The Sparrow and the Gentleman: Identity in Modern Pirate Media

Pirates of the Caribbean and Our Flag Means Death

Dead Men Tell No Tales

I grew up in a small seaside town, one which had a local Captain Jack Sparrow. He would arrive, unprompted, to random events in full Sparrow regalia and he never broke character. It didn’t really matter what the event was, Sparrow would just be there. It didn’t even have to be at the beach, he would swagger towards parades and council meetings alike. It would be pub night, but also with a pirate. I don’t believe he was ever paid to be Sparrow, nor asked, I think it was an elaborate hobby. Perhaps he did parties, and this was all a marketing stunt. I will say, it was a good impersonation, he had the voice down and everything. He would interact with people as though he worked at one of the Disney Parks. He had nicknames for locals, he used to call me Red Riding Hood because I wore this long red coat every day one winter and he always remembered. It was as though Sparrow just lived in the neighborhood, a fixture of an otherwise quiet town. Then one day he disappeared. He had been around for about 4 years or so and then nothing. I never knew his real name or who he was, but I believe he had to stop calling himself Sparrow because of copywrite. He would still be Sparrow though; he just couldn’t legally say so. He started calling himself Captain Jack and then something else before he stopped appearing. It is rather appropriate that our Sparrow stole his own identity, it’s certainly a pirate move.

What I find interesting now is that this man didn’t just want to be any pirate, he wanted to be a specific pirate, a movie pirate. There are touristy pirate sailings and events out there, but they try not to be specific, that way they don’t tread on any copyrighted material. They are essentially pirates who don’t steal. They might mention someone like Blackbeard in a vague way, maybe even Davy Jones’ locker, but not someone as specific as Sparrow.

There were lineups outside of my local theatre when the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were released. My friends and I even dressed up as pirates for them, just stealing dress shirt and belts from our mothers. We weren’t nearly as impressive as our local Sparrow, who began appearing very the summer the first film was released. There was something about living by the ocean and watching a pirate movie that just felt right, in fact, I had never been to Disneyland, so at the time, I had no idea the film was based on a ride. It was the most exciting film I had ever seen, and in no way realistic, but that was what made it so fun. It got so popular here that my fencing instructor, and yes, I am that kind of a person, would just start shouting, “no pirates! No pirate swinging in my gymnasium” anytime a student would try to swing their foil in the wrong way. Everyone either wanted to be Inigo Montoya or Sparrow, but neither figure showed proper fencing style. All of this was around the same time as those dramatic commercials about pirating movies, the ‘you wouldn’t steal a car, so why steal a movie’ conversation of the mid-2000s. To watch that ad right before you watch a Pirates film certainly sends some mixed messaging. I mention this because the Pirate series played a huge role in my seaside community, but more specifically, that version of piratehood. However, much like other Disney owned material, Sparrow is a legal entity, meaning fair use is fine, but anything further is going to be a problem. And yet, in my small town, Sparrow was just being Sparrow, not really caring about his pirated identity.

“The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Pirates movies are not historically accurate (pause for dramatic effect). I kind of hate the term accurate to begin with, but here we are. The films are based on a ride, which in turn, was inspired by early pirate films. While doing some research for this piece, I came across some bizarre articles which tried to list the differences between real pirates and these films, but one of their points was that Davy Jones doesn’t have a tentacle face, so they kind of missed the point. Pirates were, and are, real, but what the Pirate films really miss is the defining thing about being a pirate: the stealing. The story is never focused on stealing but on the consequences of stealing, as it quickly develops into this supernatural quest. Take the first film: Barbossa and his crew are undead because they stole cursed Aztec gold. Gold and other jewels were certainly stolen in this era, but so were sugar, salt, and spices, none of which really make an appearance in pirate cinema.

