The Films of Gore Verbinski Part IV: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Continuing a limited series of articles exploring the stylistic development of director Gore Verbinski, beginning with Mouse Hunt (1997) and ending with A Cure for Wellness (2016).

If you didn’t know Gore Verbinski’s name after 2002’s smash horror hit The Ring broke box office records, you certainly knew his work the following year when Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew stumbled, swam, and swung their way to critical and commercial success in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Another of Verbinski’s film history-laden forays into one of cinema’s classic genres, Curse of the Black Pearl revived the swashbuckling adventure picture and brought it into the 21st century. Incorporating influences ranging from classic films starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, to a Disneyland attraction, to exhaustively researched pirate history (and more than a pinch of pirate myth), Curse of the Black Pearl saw Verbinski reaching new heights of mainstream success while managing to stay mostly true to the style he had developed in his previous work.
The film-historical basis for Curse of the Black Pearl bears discussing first, not only for movie buffs but because the swashbuckler genre itself was somewhat outdated, even in 2003. Films falling in this category generally feature swordfighting, large-scale action set pieces, and a virtuous central character who often must operate outside the law to fight for True Justice. The screenwriters of the Pirates franchise, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, had previously had success in the genre, with The Mask of Zorro (1998, dir. Martin Campbell) grossing a robust $250 million; other examples might include the earlier Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), starring Kevin Costner, and Errol Flynn’s final film The Master of Ballantrae (1953), on which Curse of the Black Pearl‘s sword master Bob Anderson got his start. Overall, however, the high costs and difficult shooting conditions often associated with such productions meant that swashbucklers had been few and far between after the mid-1950s.
Since The Mask of Zorro fell in a long line of films featuring the masked vigilante that stretches all the way back to 1920’s The Mark of Zorro (dir. Fred Niblo, starring Fairbanks), it can be helpful to view the swashbuckler genre through today’s lens of superhero film franchises; the continuing adventures of known heroes like Zorro, Robin Hood, and Captain America have inspired audiences throughout the century-plus of film history to return to the cinema again and again, hungry to see how their favorite protagonist handles his (almost always his) latest peril. As these series continue, we see time and again that the dangers get bigger, the locations get more exotic, and the stunts and visual effects consistently push the boundaries of both the human body and filmmaking technology. Curse of the Black Pearl then functions as a kind of bridge between the old and new, setting the stage for a now decades-long wave of franchise filmmaking that has altered the landscape of cinema for the foreseeable future.
Curse of the Black Pearl follows young lovers Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as they are swept up in the adventures of (in)famous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). When the film begins, Sparrow has been deposed as captain of the titular ship by his first mate, Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and is attempting to reclaim his position. This early portion of the story takes place in sun-drenched Port Royal, Jamaica, essentially the polar opposite of the steel-gray Seattle of Verbinski’s previous film The Ring. While it lacks the color palette that characterizes much of the director’s visual style, multiple scenes throughout the first quarter or so of Curse of the Black Pearl utilize another of Verbinski’s favored techniques: syncing up character movements with the film’s score, which provides both auditory emphasis for the image and a real sense of playfulness; Curse of the Black Pearl may be a PG-13 action epic but it remains a bloodless family film based on a Disney ride, and in no way does Verbinski appear ashamed of that fact. The prime example of this stylistic idiosyncrasy comes in the complex and half-comic dance of the first sword duel between Will Turner and Jack Sparrow, which harkens all the way back to Mouse Hunt as each in a sequence of nimble steps corresponds to the staccato strings of the soundtrack.
Verbinski’s moody, almost sickly color palette from The Ring does start to creep into Curse of the Black Pearl around the one hour mark when the story takes a supernatural turn. Barbossa reveals that he and the crew have been cursed with immortality after stealing Aztec gold and, when exposed to moonlight, they transform into frightful, skeletal versions of themselves. As the aesthetics begin to fall in line with Verbinski’s previous work, so too do the story and its philosophical underpinnings. His characteristic concern for the issues surrounding familial relations becomes central to the Pirates trilogy when Will learns that his father was himself a pirate who also sailed on the Black Pearl. Having been raised to hate pirates, this revelation forces Will to try to reconcile the principles of the so-called honest society he has been a part of with his apparently innate attraction to the perceived freedom and adventure of the pirate lifestyle. While the curse of immortality laid on the pirates by stolen Aztec gold is not passed down through generations, the rapacious inclination that led them down such a path certainly appears to be.
These stylistic elements aligned well with what producer Jerry Bruckheimer was looking for when he took over the project; as Bruckheimer tells it in an interview included on the film’s blu-ray release, he saw the deft humor that Verbinski brought to the darker parts of Mouse Hunt and The Mexican and knew that he would capture the right tone on Curse of the Black Pearl. His faith in the director may have been somewhat overstated, as other video featurettes on the blu-ray show that Bruckheimer was consistently on-location with the production team and often literally, it appears, breathing down Verbinski’s neck as he directed the picture. In fairness to Bruckheimer, the massive risk of a budget nearly triple that of the director’s previous film coupled with a leading man who until that point had mainly acted in small-scale dramas was likely the driving force behind this hands-on approach. Given these circumstances and what we see in the final product, it’s clear that, while Verbinski’s style was what got him the job in the first place, he was still somewhat penned in creatively. It comes as no surprise then that his next project, the darkly comic character study The Weather Man (2005), was his most personal yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is currently streaming on Disney+

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