This weekend, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Salazar’s Revenge in the UK) comes out in theaters. The last time Disney released a Pirates movie, it was a bit of a disaster. Or was it?
[Note: This review contains spoilers, and was written with the assumption the reader has seen the film.]
On Stranger Tides was released in 2011, garnering mixed reviews. If the box office is any indication, however, many moviegoers enjoyed the experience. Enough to ring up over a billion dollars in ticket sales. Still, popularity and critical acclaim do not always go hand in hand. Tides was the only of the Pirates movies which did not receive even one Academy Awards nomination. And deservedly so. The writing, directing, and acting (in my opinion) are all worse than in the previous three films. Although the budget was reduced to $250 million from Pirates 3’s $300 million, that is not a terribly significant drop, and the money does not appear to have been spent well. The sets look cheaper, and the props inferior. The “treasure” on Ponce de Leon’s ship certainly does not live up to Barbosa’s claim, “If forty pirates dreamt forty nights of treasure, it would not match the contents of this room.” And this is only one of the many incongruities in the film.
Tides is also also a poorer movie because it spends way too much time trying to tell the backstory of the characters instead of showing us. I recently came across a video by “Michael” from Lessons in a Screenplay. It compares Rogue One and The Force Awakens. The video examines the differences between showing and telling, active and passive protagonists, and meaningful and few consequences. He contends Rogue One is a weaker film than it could have been because it spends too much time “telling” the backstories. He uses the example of Jyn. The movie does a great job of showing her as a child, but only “tells” about her journey during the fifteen years that have passed where the story picks up. We don’t get to see her grow up; we just get a list of her crimes – without knowing the circumstances which would cause us to empathize with her.
I could write another post examining how the Lesson in a Screenplay video applies to Tides, but the dialog below will serve, at least, as an illustration of “telling rather than showing” – before I move on to writing about spiritual themes, as I have done in my previous Pirates reviews. The missionary, Philip Swift, is actually an essential character to the plot, yet this is about all the backstory we get.
Jack: Oi. What did that poor sod do? How can I make sure to not?
Scrum: Him? Churchly fellow. Always going on about the Lord Almighty.
Jack: Bible-thumper on this ship?
Scrum: A missionary’s the story. What I heard was he got captured in a raid. Rest of the ship got killed – but not him. First Mate wouldn’t let it happen, on account of his premier standing with the Lord. First Mate sticking her neck out for some prisoner? That you don’t see.
The First Mate is, of course, Angelica, a former nun aspirant, who was “corrupted” by Jack Sparrow. Angelica insisted Philip not be killed, in hopes her father, Blackbeard, would find salvation. The problem is, instead of converting him, she is becoming more and more like him—willing to do anything to get what she wants. She is willing to give up her own life to prolong his, but doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. She is not so much interested in changing him (or herself) as in trying to get him to meet the requirements to avoid Hell. She reminds me, in a way, of one of the descriptions Jesus gives of the Pharisees.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:15 NIV)
I wonder how many “evangelicals” today have become like Angelica and the Pharisees. They want people to convert, but they aren’t really interested in becoming the people Jesus describes as belonging to the Kingdom. Accepting Christ used to include a certain morality and compassion for others. Too much of what I see today is just wanting to find the loopholes to escape the judgment of God. The salvation Jesus offered is more than just a rescue from Hell; it is a rescue from ourselves and our pirate ways.
Philip is not like Angelica. He genuinely cares about people. Although he despises the actions of Blackbeard, he tells him there is still hope for his salvation.
Blackbeard: My daughter fears for my soul, what’s left of it. You truly wish to save me, my child.
Angelica: Every soul can be saved.
Blackbeard: Be that true, young cleric?
Philip: Yes. Though you I see as a bit of long shot. Still, I pray for every unfortunate soul on this hellbound vessel.
Blackbeard: You disarm me with your faith.
It seems from his words Blackbeard may be coming around, but he is actually being sarcastic. He goes through with the plan to punish the cook, who was on watch when the mutiny was carried out. Blackbeard is trying to get the missionary to renounce his faith. He mocks Philip.
Blackbeard: So, you, now –chance to show the worth of your prayers. Pray he be delivered from…evil? COURSE MADE!
Philip: STOP! GIVE THAT MAN A CHANCE! GIVE YOURSELF…
[Flames from the ship begin to burn the longboat with the cook in it.]
Blackbeard: You know when I feel closest to our Maker? When I see suffering, pain, and anguish. That’s when the true design of this world is revealed.
Philip: And I see it revealed when in times of hardship and tragedy, kindness and compassion are shown to those in need.
Blackbeard: Perhaps you should pray for him to be unharmed, yes?
Philip: Please, there’s still hope…
[The logboat and the cook are consumed.]
Blackbeard: Aye. She will burn, but I cannot wait for the sun. Perhaps we should build a fire.