The Disney films are accurate but only to their own inventions, what they have already established in their ride. Real-life pirates are far more difficult to study because so much of what we know is either lost, biased, or invented. For instance, sometimes pirates would take a ship hostage and force the men to buy their ship and cargo back, just because they already had so much stuff and didn’t have room to steal more. That never happens in the Pirates films, as those characters are constantly escaping from situations and taking boats, but never this back and forth reselling. Even when they do steal, it’s not reflective of what pirates typically stole. Salt and sugar were as valuable- well, at least more practical – as gold. The whole buried treasure, chest of gold, was not really a thing, it’s largely a myth from movies and literature. The Pirates films do demonstrate that pirates were rather democratic, and had lots of rules on board, while also establishing that it’s hard to say just how rule-based things were in practice. However, what is often neglected in this contemporary lens is that the most powerful pirate was not Blackbeard nor Captain Kidd, they weren’t even based in the Caribbean. It was Captain Ching Shih, or Zheng Yi Sao, a Chinese woman who had one point commanded between 40,000 and 70,000 men and had roughly 1,000 ships. She was so powerful that the government paid her to retire and still left her with all the money and ships she had stolen from them. The third Pirate film includes a character named Mistress Ching, as a rough adaptation of her, as that film technically takes place in a different time period and can’t officially include her. Mistress Ching is only given a handful of lines, however, with no reference to her insane power and background, which is typical of Western pirate media as this historic figure doesn’t quite fit their chaotic and largely white pirate model.

So, if the pirate image we know today is a cinematic invention, what was it made for?

“No Survivors? Then where do the stories come from; I wonder.”

It’s crucial to remember that the Pirate films were based on a ride, and not just any ride. It’s an experience ride, meaning it’s not as fast paced as a roller-coaster, you really just sit in a boat and look at things. There are a few sudden drops, but everything else is just an animatronic display, so you can pretend that you are in Tortuga and traveling among pirates. There are even explosions around your boat as you pass by a ship, with shouting and cheering. It’s immersive, playing on the rider’s desire for adventure, but with two crucial details. The rider is never positioned as a pirate, they are just passing through this world. Further still, it’s an adventure and world which no longer exists, and is in fact largely made up. There are pirates today, but they are nothing like this swashbuckling ideal our media has invented. Rather, most of what we think of as ‘pirate’ came from that outsider’s desire. There are very few pirate narratives that are told from the pirate’s perspective, even the Pirate films align the audience with Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner, two strangers to this pirate world. Their introduction to this world, and rules, acts as our introduction, as although we follow Sparrow, he is never the only perspective. Another example is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which is told from Jim’s perspective, a young boy on his first voyage. The same goes for the Darling children in Peter Pan, as Hook is never the storyteller, even in the film Hook (1991). There is always this distance, and the reason for it is because pirates are not good people, but people are still fascinated with them. There is an inherent moral dilemma in that, as films want to include pirates, but still make them likeable to a certain extent. That means leaving out or just straight up censoring certain things, everything from rape to slavery, to broadly excluding people of colour in these films, or if they are included, they are made into a caricature.

When I say distanced here, it is a very white defined viewership I am referring to. White British people are one of the reasons pirate literature became so popular, as they wanted to know more about this world, to even interact with it, but never directly. This version of piratehood never existed outside of films and literature, and so there is always this inherent outside to it. That distanced and curious perspective is indicative of the audience, it’s one of the reasons stories like Treasure Island were so popular. British people wanted to imagine what pirates were like without ever having to meet a pirate. They became a sort of moral conversation, complicated by the fact that pirates have notoriously been hired by different countries to target other countries, like the British privateer Francis Drake, so they were good guys to one and evil to the other. More so, if you chart these stories, the pirates rarely win entirely, in fact they generally lose. Long John Silver in Treasure Island gets captured and loses his crew, but in most film adaptations, Jim lets him go with some treasure, because they have this complicated relationship and morality is equally complicated. Jim, however, swears off ever looking for gold, and just retires from the sea. The expedition was enough, and since Jim is our protagonist, and eyes into this world, the story is essentially telling us the same. Enjoy it, recognize that Silver’s type is always paranoid and will always lose, and don’t become a pirate yourself.

Peter Pan does the same, it wants you to be afraid of Captain Hook while still dressing up and playing pirates as the Darling children do. So long as you don’t become one, because that appeal is always mediated by the fact that they lose and only exist in this fictional Neverland world. The Pirate films never go that far with their commentary, and I think my small town’s reaction to the films is evident of that. It’s distanced enough just by the supernatural elements and the narrative’s era. Everyone wanted to be a pirate after watching them, but notably, just the characters, not pirates in general. There wasn’t a string of ocean-based robbery in my town, just one Sparrow posing for photos and chatting with locals. He was the image of Sparrow and not a pirate, as he wasn’t pickpocketing or anything- good luck telling someone Captain Jack Sparrow robbed you though.

