Almost everyone who saw it knew there was something special about the film—which is why the producers went on to make four more of them (so far)—but for an adventure based on a theme-park ride, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean has proved a rather enduring cultural product. That something special was more than Johnny Depp’s unforgettable turn as Captain Jack Sparrow. What looks like an easy moral relativism in Curse of the Black Pearl (dir. Verbinkski 2003), with the bad guys actually the good guys, and the possibility that a character can be “a scallywag” and “a good man” at the same time, is made possible by the film’s upending of dominant value systems, built, I think quite intentionally, on a Christian model. A bridge too far? Perhaps. But imagine how incredulous a pitch this movie must once have been. It’s a feature-length film from a children’s water-park attraction that opened in the 1960s, and to make it, they wanted huge financing, A-list actors, and boats-full of special effects. Every producer, financier, director, or editor who heard the pitch must’ve stared with the same look of disbelief and then some version of “yes, it sounds fun, but what will it be about?” In the end, they made it about that look of incredulity, and therefore about belief. And to do that, they made Pirates a supernatural story set in the “real world” that helps us to grasp the spiritual realities that those drowning in the real tend to deny.
Simply, Captain Jack Sparrow is Jesus Christ, which viewers of the film’s latter franchises may have gathered when he dies, goes to a netherworld and rises again, but his typology is secure and devotionally inspiring in this first installment. There are many reasons for thinking of Sparrow as a Christ: his hanging out with drunkards and thieves, his assembling a rag-tag crew of followers, his crossing the authorities, and, after a series of wily escapes, being caught at last and sentenced to death.They made Pirates a supernatural story set in the “real world” that helps us to grasp the spiritual realities that those drowning in the real tend to deny.
These allusions are not some attempt, á là Joseph Campbell, to make a compelling hero journey by borrowing the structure of the Christian story as a useful undercarriage for a blockbuster kids’ film; the filmmakers call attention to the Christian symbolism, and say interesting things about theology therewith. For example, viewers will recall that Sparrow accuses his foil Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) of being “completely obsessed with treasure.” It’s a strange accusation, since Turner has showed no interest whatsoever in collecting the masses of jewels and pearls—pirates’ booty—that accompany the shipboard adventure. Addressing Turner’s objection, “I am not obsessed with treasure,” Sparrow says, “not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.” He’s referring of course, to Turner’s affection for the young Miss Swann, at which point, we realize we’re in a familiar parable, and that Sparrow has just told Turner: “Where your heart is, that’s treasure,” a gloss on Matthew 6:21. But here’s the key thing, and you’ll have to watch the film again to see it: as soon as Turner makes that connection, that he has been obsessed with treasure by making an idol of his affection rather than dedicating himself fully to the mission at hand, the film cuts to a submerged crucifix. It’s made of gold and so reads as just another shot of the treasure they’re surrounded by, but if you know what they’re saying, it reads like a little signature with which the editors validate the verbal allusion by underlining it with a visual one.
Examples like this abound in the film, with Sparrow enacting moments from the Jesus story that the latter’s followers, or other careful readers, will recognize. There’s the time when Sparrow walks on water, albeit with the aid two sea turtles tied to his feet. Or another: when Sparrow learns that the Swann/Turner relationship is developing into a serious commitment, he erupts: “A wedding? I love weddings. Drinks all around!” This is in keeping with Sparrow’s character, so it doesn’t stand out as odd, except that he doesn’t just want a drink for himself, he wants to provide them for the wedding guests, as Jesus does in his first public miracle (John 2:1–11). Or another: when he is sentenced to death, Sparrow says to Weatherby Swann, “I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically…” which emphasizes that his death will have not only spiritual consequences, but also consequences specifically for the church. And one more: when Sparrow begins to call his disciples, he tosses a bucket of cold water to rouse the soused Gibbs, a wastrel and a drunk in need of revival, this exchange follows:
Mr. Gibbs: Curse you for breathin’ ya slack-jawed idiot. Mother’s love. Jack. You should know better than to wake a man when he’s sleepin’. It’s bad luck.
Jack Sparrow: Fortunately, I know how to counter it; the man who did the waking buys the man who was sleeping a drink; the man who was sleeping drinks it while listening to a proposition from the man who did the waking.
Mr. Gibbs: Aye, that’ll about do it.
Of the many possible descriptors for Christ, “The Man Who Did the Waking” is just about my favorite. Most of the allusions I’ve just mentioned are little more than that. They’re kind of fun, and they ask one to view the film a little differently, but they don’t get us terribly far. Thankfully, the film takes its Christology more seriously than a few throwaway comparisons, and it presents a fair piece of devotional thinking.
