The Curse of the Black Pearl began with a ditty created by George Edward Bruns and Francis Xavier Atencio for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland. Dead Man’s Chest early on uses Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dead Man’s Chest” from Treasure Island. Can you build good movies from ditties? I will leave that for the viewer to decide. I’d rather talk about the spiritual themes in the movies. [By the way, my series on the first four Pirates movies are being written with the assumption the reader is familiar with the films. If you have yet to see Dead Man’s Chest, it would be helpful for you to view it before reading on.] After the thwarted wedding scene (more on that later), Gibbs is seen singing (if you can call it that) the song just as Stevenson wrote it:
Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Stevenson makes an unusual use of the idiom “done for,” as in “we’re done for.” Such is the life of a pirate. They are “done for” because they are in league with the bottle and Beelzebub. Decisions have consequences. Dead Man’s Chest is filled with people trying the use said chest to gain freedom from the consequences of their actions.
Jack Sparrow has made a deal with the Devil. In return for being able to captain the Black Pearl for 13 years, he agrees to serve on the Flying Dutchman for 100. Jack’s time is up, and he knows it. He knew it even before Bootstrap Bill comes to tell him. That’s why he braves sneaking into the pirate prison to find the “drawing” of the key. He needs to find out more about the key and the chest in order to get out of the deal he has made. But he is conflicted—as Tia Darma will say much later in the film, “Jack Sparrow does not know what he wants.”
We do not understand, until Darma tells us, why Jack’s compass is not working properly. As in a good detective story, we are given hints, but the solution is not immediately apparent. And it won’t be until the next movie that we understand the consequences of destroying the heart hidden in the chest. No wonder Jack is conflicted. He wants a way out, but none of the solutions presenting themselves are satisfactory. Stranded on the deserted island with Elizabeth in the first movie, he tells her:
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 sails; that’s what a ship needs. Not what a ship is. What the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.
But even if he has the Pearl, and controls Davy Jones by holding his heart, what kind of freedom is that? Rather than go where he pleases, he would have to shadow the Flying Dutchman forever to keep Jones in check. And, if he kills him outright, there is still the “beastie” waiting for him. And there’s also that “honest streak”—a desire to be a “good man”… which Elizabeth will turn to her advantage.
Which brings us back to the thwarted marriage. Elizabeth is frustrated. She wants to be married to Will. In her prison cell, she tells Will (to the disconcertment of her father), “If it weren’t for these bars, I’d have you already…. I’ll wait for you.” But that wait is far from a patient one. Incognito on a ship in her search for Will, she overhears the crewmen talking about the stowaway they know is on board. Finding her dress, they surmise:
Sailor #2: There is a female presence amongst us here, sir. All the men, they can feel it. [agreement from the Crew]
Sailor #3: Belongs to a lady widowed before her marriage, I figure it. Searching for her husband lost the sea.
Sailor #4: Virgin, too, likely as not. And that bodes ill by all accounts.
The comment about her being a “virgin” certainly adds to Elizabeth’s frustration. What would she be willing to give to have her Will?
There is an interesting conversation between Elizabeth and Jack on the deck of the Pearl before they meet up with Will.
Jack: My tremendous intuitive sense of the female creature informs me that you are… troubled.
Elizabeth: I just thought I’d be married by now. I’m so ready to be married.
Jack: [Jack pops open a bottle of rum, hands it to her and she takes a drink, looking upset] You know… [clears throat] Lizzie, I am Captain of a ship and being Captain of a ship I could, in fact, perform a marriage right here. Right on this deck. Right now.
Elizabeth: [Elizabeth looks even more disgusted, hands him the bottle and walks away] No, thank you.
Jack: [follows her] Why not? We are very much alike you and I. I and you… us.
Elizabeth: Except for a sense of honor and decency and a moral center. And personal hygiene.
Jack: Trifles. You Will come over to my side, I know it.
Elizabeth: You seem very certain.
Jack: One word, love: curiosity. You long for freedom. You long to do what you want to do because you want it. To act on selfish impulse. You want to see what it’s like. One day… you won’t be able to resist.
Elizabeth: Why doesn’t your compass work?
Jack: My compass works fine.
Elizabeth: Because you and I are alike. And there will come a moment when you have a chance to show it. To do the right thing.
Jack: I love those moments. I like to wave at them as they pass by.
Elizabeth: You’ll have the chance to do something… something courageous. And when you, you’ll discover something. That you’re a good man.
Jack: All evidence to the contrary.
Elizabeth: [laughs] No, I have faith in you. You want to know why?
Jack: Do tell, dearie.
Elizabeth: [leans in close with each sentence] Curiosity. You’re going to want it – a chance to be admired – and gain the rewards that follow. You won’t be able to resist. You’re going to want to know what it tastes like.
Jack: I do want to know what it tastes like.
Elizabeth: [Jack caresses her cheek] But seeing as you’re a good man, I know that you’d never put me in a position that would compromise my honor. [Jack is ready to kiss her when he sees the black mark return to the palm of his hand and snatches his hand away.] I’m proud of you, Jack.
Elizabeth and Jack are both conflicted, as indicated in how the compass is reacting. Elizabeth can’t hide her feelings for the “bad boy” Jack, but tries to cover it up with talking about goodness and honor. But she is beginning to play him. She is toying with his feelings, and will turn it to her advantage later. When the Kraken attacks, Jack tries to escape in a longboat, but changes his mind, choosing the courageous act. Elizabeth, however, is unwilling to give up her life – including her assured life with Will – and chooses Jack’s last “heroic” act for him by chaining him to the mast. So much for compromising her honor. She has already done that herself.
Earlier in the film, Davy Jones tells the sailors who are about to die: “Do you fear that dark abyss? All your deeds laid bare. All your sins punished. I can offer you an escape…. Do you not fear death?” What are people willing to do to thwart death—to avoid the final judgment – at least temporarily? Sparrow later was willing to trade himself for 100 souls. Jones asks him, “But I wonder, Sparrow… can you live with this? Can you condemn an innocent man – a friend – to a lifetime of servitude in your name while you roam free?” Jack responds flippantly, “Yep. I’m good with it.”
Elizabeth trades Jack’s life for a handful of souls in a longboat. Is she fine with that? Not really. But that’s another story…
I leave you with a couple scriptures to contemplate:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Mark 8: 34-37 NIV
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV