It’s hard to believe but it’s true. The very first POTC movie, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’, was released on this day fifteen years ago. In celebration, we’re looking back on the swashbuckler flick, considering why it was such a success then and is still regarded as a classic today.
At the time of its release, ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’ wasn’t all smooth sailing (if you’ll pardon the pun). Journalists expected it to be a flop and it’s no wonder why. Attempts at the pirate genre hadn’t brought box office gold for years, and in the top billing you had Johnny Depp who, while a big name, hadn’t even been heard of by the young audiences that the film was geared towards. Fresh off the massively successful ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, having Orlando Bloom on board (last pun, promise) was a plus, but name me one movie based on a theme park ride (‘The Haunted Mansion’ and ‘Mission to Mars’ come to mind) that has actually worked. And yet ‘Pirates’ defied all expectations, earning $654.3 million and inspiring a franchise that would gross over $4.5 billion worldwide.
What were the ingredients that made ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’ such a success? Well, first and foremost, it is one of those rare films like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ or ‘The Mummy’ that manages to perfectly combine action and adventure. Looking back on the film, those epic sword fights between Will Turner (Bloom) and Jack Sparrow (Depp) – sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow – and between Sparrow and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush – who really is, it can’t be emphasised enough, just awesome in that role) immediately come to mind. Their choreography was simple, but effective, and the camerawork capturing them (DOP Dariusz Wolski, who worked on the subsequent ‘Pirates’ movies, and more recently, ‘The Martian’ and ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’) made a big impression. The sequels to ‘Curse’ tried to one-up those sword fights, including the fight on that enormous spinning wheel in ‘Dead Man’s Chest’, but they didn’t quite recapture the magic of those thrilling one-on-one battles.
The casting also ended up catching lightning in a bottle. Keira Knightley was only 18 when cast in the lead female role of Elizabeth Swann, but her chemistry with Bloom, essential to the gooey love plot that female audiences go nuts for, and great comic timing with co-stars Jack Davenport as Norrington and Jonathon Pryce (who would go on to play the very different role of the High Sparrow in ‘Game of Thrones’) as her character’s father, made her one of the numerous pieces of the puzzle to fit in just right. An even bigger piece, and what would prove to be the most crucial casting choice, was Depp. While he would soon become too extreme in his kooky character acting, to the point that his performances were more creepy than charismatic, Depp really did make Jack Sparrow his own. Between the distinct physicality he brought to the character, including a silly walk and hand gestures, dry sense of humour, trickster nature, and delivery of brilliant one liners, Depp deservedly earned a major career comeback for his performance and it is truly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. You still see Captain Jack Sparrow pop up around Halloween as the hair, make-up and costume of the character are so recogniseable.
The aforementioned casting of Rush meant the film had a brilliant villain too, and ‘Pirates’ managed to incorporate elements of horror in their cursed, immortal antagonists without making the film too scary for young audiences. We also can’t pay homage to ‘Pirates’ without mentioning Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, which was pitch-perfect for the film. Now in this writer’s opinion, none of the sequels were of any use, or need, but of course the money they went on to make would say otherwise. A sixth film, reports suggested last year, is in the works, but after the fifth instalment (alternately titled ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ and ‘Salazar’s Revenge’) essentially took a dump on the original film by bringing in Knightley and Bloom for the most pathetic, not arsed cameo ever, one doesn’t intend to even acknowledge its existence.
Still, let us not sully the quintessential ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’. Sure it’s not without its flaws. There are numerous little plot holes, it can be gimmicky, and Keira Knightley’s pouty face every time she is doing something suspicious can be irksome. However, it remains thoroughly enjoyable. It’s exciting, laugh-out-loud funny, delightfully quotable, and all-out fun. Like all great action-adventure movies, it brings you back to that simple sense of joy and wonder you experienced as a child. If that’s not the sign of a classic, I don’t know what is.
See also: 15 years on… The Matrix Reloaded or complete the quiz How well do you remember Pirates of the Caribbean?