myself, I’m going to argue that there is only one, Elizabeth Swann.
The movie starts with a kind of a prologue, with Elizabeth as a little girl sailing with her father Governor Swann and her future fiancee Lt Norrington, as well as future pirate Mr. Gibbs. Governor Swann isn’t just the governor of Port Royal, he’s the governor of Elizabeth, a job we see him devote more time to than any actual governing.
The first time we see Elizabeth, she’s singing about pirates. She’s keenly interested in the subject, far above the level of propriety, as far as her father and Norrington are concerned. Elizabeth seems to be powerless and passive among these men, but in fact she sets the plot into motion by sighting young Will Turner, lost at sea, and then taking his medallion once he’s brought on board Norrington’s ship. It’s almost as though Elizabeth, with her interest in pirates, has conjured a little boy-pirate out of the mist by her own will. The medallion is, of course, one of the “882 pieces of cursed Aztec gold” that serves as the maguffin of Curse and drives its entire plot.
(Elizabeth sees the medallion and concludes, mistakenly, that Will is a pirate. There is a lot of backstory in Curse, the most complicated of which is the story of Will’s father, “Bootstrap Bill,” and how the medallion made it around young Will’s neck. This story is so complicated that I had to sit and watch the movie a number of times before I got it straight.)
Governor Swann’s fear of pirates seems to be that of any father fearing for his daughter’s safety at the hands of unseemly men. Or perhaps just men in general. After all, a lot of the movie’s vocabulary regards how pirates are “men” and the doughy, uniformed dolts of the navy are “other than men.” Governor Swann, we will find, would rather have Elizabeth safely married to a non-threatening, non-masculine non-man than to have her endangered by “men.” Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that all “real men” are pirates, and that Elizabeth wishes to be stolen away, in the sexual sense, to be pillaged and plundered as a response to her careful, cloistered upbringing.
Now we flash forward eight years. Elizabeth lives in Port Royal, she is now of age, and she still has the medallion she took off Will. Why did she take it? She took it to prevent Will from getting killed for being a pirate (which, in any case, it turns out he was not), but also to keep her dream alive of one day being stolen away. As the movie proper begins, she takes the medallion out of its hiding place and puts it on. Why? As a little lust token, perhaps, as a little act of rebellion against her father (who is, right now, coming in the door with a tightly-corseted dress for her to wear to Norrington’s promotion ceremony (Norrington has gone, in eight years, from Lieutenant to Captain to Commodore). A brazenly unsubtle gesture on his part, that he wishes her to be more constricted than ever, the better to be placed in the hands of a non-man he can trust with her safety. Elizabeth literally can’t breathe in her father’s world.
But the real reason Elizabeth wears the medallion on this particular day is that, well, the plot calls for it, for reasons we’ll see later. This one coin is responsible for more goddamn plot in this movie than you can shake a stick at.
While Elizabeth is fitted into her metaphorical strait-jacket, the teenage Will Turner arrives downstairs. Will, contrary to Elizabeth’s hope for him, has become a blacksmith, and is obsessed not with piracy but with craftsmanship. He lusts for Elizabeth, but his disdain for piracy prevents him from acting on his desire. Elizabeth, obviously, wishes to behave as the pirate she wants him to be, but he seems intent on balancing his “goodness” with his desires. Why exactly Will hates pirates is not clear, although it could be argued that the pirates of the Black Pearl took from him the life his father wanted for him (I think, I’ll have to check).
Incidentally, one reason why I keep viewing Pirates as having a single protagonist is that, in a love story, the lovers “meet cute.” The meeting of Elizabeth and Will is cute enough, but Will is unconscious when it takes place. Elizabeth literally awakens him when she takes his medallion, and you could say that the entire narrative is about Elizabeth trying to awaken the pirate within Will, which makes Will a rather passive character in my view. Will wants to have Elizabeth fairly and justly, but Elizabeth wants to be taken by force.
(Which makes it all the more symbolically appropriate that Will is here today to deliver a sword to Governor Swann, who has ordered it to give to Norrington — he’s forged a hard-on for Elizabeth for years, but propriety insists that he hand his steeled desire over to the higher-ranking man.)
Enter Captain Jack Sparrow. What does Jack want? That’s easy — he wants his ship, the Black Pearl, back, although we don’t know that yet. He shows up in the harbor of Port Royal, seemingly for no apparent reason other than his boat is sinking. If he’s searching for the Black Pearl, he’s currently out of resources. And so, we see him hatch a plan to steal a ship and catch up with his prize, wherever it might be. (We will find out later that Jack has a device — in two senses of the word — that will help him attain his goal.)
(The harbormaster calls Jack “Mr. Smith,” which Jack then adopts as an alias. “Mr. Smith” is commonly known as a fake name, and yet Will Turner actually is a smith [not a turner, which is a different profession]. Elizabeth may be a swan, and Jack may wish to be free as a sparrow, but for the moment he’s in the same position as Will, a smith.)