“Instead of killing with weapons, he kills with kindness.”
Our Flag Means Death (2022-)

This past week saw the release of David Jenkins’ new series, Our Flag Means Death (2022), staring and Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby, which is loosely based on the real-life Gentleman Pirate and his surprising friendship with Blackbeard. Based on the first episodes, the show pokes fun at our expectations of pirates through Stede Bonnet (the Gentleman Pirate), as he believes in everything opposite of a ‘traditional’ pirate. He encourages his crew to talk through trauma rather than fighting, he gives them craft activities and reads them bedtime stories, he even handles robberies in the most gentleman-like way he can. By not being traditional, or stereotypical, the show both parodies and enjoys the tropes associated with the pirate genre. It’s similar to Jemaine Clement and Waititi’s approach to vampire cinema in What We Do in the Shadows (2014), as the film, and later TV show (2019-) created by Clement, both implement and tease certain genre expectations and earlier films. Vladislav, for instance, is a clear reference to Gary Oldman’s version of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), whereas Viago (and the film’s documentary format) is a reference to Interview With a Vampire (1994).

Blackbeard is another excellent example of this, as he is conventionally known as one of the most fearsome pirates that ever lived, but much of that legacy was heavily curated by Blackbeard himself. It’s noteworthy that Blackbeard appears in the fourth Pirate film (2011), but the only way the film can justify his intense legacy is to give him supernatural powers. There are countless stories of Blackbeard randomly killing crew who didn’t pay him enough respect, stories of his madness and paranoia, like carrying twelve loaded guns at once, and of course, the famous story where Blackbeard would routinely set his beard on fire while in battle. It’s hard to say how many of these stories are true, if any, as Blackbeard was also inventing because stories travel faster than he could. It got to the point where he would arrive on a ship, and the crew would be so terrified that they would willingly forfeit anything on board. It didn’t matter what was true or not, the story had power all by itself. Even the sight of his flag was enough to inspire absolute desertion on a victim’s vessel. He didn’t have to do anything, and that is rather telling of our current depiction of pirates. We have essentially continued what Blackbeard did by playing with the legacy of pirates and using them with a specific intention, whether it be moral or financial.

“Do you know how hard it is to find someone doing something original out here?”

Our Flag Means Death is the perfect way of talking about this legacy, in history and cinema. Bonnet is a terrible pirate because he assumed pirates were just like these stories, notably, stories told and read from this distanced place. He didn’t envision having to kill anyone, those descriptions were never particularly accurate in what he was reading. I suspect the show (just based on the first three episodes that have aired) will later focus on Blackbeard’s persona versus his life as Edward Teach, and the way the image of a person is more powerful, or at least more long lasting, than anything they do. The show is creating this interesting conversation about piracy in story and history, and the overlaps between them. It’s also actively teasing the Pirates films, especially the second episode where islanders capture Bonnet and his men, and Bonnet’s group immediately assumes that they are cannibals, when in fact they are just rightfully distrustful of white people and go on to hold a fair trial against Bonnet, even calling him and the rest his men racist for making that assumption. It’s a clear reference to the second Pirates film (2006), where Sparrow and his men get captured by cannibals and Jack tricks them into thinking he is a God. The Pirates films have long been criticized for refusing to even mention the overwhelming colonialism, slavery, and racism of the pirate world and this era, and the films also rely on harmful and racist character tropes. It’s important to have representation in works like these, not just because it the right thing to do, but because it existed then. To whitewash this conversation as Pirates often does is a huge issue, and it’s insane to never even mention these elements or include even basic representation given the level to which they define our world and the historic pirate world.

Our Flag Means Death, by contrast, includes a diverse cast where each character is developed and fully involved in storylines. It isn’t just about Bonnet, it’s about the entire crew. I can’t honestly remember one crew members name from the Pirate films, and yet I know everyone’s name in Our Flag Means Death, and something about their character. Again, I am writing this having just seen the first three episodes, but I imagine that the show will continue with this dedicated character building, especially as the end of the third episode officially introduced us to Blackbeard. Notably, Blackbeard is played Waititi who is Māori, and many online have already begun to incorporate that into their discussion about race in the show.

