“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the first in the franchise, is an objectively perfect film. The narrative is rich and textured — what is ultimately a love story is wrapped up in well-choreographed swordplay, clever deals, an undead pirate crew and an iconic score.
While the fourth and fifth movies are more forgettable, the second and third films are a tour de force. They cannot be matched in scale or thrill.
Consider, for example, the final act of the third film. It’s pouring rain. Two ships — the Flying Dutchman and the Black Pearl — sail into a massive whirlpool that has opened up in the middle of the ocean, and they’re trapped circling each other along the circumference. An operatic score is only disrupted by the clanging of swords as Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and tentacled villain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) are balanced on a sail mast, locked in an intense fight for the chest containing Jones’ still-beating heart. Jack chops off a section of Jones’ tentacle beard, catches a rope, swings himself around toward the mast and fires his pistol — a perfect shot, knocking the chest from Jones’ lobster claw hand.
Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a hopelessly romantic blacksmith, and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the governor’s daughter, also get married in there, somewhere.
This dramatic finale is only the most indelible moment in a slew of memorable scenes. If you’ve come for action, look no further than the sword fight in which an admiral for the East India Trading Company, James Norrington (Jack Davenport), Jack and Will battle on a giant rotating wheel. If you’ve come for romance, think on the heartbreaking moment when Jones plays (using his tentacles!) the melody kept inside Calypso’s heart-shaped locket on the pipe organ.
“Pirates of the Caribbean” can’t be lauded without acknowledging that the franchise’s anchor, Jack Sparrow, is portrayed by a man accused of domestic violence. It’s a mark that will forever taint the franchise, and it’s something that should inform the way we watch the films. With Depp apparently ousted from the franchise and a reboot in the works, one can only look forward to how the franchise moves forward.
For me, “Pirates of the Caribbean” defined the best of what blockbusters could be. In Elizabeth, I had female character whom I could aspire to embody. In Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), I had a villain who captured my fascination like few characters had before.
The theme that umbrellas the franchise is captured best in a quote from Jack Sparrow: “That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and 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.” And this message left an impression on the world, and on me especially — for all the films’ thrills, wisecracks and tricks, the adventure is, ultimately, about the freedom to chase the horizon in front of you.