Norrington gets through his promotion ceremony (twirling and examining Will’s hard-forged sword) while Jack tries, and fails, to steal a ship and Elizabeth stands by, swooning in her constrictive dress. (Later, Jack explains his need for a ship — a ship is freedom, he says. So symbolically speaking, while Jack struggles to be free, Norrington examines Will’s hard-on and Elizabeth wilts under her father’s anti-sexuality.)
Norrington takes his promotion ceremony as an occasion to propose to Elizabeth, who takes the moment to completely collapse and fall, literally, into the arms of Jack, who rescues her by ripping off her constricting clothes. No CPR is required, only the symbolic removal of her metaphorical restrictions is needed to bring Elizabeth back to life.
Elizabeth’s fall into the harbor makes perfect sense all by itself, plotwise, but here we find out why she really is wearing the medallion. Elizabeth wears the medallion so that she can fall into the ocean while wearing it, which causes the medallion to, somehow, send a kind of sonic boom out across the Caribbean, which calls the Black Pearl to it. Why the medallion should have this peculiar power I have no idea, but the plot requires the Black Pearl to show up looking for the medallion, and so the script must figure out a way for that to happen logically. Unable to find a way for it to happen logically, it figures out a way for it to do it magically.
I’ve often wondered why Jack is presented as such a goofball. At first I thought the goofiness was the creation of Johnny Depp, and then later I thought it was a simple comic-inversion of the traditional pirate. But now I see that, thematically, Captain Jack must be goofy, so as not to be a sexual threat to Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s goal is to make Will behave like the pirate she believes he is, not to be taken by just any old pirate.
After rescuing Elizabeth, Jack then takes her hostage and uses her as a lever to escape. After a thrilling escape-and-chase scene, Jack ends up right back where he was, arrested by Norrington. Why does the screenplay draw this odd narrative curlicue?
The answer: to give Jack a run-in with Will Turner. Logically, Jack needs to get to a smith’s shop to free himself from his irons, but there’s no real reason why it would have to be Will’s shop, except that the screenplay wishes to have Jack meets Will. Perfectly entertaining in its own right, what does the Jack/Will encounter actually tell us? It tells us that Will hates pirates, which we already knew, and it tells us that he’s in love with Elizabeth, which we also already knew, and it tells us that he’s obsessed with propriety, which we also already knew. It tells us that Will is an accomplished swordsman, but we kind of already knew that too. (“You’re not a eunuch, are you?” asks Jack, emphasizing what we’ve already seen, metaphorically — that Will forges penis substitutes for other men to wield.)
In any case, Will’s fight with Jack ends with Jack being captured, again, by the navy. (Jack is knocked unconscious by Will’s master smith, who then takes credit for Will’s work, as he does with Will’s swords. Will has to wait a long time before someone gives him credit for the quality of his penis substitute.)
Night falls, Jack is in prison, and Elizabeth is in bed, thinking about being almost-abducted by Jack and about whether Will Turner is ever going to stop hammering at his anvil and step up. Then, Elizabeth’s secret desire comes to fruition — real pirates come to sack the town, destroy the civilized, proper world her father governs, and take her away.
The pirates behave mostly as Elizabeth wishes them to (although perhaps a little more violently than she expects). Except, strangely enough, they don’t steal her away, and don’t even try to. They are only after her (that is, Will’s) medallion, and she must actually invoke the “right of parlay” (another bald plot device that Curse uses to winking effect — the “Pirate Code” will be meaningful when the plot requires it to be, and meaningless by the same token) in order to get the thing she wants, which is to get the hell out of her father’s world and into the hands of some pirates.
A couple of pirates happen upon the jail where Jack is being held. Why? So that we can find out a little about Jack’s backstory and get a hint as to the nature of the titular curse.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is taken to see Barbossa, the captain of the Black Pearl. She uses the medallion as a lever to, she says, persuade Barbossa to leave off destroying Port Royal (which, given her previous lack of interest in her father’s world, seems to me to be disingenuous). She gives her name as “Elizabeth Turner.” Again, there are arguable logical reasons for Elizabeth to call herself Turner, but the fact is that she does so because, again, the plot requires her to. She must call herself Turner so that Barbossa believes her to be the daughter of “Bootstrap Bill,” and thus a key part of undoing their curse. (Barbossa asks Elizabeth if the medallion is a family heirloom, and Elizabeth says “I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean,” but she is, again, lying — she stole it from Will, which, again, becomes important to the plot later on.)
And so, Act I of Curse comes to a close. Elizabeth begins the act dreaming of the day she met the boy she wished would grow to be a pirate, and less than 12 hours later, due to her act of theft eight years before, she has now been abducted by actual pirates. Elizabeth has dreamed of this moment for years, but, as Act II forges ahead, she will find that she’s gotten more than she’s bargained for.