The newest installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides is being released nationwide today, which would make now a perfect time to look back and explore the history of Pirates at the movies. Up until the release of The Curse of the Black Pearl, pirate movies famously underperformance the box office, with the Renny Harlin directed picture Cutthroat Island holding the world record for the biggest box office failure, but the release of The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003 led to the start of the pirates franchise which has gone on to gross $2,681,440,232 across the three films.
Though swashbuckling cinema was quite popular in the 1950's and 60's its appeal entered into a gradual decline as new technology allowed directors to create more science fiction and fantasy based films. Though there are a few minor exceptions, the pirate genre was largely ignored until therelease of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but why is it that pirates weren't popular anymore? And what was it about Pirates of the Caribbean that made it such a massive hit?
The 50's and 60's was the golden age of American Cinema, with studios producing a massive amount of films, many of which have become known as some of the most best and most enduring films ever made. During this time, Hollywood produced mainly the same type of film, never straying too far from what was popular, this included the pirate genre. Though these pirate features were not as popular as the western, they retained some of the popular qualities, like the anti-hero, the love interest, and of course the villainous pirates.
When talking about pirates, one can not mention Robert Louis Stevenson's seminal novel Treasure Island, which contained all the pirate hallmarks which would become stereotypes, like the hidden treasure, the wooden leg, the parrot on the shoulder, and the general debauchery and anarchy which pirates would come to symbolize.
There are over 50 different film and TV adaptations of Treasure Island, ranging from the Muppets Treasure Island, with one of the most recent being Disney's animated feature four years in the making, Treasure Planet, transplanting the Treasure Island story and characters to space. The film was a commercial disaster, similar to the other pirate themed films which preceded it. Called the curse of the box office, most studios avoided the pirate genre, this was until the production of The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie which was surprisingly based on a theme park ride.
Black Pearl was a critical and commercial success, earning $654,264,015 from a budget of $150 million, and spawning a franchise which would consist of books,video games and as of today three sequels, and perhaps most importantly the character of Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of CaptainJack Sparrow, using modern rock stars as inspiration, Depp based his performance on Rolling Stone Kieth Richard, who even had a cameo in the third film as Sparrow's father. Though the character was written as a straight up pirate, it was Depp who decided to imitate modern drug and drink addled rock stars for his off kilter portrayal of the pirate captain, something which Disney executives were wary of, up until the release and subsequent massive success of the film, especially the character of Jack Sparrow.
Would it be fair to attribute the revival of the pirate genre to Johnny Depp's character alone and does it even make sense to call the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise a revival of the genre? Though one could, and i would, argue that the success of Pirates of the Caribbean is due in large part to Johnny Depp and his masterful portrayal of Jack Sparrow.
Even when considering the first two sequels, Jack Sparrow was the most entertaining and engaging character, as the other main characters, the supporting cast, and the storyline all seemed to flitter between confusing and mediocre. The new release of On Stranger Tides, sees the return of Captain Jack Sparrow and also Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, but has jettisoned the characters of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, replacing Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley with Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz, as the infamous Captain Blackbeard and his daughter. Though the film is expected to make millions of dollars, the critical reception is not so easy to predict following the mixed reception the previous two installments were greeted with upon release.
The release of four different pirate films would signify the resurgence of the genre, there aren't any other recent films of merit within the pirate genre, only the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, with a script for the fifth film having been submitted to Disney executives, with a sixth supposedly on the way. One would hope for a resurgence in pirate films, with the eccentric characters and the intrinsic high adventure appealing to movie goers, well one would assume so following the success of this franchise, but who is going to be the next person to try and make a pirate film? Whoever it may be, there is not only the stigma of pirate films being box office failures, but now the realisation that it would be compared to Pirates of the Caribbean, the only recent pirate film to have been a box office success.
By Joseph Weeks