Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007)

Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is not a good film. We all know this. It is too long, rambling in both plot and tone, largely nonsensical with a horribly misjudged opening sequence and a peculiar ending the implications of which no one can quite agree on, partly because some of the necessary dialogue explaining it may have been cut.

However, there is some good stuff in this film. I'm particularly fond of the development of Elizabeth Swann into a pretty kick-ass character and her election as the Pirate King is kind of hilarious, though her battle speech doesn't work for everyone. (It's ironic that pre-battle speeches given by female characters so rarely go down well, considering one of the most famous pre-battle speeches in history was, in fact, given by a woman. Someday films about other women will get it right.) Poor Norrington, the character I would have just married in the first place thus saving everyone a lot of trouble, gets a redemptive heroic sacrifice. The sea battle goes on too long but there's some nice imagery in there somewhere and the wedding is really rather sweet (and very funny). Beckett gets a fabulously melodramatic and visually impressive death scene. And the poster art for this film was gorgeous.

There's one scene especially that I genuinely love, and would like to pick up in its entirety and transpose into a much better film. The early part of the film is dominated by our heroes' katabasis - journey to the underworld - to fetch Captain Jack (who, like Barbossa, can be brought back for reasons I can't quite remember right now. It was a very long and confusing film).

The pirates' experiences in the underworld are surprisingly reminiscent of Odysseus' journey there in the Odyssey, Book 11. The Homeric underworld, as depicted in Odyssey 11 (it shows up again in Odyssey 24 looking a bit different, but that's not the famous bit), doesn't get shown on film as often as Virgil's rather more showy underworld from Aeneid 6. (The underworld in Disney's Hercules, although it includes Charon, is a similar in some ways, is as the underworld in Orphée). Virgil gives us monsters, Charon the ferryman, fields of mourning, Tartarus, the river Lethe, gates of horn and ivory and blissful groves where dead warriors polish their weapons and feast forever (sounds kind of like Valhalla with fewer women - the Romans may have a dodgy reputation, but it was the Vikings who really knew how to have fun). In Odyssey 11, on the other hand, we get ghosts who can't speak until they've drunk sheep's blood, a quick sight of Tantalus and Sisyphus and... that's about it. There's not a whole lot going on in Homer's underworld, which is probably why, having drunk the blood so he can recover enough personality to speak, Achilles seems to regret his 'live fast, die young' attitude from the Iliad and says he's rather be a slave on earth than king of dead. No feasting or chariot-polishing here.

Of course, our heroes in this film are pirates, so they've already reached the underworld by sailing to the end of the world, just like Odysseus (with the added detail, thanks to better geographical knowledge than was available in ancient Greece, that it's freezing cold there). After picking up Captain Jack from his own personal hell, they head out again, eventually realising they need to capsize the ship to get free, because that way the film-makers can blow some more of the special effects budget and get everyone very wet. But before that happens, they sail through night in the underworld, and encounter the spirits of the recently deceased (possibly those who died at sea - it's been too long since I saw the film, I've forgotten the details!).

The ghosts are sailing towards our heroes in small boats. They stare straight ahead, with seemingly limited awareness of what's happening around them and no interest in the whacking great pirate ship in their midst. 'We are nothing but ghosts to them' according to Calypso. This is a bit different to the Odyssey, in which, although unable to speak and only shadows of themselves until they drink the blood, the ghosts are drawn to the blood and fight each other (and Odysseus) to try to drink it, but the lack of personality in the ghosts is very similar. It's only by addressing a ghost by name and yelling at them repeatedly that they can be roused.