Blackbeard: Do not contest me, cleric.
Philip: You will not torture her!
Angelica: We need only one tear.
Blackbeard: I will tear every scale from her body one by one if I see fit. If that displeases you, go pray.
Philip: I was wrong. Not every soul can be saved. Yours cannot.
Blackbeard: Behold, gentlemen! A man formerly of faith.
Philip has not given up on his faith; he has given up on Blackbeard. His love for Syrena has stretched his compassion to the limit.
The relationship between Philip and Syrena is an enigmatic one. Not just because he is a man and she a mermaid. It is enigmatic in part because the movie does a poor job of making it understandable. But, if you follow what happens very closely, here is how it developed:
The “relationship” begins when Syrena pulls Philip from the boat. The mermaids are being rounded up, and they begin to attack the longboats. From a later conversation between them, we find Syrena had seen something “different” in Philip from the beginning.
Philip: Such beauty. Surely you are one of God’s own creations and not a descendant of those dark creatures who found no refuge on the Ark. Such beauty. Yet deadly.
Syrena: Deadly. No.
Philip: You attacked me.
Syrena: No…you are different.
Syrena: Are you not? You protect.
Philip: …You pushed me down out of the way.
Philip is beginning to understand. Syrena is not some dangerous siren that seeks his destruction. She did not pull him from the boat to kill him, but to rescue him. Sometimes what we think are circumstances meant to destroy us are actually designed to save us. We often don’t see this until much
later. Before the mermaids come up to the surface, the sailors in the longboats discuss the legends about them.
Ezekiel: There’ll be mermaids upon us within the hour, you mark my words! And we’re the bait!
Derrick: I heard it said that a kiss from a mermaid protects a sailor from drowning.
Ezekiel: Don’t be a fool. Mermaids are all female, son. And lovely as a dream of heaven. But when it comes to churn butter, so to speak, they snatch a sailor off a boat or the deck of a ship, have their way, then the sailors are pulled to bottom, and drowned… AND EATEN!
There are two stories about mermaids. Which one is true? Or are they both? It probably depends on those who encounter them. Ultimately, according to this story, Philip finds some kind of salvation in Syrena. We all are in need of forgiveness. She was willing. He just needed to admit his guilt and ask.
Syrena: You are hurt.
Philip: In body only. My mind is at peace. Because of you.
Philip: Yes. I was lost. The winds, the tides…they ought to renew a man’s faith. For me, only you.
Syrena: Philip, I can save you. You need only ask.
Philip: I seek but one thing.
Syrena: What is that?
Philip: Forgiveness. If not for me, you’d have never been captured.
Philip: Forgive me.
[She kisses him and pulls him under the water. We never see them again.]
Before this scene, Syrena surfaces, giving the chalices to Jack, telling him, “Do not waste my tear.” Why she would do this is unclear. She has briefly encountered Jack before when he “supported the missionary position” to open the glass coffin enough for Syrena to get air. But this doesn’t seem enough for her to go out of her way to retrieve the cups and give them to him. Nevertheless, he is able to use them to get the last few drops from the destroyed fountain. The Spanish have pulled down the fountain because, “Only God can grant eternal life. Not this pagan water.” (King George ironically had bristled early in the film about the Catholic Spanish Monarch using the Fountain to gain eternal life.)
Christianity has a long history of destroying “pagan” relics—including its books of history and legend. The Spanish were particularly zealous to destroy the paganism they found in the New World. In the process, they committed many atrocities. Some practices, like human sacrifice, were certainly worthy of being eliminated. If the Fountain of Youth were real, along with its ritual requiring the death of one soul to provide life for another, certainly it was good to tear it down so no one could use it again. In this tale, the last drops Jack acquires apparently serve its final use.
Christianity is based on an Innocent dying for others to save them. Neither Angelica nor Blackbeard are innocent, but it could be argued Angelica was the more worthy. But, who are we to make such judgments? Jack loses a part of his soul, I think, by playing God in this instance. He deceives them so Angelica lives and Blackbeard dies—just the opposite of what either of them intends. And, despite admitting his… stirrings? … feelings? … for her, he leaves the one he has saved from certain death on a deserted island. What is the purpose in that?
In my review of At World’s End, I concluded “Jack has learned to think and feel beyond himself. He has changed.” I guess Jack has terribly backslidden, as we used to call it. The ending of the movie is an anti-dénouement. It resolves nothing, and leaves us with a rather nihilistic view of the world. Jack abandons the woman he loves, Barbossa returns to piracy, and – in the after-credits scene, Angelica relishes the thought of using VooDoo to torture Jack.
Whether or not any of this will have anything to do with Dead Men Have No Tales, we have to wait a few days to find out. I just hope there is something more hopeful in it than we found in most of On Stranger Tides.