Home Movie Review Walking the Plank: Strange Fictions and Stranger Truths in Pirates of the Caribbean

Walking the Plank: Strange Fictions and Stranger Truths in Pirates of the Caribbean


“Last time you left me with a pistol and one shot,” says Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), about to be stranded on a small island in the Caribbean by the villainous Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). This scene demonstrates exactly the sort of punishment that was dealt to wayward members of a pirate crew. Unfortunately, Sparrow is then made to walk a comically long plank and dive into the crystal waters below. In the long history of piracy, not a single pirate or pirate victim has taken the plunge from a wooden plank into a watery grave. This entertaining ritual, featured in countless pirate movies and generally accepted as a pirate tradition, is nothing more than an invention of Hollywood. It never happened. Many a pirate was tossed overboard unceremoniously, but never with aid of a plank. Perhaps the idea never occurred to them. Or perhaps it would simply take “Too long!” as Barbossa’s quartermaster suggests when Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) is forced across the very same plank. Pirates were an impatient lot. They had no tolerance for long winded rituals. They lived fast, short lives, and were too concerned with their destination to linger on the dispatching of a victim.

Surprisingly, this is one of the few major details that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl gets wrong. And judging by how much it gets right, writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were probably well aware of this discrepancy, but wanted to pay homage to the pirate movies of old.

Apart from the supernatural elements, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are drenched in a surprising amount of authenticity. The general disarray of the pirates’ hygiene is particularly accurate, with yellow eyes starved of fruit and grungy teeth that appear to be rotting right out of their skulls. Their clothes are not quite as colorful as Captain Hook and Smee, as they’ve probably been wearing the same garments for months on end.

Of course, our hero Jack, despite his bizarre personality, must remain an object of the audience’s affections… so he sports a few strategically placed gold teeth instead of several rotten ones. His skin is in fairer condition, and the whites of his eyes suggest he keeps a hidden stash of fruit on his person at all times. When he attempts to romance Elizabeth in Dead Man’s Chest, it’s not too hard to believe that she would be attracted to him, in spite of herself.

The amount of rum consumed by the Jack is no exaggeration. When the water went bad, pirates turned to rum, and they generally stocked as much as possible. While rum isn’t an ideal quencher of thirst, it likely aided their bravado when assaulting merchant ships.

In “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” we are introduced to Anamaria, played by Zoe Saldana. While some audience members may scoff at the credulity of a woman pirate, Anamaria’s name is in fact paying homage to two female pirates who actually existed; Anne Bonny and Mary Read. These two served alongside the likes of “Calico Jack” Rackham, and they proved as formidable if not more so than their male counterparts. In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, we’re finally introduced to the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), “the pirate all pirate’s fear.” That phrase isn’t far off from the truth. Blackbeard was likely spoken of in hushed tones, the subject of many wild, exaggerated tales. In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Blackbeard is referred to by his true name, Edward Teach. When Teach first appears in the film, his beard is kindled and smoking, creating a downright alarming, ghostly effect. As theatrical as it seems, Teach did in fact set his beard ablaze before boarding enemy ships. He also wore several pistols, as McShane does in the film (using them later to test Jack’s resolve). Physically, McShane is a bit short for Blackbeard, who was described by Henry Bostock, one of his many victims, as “a tall spare man.”

By this point in pirate lore, Teach would already have been decapitated by Robert Maynard or one of his crew, and this is alluded to in the film. It is also suggested in the film that, after being deposited over the side of the ship, Blackbeard’s body climbed back aboard and reclaimed its head. In a franchise with ghost pirates, mermaids, and squid-men, that’s not too hard to swallow.

The writers pepper the many pirates with an appropriately piratey dialect that isn’t quite as exaggerated as pirate movies of old, but is more in line with actual pirate speech. Most of these men started as honest sailors, and this shows in the dialogue of Barbossa, Gibbs, Anamaria, and many others. “Run out the sweeps,” Barbossa says, meaning the oars that sprout from the side of the ship to build momentum.

While strict adherence to authenticity certainly wasn’t a requirement for films dealing in the supernatural, the attention to detail helps subconsciously validate the world of Pirates of the Caribbean. When something out of the ordinary does occur, it seems all the more extraordinary.

By Matt Tomerlin

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