We then get the typical tragic scene that crops up several times in the Classical world's regular heroic tours of the underworld, where our hero sees the ghost of a loved one. The Odyssey and the Aeneid both feature a crewmate who can't rest until he's properly buried, but more importantly, they also both meet a deceased parent in the underworld. And again, the Odyssey is the closer parallel, as Aeneas knows his father is dead and looks for him, but Odysseus sees the ghost of his mother and that's what tells him she's dead. The scene between Elizabeth and her father here is genuinely tragic and beautifully done. There is perhaps a bit more hope for a more interesting afterlife in this scene than we get in Homer - Elizabeth's father promises to give her love to her mother and the boats the ghosts are in seem to be going somewhere, hopefully somewhere more interesting, while there's little indication in the Odyssey that there's anything more exciting going on than a big puddle of sheep's blood. But largely, the spooky, blank stares of the ghosts and their dulled reactions are very Homeric. I love the underworld sequence (this bit of it anyway - goodness knows what was going on with all the Captain Jacks) and for me, it's the visually impressive highlight of the film.

I suppose while I'm here, I ought to talk about Calypso, who, technically, is also from Greek myth/the Odyssey. She is, indeed, a beautiful sea-goddess. But in the Odyssey, it's Calypso who keeps Odysseus on land, imprisoning him until forced to release him. She is the one who wants him to marry her and stay put (in on of those stories where the sexual violence so frequent in Greek mythology is directed by a female goddess towards a human man rather than vice versa), and he is the one who wants to leave (so that he can return to his kingdom and his wife). I'm fairly convinced that the main reason the writers chose the name for this character was because of the neat coincidence between the ancient sea goddess and the Caribbean folk music of the same name, though the representation of Calypso as a witch-type character in Dead Man's Chest is interesting, as essentially it makes her a blend of two characters from the Odyssey, Calypso and Circe the semi-divine witch (who also has sex with Odysseus, though he doesn't seem particularly unhappy about it - essentially, they have a confrontation, and coitus ensues). Unlike Circe, this Calypso doesn't turn anyone into pigs though. More's the pity.

I sometimes think, if we could take all the fun bits and the visually impressive bits from At World's End and fill them in with a few extra scenes to try to construct a plot that makes sense, it would be a really rather good film. In fact I suspect someone, somewhere out there on the internet, has already done so. At least it does provide this appropriately spooky underworld sequence and gorgeous imagery. When I first saw the film, mess though it was, I was half-convinced the shot of the ship against a starry night was worth the ticket price by itself!

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  1. Possibly another connection between Calypso and the sea, at least for the writers, producers and most people over 40 or so, is that it was also the name of Jacques Cousteau's ship. We all grew up watching his various TV specials, most of which featured the ship in one way or another.

    You're right that the business with the souls of the dead was very well done. I wonder if the lanterns they all carried was just a little Tolkien, the Dead Marshes and the souls with the candles. I did have a slightly less optimistic impression as to the eventual fate of the souls. I thought that Governor Swann's promise to greet Elizabeth's mother was more his own Christian expectations and poor awareness of his actual situation. OTOH, medieval Catholic belief did include the souls of the dead traveling to the afterlife by boat (albeit not individually), so who knows.

  2. Great take on the Classical elements Juliette! I hadn't paused to think about the underworld... when I saw you'd written about this my mind went straight to Calypso! :p

    After having just seen The Dark Knight Rises and admiring what a good director/writer can do with a trilogy... the Pirates movies kind of annoy me even more than before! What was a really fun idea got dragged out and exaggerated and played with until it had lost all the charm of the original. :o(

    I too enjoyed Elisabeth being made the Pirate King! And I loved the detail that the "pieces of eight" weren't actually pieces of eight! Plus I thought they were pretty brave with the end (final deaths). I just wished they could have developped a better story for these movies! *sigh*

  3. Yeah, they really forgot what the point of Pirates of the Caribbean was, didn't they? I blame Empire Strikes Back. Ever since that film, it's been cool for 2nd and 3rd films to be 'darker'. Sometimes, darker is not better!

  4. I kept thinking through the second and third films that they really, really should have just left it to the one film. This was one of those cases where sequels are nothing more than grabbing more money at the well. They're entertaining, yes... but not needed.

    The fourth one really, really, really wasn't needed.


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