Gabez isn't a blacksmith. He's a pirate.
I remember when Pirates of the Caribbean first came out. I had been following it with some interest, because of a supposed Monkey Island connection, but when I had got around to see it at the cinemas, I was expecting nothing more than a few thrills, a few pirates and perhaps a laugh or two. What I got was more like fifty laughs, seven hundred pirates and an infinity of thrills. I was really impressed.
I was hooked, I recall, from the opening scene. A ship emerges, ghost-like, through the mist, and the haunting melody of "A pirate’s life for me," sung by a little freckled girl, floats across the water. You see a hand slowly approaching the girl’s neck, then suddenly grab her. She spins around with a gasp. It’s the opening of a horror film, more than anything else. You best start believing in ghost stories; you’re watching one.
I enjoy special effects, but what really impresses me is old fashioned solid reality – which is why I was more amazed with the ships than the undead pirates. The film made me appreciate just how amazing ships really are. "It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that's what a ship needs but what a ship is... what the Black Pearl really is... is freedom," rasps Captain Jack. Sure, he was drunk at the time, but his words still sent a chill down my spine.
DRINK UP ME HEARTIES YO HO
Aah, Jack. The opening scene was cool enough, but it’s Jack’s introduction and subsequent escape attempt that really made me get into the film. The character’s motivation is established clearly and early on: he works for self-preservation. Like Ben from Full Throttle, but with a hat.
In fact, you can forget all the pugwash about cursed Aztec gold – a plot that was too complicated for its own good, and weighed the middle part of the film down with tiresome exposition – what I was really interested in, story-wise, was who’s side Jack was on, and what he was going to do next. "A dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It's the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they're going to do something incredibly... stupid," he says towards the end of the film – and with those lines you brace yourself for another plot twist, another added complication to the situation. The thing is, all of this – following Jack’s actions – works extremely well, because it’s part of his character to change his mind and play other people off each other in order to get what he wants. Like Han Solo, but with a hat.
There are also, it has to be said, times where I’m sure that I’m watching Monkey Island: The Movie. The end cavern scene, for instance, is eerily familiar to the caverns in Escape from Monkey Island. It’s not so much a feeling of having seen this done before – it’s more like we’ve been here before, but now we’re hearing a different side to the story. Black Pearl is generally darker than Monkey Island (with the exception of LeChuck’s Revenge), as well as being more entwined with historical background. If Monkey Island 5 were ever made, I’d want it to be more like Black Pearl – darker, grittier, with a wider world populated by other pirates, civilians, magic and, most importantly, colonial powers.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m fascinated by what the British, French, Spanish etc. were doing in the Caribbean at that time. What really happened (albeit a more dramatic and Romantic version) is more interesting than plots about Australian land developers, or sea-monsters (but I’ll get onto that later).
Pirates really are interesting and exciting – but they, like dinosaurs, can be made to sound tiresome if treated in the wrong way. The film does a great job of making pirates seem exciting and mysterious, and it does this, I think, from scenes like Tortuga, where you see where pirates really come from. You look at a place like that, and think: "a wretched hive of scum and villainy," without having to be told that that is the case. Escape From Monkey Island made pirates seem dull in comparison, suggesting that they lived either in controlled exile, a Disney style resort island, or on an equally dull Capitalist island with Smurf-style housing (at least I think that’s what Lucre was about.) Curse of Monkey Island, it has to be said, nearly falls into this trap as well with the sleepy Plunder Island, but saves itself with sword-fights and the morbid Blood Island. Monkey Island 5, were it to be made, should be set on Tortuga: now that really is a game I’d like to play.
DAFT LIKE JACK
If you ask me, Black Pearl is a film that has had a long-lasting effect disproportionate to how good or groundbreaking it really is. A clear analogue would be with Star Wars or Harry Potter; these can be hard to critically defend, but on a personal level they are utterly enjoyable and involving. Black Pearl isn’t Citizen Kane, but it is fun to watch – and by bringing pirates to life, making them as interesting as they should be, it manages to appeal to almost anyone, from six-year-old boys to ninety-year-old grandmothers.
Ionce went to a classical concert, playing for free in a park, and, after giving us a rendition of Bach, they went onto the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. It just goes to show how the series has already got under our cultural skin. It’s the power of pirates that does this, I think: making them frightening and terrible. Black Pearl is the first film to do this properly, just as The Secret of Monkey Island was the first game to show pirates as pirates. In the SCUMM Bar, we have drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, prostitutes, men with scars down their face, etc. – pirates in all their glory. It’s a shame this wasn’t continued with Escape from Monkey Island – who do we have in the SCUMM Bar this time? Er, dart players and then... sushi.
Robert Louis Stevenson, in his children’s book Treasure Island, knew the importance of authentic details:
"The next instant I saw Black Dog in full flight, and the captain hotly pursuing, both with drawn cutlasses, and the forme' streaming blood from the left shoulder. Just at the door, that captain aimed at the fugitive one last tremendous cut, which would certainly have split him to the chine had it not beer intercepted by our big signboard of Admiral Benbow. You may see the notch on the lower side of the frame to this day."
In Black Pearl, as in Treasure Island, blood is spillable and death is real. We also get the detail of the notch being on the signboard frame from where there was a battle. The environment has a past and a future, like it is a real place. The locations in Black Pearl, likewise, feel like they have been around for a long time, and my hat again goes off to the set builders, more so than the special effects artists, who made places like Port Royale and Tortuga look weathered and battle-worn.
Another section of Treasure Island reads:
“When I got back with the basin, the doctor had already ripped up the captain's sleeve, and exposed his great sinewy arm. It was tattooed in several places. 'Here's luck,' 'A fair wind,' and 'Billy Bones his fancy,' were very neatly and clearly executed on the forearm; and up near the shoulder there was a sketch of a gallows and a man hanging from it—done, as I thought, with great spirit.”
The same scene appears in Pirates – “had a brush with the east India trading company, pirate?” - and again, it is these authentic-feeling moments that add depth to the story, bringing us closer to the action, as if what we are seeing here might really have happened.
THE WORST PIRATE I’VE EVER SEEN/
Not that Black Pearl isn’t without its preposterous moments. We are supposed to swallow that child Elizabeth is the only one who sees the ghost ship (conveniently) sailing away from the burnt wreckage in the opening scene. Later on, Jack zip-wires his way down a (conveniently placed) piece of rope, somehow managing to attach his handcuffs to the wire, a feat that should be impossible, unless he had some magic voodoo powder in his pockets.
The important thing is to give the impression of real, historical details. It’s important that we’re not exposed to the undead until after the real-life setting is established – that way, we don’t feel like we are watching some removed parallel history, but our own history – just with additional fantasy elements tacked on.
Will Turner claiming that “The tang is nearly the full width of the blade” is a little like Luke Skywalker’s desire to “go to Toshi station to pick up some power converters.” It sounds like a screenplay writer trying to make dialogue more realistic by throwing in some technical sounding words – and I’m no fool, I know that movies mess with reality all the time – but like I said, the impression is what’s important.
Pirates seem scary and therefore cool; locations seem lived in and are therefore more real; the story seems historically based and therefore the fantasy is more believable. This formula would have made a good movie – but with a fitting and lively soundtrack, solid sets, well-made action sequences and, most importantly, an intriguing main character, Black Pearl becomes not just a good movie, but an excellent one.
It’s a lot of fun, and will appeal to any LucasArts fan due to clever dialogue and a rich, believable world – not to mention the Monkey Island connection.
Now bring me that horizon.