It begins with his name. Over and over, Sparrow insists on being addressed as Captain Jack Sparrow and often corrects characters who leave part of it out, as when the guard says “Are you the real Jack Sparrow?” and Sparrow retorts, “There should be a ‘Captain’ in there somewhere.” Jack insists on being called Captain not because he is vain, but because he is, after all, and despite everything, the real and true captain of the Black Pearl. Even when he doesn’t actually possess the ship, and when no one is following him, he is still rightfully the captain thereof. The point of course is that Christ is Lord whether we acknowledge him or not, and he deserves our praise because to give our allegiance to anyone else is mutiny, taking control of a vessel that is not our own. The other reason his name matters is that he accomplishes miracles by virtue of that name. In the film, whenever something impossible happens, some divine escape for which no natural explanation would suffice, Sparrow simply says, “Yes, but I’m Captain Jack Sparrow,” as though that explains it. And for those who know what he’s really saying, it does.
The other characters in the film then play out their respective roles in what becomes a grand spiritual drama. Barbossa is the devil, “a man so evil, hell itself spit him back out,” but worse than that, he is the one who doesn’t have any power of his own, but usurps it, taking control of the ship from the rightful captain, which is why Sparrow reminds us that “the lowest circle of hell is reserved for… mutineers.” Both realize their roles and make plain proclamations of their significance. In the film’s final duel, Barbossa announces forthrightly, “So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgment Day and trumpets sound?” Naturally, two immortals leap immediately to mind, the final battle between Christ and Satan from St. John’s Revelation. The way Pirates of the Caribbean settles the duel is the same way that New Testament theology settles it. Sparrow finally defeats the mutinous Barbossa by stripping himself of his immortality, by becoming human “at the opportune moment” and shedding his blood to complete the requirements to lift an ancient curse. Paying the blood price, he defeats the adversary.
The curse under which Barbossa and his league of the half-living labor is a memorable device in itself. The antagonists in the film are not simply some banal evil cabal, but ordinary people who, having committed some original sin (a one-time act of disobedience) now find themselves unsatisfied with the good things in life. “Food turned to ash in our mouths,” is how Barbossa describes it, which takes all the abstract talk about “sin” and grounds it in real consequences. Because of their disobedience, the crew’s lust for food and for gold grows but is never satisfied. Here, the filmmakers have suggested a parallel to the Genesis story not only thematically, but also again visually, when Barbossa offers Elizabeth Swann an apple, and she, playing at first the doubtful Eve, takes it. Depicting evil in this way gives the characters some depth, as contrasted with villains in superhero movies who usually require Neo-Freudian motivations for their wicked machinations and a consequential obliteration rather than redemption. In this film, on the other hand, evil isn’t a state of being, or a product of environment; it’s a choice that places one under a curse that renders life less enjoyable. But importantly, it can be lifted.
The film is about moral relativism, wherein the laws of Port Royal, and of the high seas, and contrasted with the Pirates’ Code. We see the characters working through the implications of the changing metrics by which the good is judged in lines like Gov. Swann’s “Perhaps on the rare occasion pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course,” which shows that he’s finally understood Sparrow’s version of Christ’s upside down Kingdom. In that kingdom, justice requires not following the law to the letter—they’re more like guidelines anyway—but following the right person, who is seated toward film’s end with a crown on his head and a communion cup in his hand.
It’s that figure in whom truth itself seems to be located in the film, and his mission there, as here, is to do the waking, to lift the curse, and to bring freedom—he says that’s what a ship is—by sharing the truth with those who have ears to hear it. Some don’t:
Mullroy: What’s your purpose in Port Royal, Mr. Smith?
Murtogg: Yeah, and no lies.
Jack Sparrow: 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 weaselly 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 Sparrow: Unless, of course, he knew you wouldn’t believe the truth even if he told it to you.
But then, some, reluctant at first, eventually do:
Elizabeth Swann: It’s real!
Norrington: You actually were telling the truth.
Jack Sparrow: I do that quite a lot. Yet people are always surprised.
Those people, the truth-believers, find the island that can’t be found save by those who already know where it is, because, as the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer says, “the reciprocal relationship between saying and answering belongs to the essence of a pledge. It is in this sense that the tents of revealed religion are a form of pledge since they only acquire a character of an address insofar as they are acknowledged on the part of the believer” (Gadamer 109). They gain freedom from their apprenticeships (or their fathers), a community, and a mission, part of which is to sing—Sparrow promises he’ll teach the crew a song that they’ll sing all the time—and to spread his message throughout the earth. In the memorable last shot, we see Sparrow embarking on the next, evangelizing, phase of the mission, when he says, “Now, bring me that horizon.”
But of all the film’s many resonances, allusions, and theological in-joking my favorite is a comment it makes about the nature of reality. Elizabeth Turner voices a typical 20th-century objection to all things supernatural when, having been told the story of the immortals and of the curse, she responds, “I hardly believe in ghost stories.” That’s pretty much what most moderns say in response to Christianity: that it’s a lovely set of fables, and it’s fine for some, but not for the sophisticated hearer, who is, after all, a grown-up. But then Barbossa responds, with the film’s best line. His point is that it doesn’t matter whether she believes in the otherworldly forces around her or not. The curse, the risen dead, the rightful captain, the man who does the waking, the island, and the great adventure all exist independently of her belief. She doesn’t get to create her reality, as none of us do, but is instead a character in someone else’s high seas adventure. What he says is, leaning forward into the revealing light, “You’d best start believing in ghost stories… you’re in one.”