Our Flag Means Death is evidently poking at stereotypes, showing that they are ridiculous, historically inaccurate, and just plain inappropriate. However, like What We Do in the Shadows, the show still has fun in this space, as it evokes these themes, storylines, and character types, and then goes further with them. It approaches from a different perspective, often by simply asking what this would look like in the real world, outside of this insane and whitewashed cinematic kind. It also seems to be building (just based on the first three episodes) towards more queer storylines*, especially between Lucius and the other crew members, but also notably, between Blackbeard and Bonnet. LGBTQ representation is rarely seen in pirate media, even though it has always existed. It should also always be anticipated anytime a historical study highlights two figures that were very good friends, because often times there is a lot of heteronormative bias involved in this reading. Take Emily Dickinson and Susan Huntington Gilbert, and Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, even Achilles and Patroclus in stories.

There was a type of same-sex civil union on pirate ships, called matelotage, which is often read as an economic partnership, but that is also from the same historians who think that think friendship is so abundant in history. I don’t know where this storyline is going yet, it might just be that the two figures want to reverse roles, so Blackbeard is the gentleman and Bonnet is a vicious Pirate, or it might go further with that commentary. Stories truly outlive their figures, so any commentary is possible. I certainly hope that this is not just queer baiting, and that it becomes actual representation. It’s important to note that the show is not an ‘accurate’ depiction of these figures, who were unreservedly horrible people, but more a re-examination of the modern lens we use to talk about pirates and history in general.

“You are without doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.”
“But you have heard of me.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

My town’s Sparrow disappeared, and I don’t think it had anything to do with a lack of popularity. I rewatched the third Pirate film this week, and the special effects still hold up, which is rare for a film 15 years old. It’s also an insane and epic film that literally goes to the ends of the earth, beyond, and then further somehow. So much happens in this film, and it includes these incredible shots that really convey how expensive the film was to make. Sometimes you’ll see a film which cost a ludicrous amount to make, but it never dwells in that. They almost try to hide it, making the story feel seamless. That is not the case with the Pirates films, which often include these monumental shots and stay with them, building more intensity and chaos on top.

I saw a discussion about this on twitter recently, which made this specific point about shots and money. These films’ insane theatrics are unprecedented, and although we still get this insane degree in modern cinema, take any Fast & Furious film, there is something unblurred about it here, reserved only for a film like this and Mad Max Fury Road (2015). The kind that knows it is insane and wants you to know it too. There’s a shot where Sparrow swings madly on one of the masts, flying through the air, and then stopping to fight midair. Another where Cutler Beckett realizes he has been defeated, and calmly walks to the lower deck as the ship blows up around him, debris just floating about his head. It’s honestly one of my favourite shots, just because it’s an impossible moment, a truly cinematic one, and the perfect way to show that this villain, and everything he stands for, is being destroyed. That one angle of his hand gliding down the railing as it explodes just behind him is amazing. There hasn’t been a film like it again, although many have tried including the later Pirate films.

There is something poetic about my town’s Sparrow disappearing. If you mention it now, most newcomers will think you’re insane, but the older crew will remember. It’s a different town now, we have skyscrapers whereas before you couldn’t build anything with more than three levels. It was the kind of town where little old ladies’ favourite hobby was watching the beach through their binoculars and reporting anyone with a skateboard to the local authorities. The kind of town which hand delivered a welcome package when I moved here as a kid. My favourite thing about this story is that everyone just went with it, even these terrible old ladies. No one questioned it at the time, most would just laugh and play along. The town had a pirate, and not just any pirate, a bootlegged Captain Jack Sparrow. I am still kind of proud of that, but I am also glad it introduced me to this larger conversation about image and actuality, legacy and person, and the troubled overlap between. All the same, our town had a pirate who only ever stole his name. There is something in that, or more specifically, something in that name.

*Author’s Note: Having completed the first season, I am very happy to report that Our Flag Means Death refuses to queer bait its audience and includes multiple gay relationships and LGBTQ representation. The show has gone on to establish a huge fandom in a matter of weeks, with insanely talented fan art. You know your show is a success when fans are creating masterpieces mere hours after the finale aired. I highly encourage everyone to check out the show, as it has yet to be confirmed for a second season. It’s certainly my favourite series in recent memory, I will probably be dedicated a proper article at some point.