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Chapter Three: Dead Man’s Chest
I ask with enthusiasm and raised voice every group I can find who might show the slightest interest, “What is The Key to understanding Pirates of the Caribbean?” The answer I give is always the same – the rosary. “The what,” they say. “Yes, the Rosary!” says I. Then I have to exposit once again that it’s not actually the Rosary per se. It’s what the Rosary signifies, a relationship with eternity that says, “O Death, where is your sting” or in more fitting parlance, “I’ll take my chances, sir.” That’s what the only crew member who ever countered Davy Jones had the courage to say, and the close-up camera leads us to believe that it was because he was saying the rosary at the time.
Second only to the rosary is another symbol of something our society often discourages: a moral compass. In this case it is quite literally a compass. It came from the captivatingly mysterious Tia Dalma and she has the best line about it. In the hands of Jack Sparrow, the compass has fallen into non-function, but the insightful Dalma does not blame the object, she targets its user. “Jack do not know what he want,” she slurs in that delicious voice of hers. “Or,” she continues, now hinting at what is more likely the truth, “he is loath to claim it as his own.” When your compass is a moral one, what your heart most desires out of virtue can reverse the most heinous of vices, a fact that would be well remembered when facing down the clever tentacles of Davy Jones. His threats of “deeds lay bare” and “sins punished” would be seen for what they really are, as vaporous as his countenance.
The dialogue that circles around the proverbial moral compass is priceless all the way through the second installment. I’ll point out a few notable favorites. Elizabeth and Captain Sparrow volley forms of the word “curiosity” in what amounts to a seductive lure to come to ‘the other side’: light to dark and dark to light. “Come fly with me,” said swan to sparrow and sparrow to swan. It’s a great scene well written and well acted. Another pair, Pintel and Ragetti are the obvious comic side kicks but we’d best pay attention to them if we have any regard for our immortal souls. They offer wisdom when it comes to upside-down bible reading, reversing bad habits, evangelizing friends and especially justifying spurious acts. The fact that they make explicit the connection between our immortality and our behavior is more than conventional Hollywood often dares. Captain Norrington is the archetype of one whose moral compass has gone bad. His description to Gibbs of the final leg of his ruin and volatile response to hearing his old title of Commodore are self-fulfilled when he is thrown in with the pigs, another iconic ride scene with a new morally twisted background story. Finally, this paragraph would remain incomplete without reference to Davy Jones himself. His has to count as one of the greatest screen entrances of all time. The creativity and stunning visual effects are matched by the intelligence of his script and the perfection of Bill Nighy’s line delivery. In every respect the scene is exactly the opposite of the angel’s message, “Do not be afraid.” Before him, a moral compass is impossible to behold unless by a life time of habitual turning to grace.
The well placed symbolism of Dead Man’s Chest is accompanied by a common thread among its principal players. The peril of their souls comes about by one question asked of them all. Ultimately it’s a re-articulation of the question Davy Jones administers to potential crew members, “Are you afraid of death?” But re-articulation posses it as a a dilemma: What good in your life are you willing protect to the point of selling your soul? In other words, what do you value in your life so much so that you are willingly to bargain with Satan in order to shield it from harm? I’ll answer the question for each according to my observations:
Elizabeth Swan violates the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” in order to protect her pure and chaste love for her fiancé. She and Will were to have been husband and wife, but their traditional wedding was interrupted by their bogus arrest. The intensity of her love and disappointment lead her to shackle Captain Jack to his death, and this act she sells her soul.
Will Turner quite literally bargains with his eternal soul out of a committed love for his estranged father. Ultimately, he proves willing to sacrifice his love for his future wife in order to free his father from the debt owed to Davy Jones. The contradictory choices present two goods, but the very act of choosing necessitates that an evil be committed. Will is caught between a rock and a hard place, and either direction forces him toward betrayal and the sale of his soul.
Bill “Bootstrap” Turner has already sold his soul for a period of 100 years in Davy Jones’ service. He had done this, as the movie’s exposition indicates, to be freed from the bottom of the sea, a fate assigned to his cursed existence by Captain Barbossa since he once defended Jack Sparrow. But, out of love, he further condemns himself, body and soul, to an eternity of the same servitude in order to protect his son from a similar fate.
Governor Swan acts against his moral principles. Out of a father’s devoted love for his daughter he offers his civil authority in service of the corrupt East India Trading Company. In order to protect her from the punishment of traitors, i.e. death, he bargains with Lord Cutler Becket to sign documents which further the business’s cause. When it occurs to him that he has been duped he will right the wrong and go willingly to his death, but for the time being even he sells his soul.
Commodore Norrington experiences perhaps the most severe personal plummet of them all. His highest priority is valor and honor and for it he is willing to sell his soul. However unwitting his decision, the act of stealing Davy Jones’ heart betrays a willful and dishonorable promotion of himself. When he places the heart on Cutler Becket’s desk he is throwing his soul to the pigs and has arguably fallen the farthest of them all.
Lord Cutler Becket has clearly sold his soul and his conscience to nothingness out of greed for money and power. The state of his soul is spelled out in what I think is a classic line. When Elizabeth lobs an insult at him recalling a better time when dignity and honor were the currency of the British dominion, he coldly tosses back a terse summary of his new ethics, “Unfortunately, currency is now the currency of the realm.” But Becket does not limit his assertion of superiority to his temporal aims only, his kingdom is an ever expanding one. His new possession, the heart of Davy Jones, places his soul in even greater peril.
As you may have noticed, the answers are surprisingly noble and selfless. Like building levees against the raging gulf waters, even Becket is convinced he’s bringing order to the chaotic seas. But the darker side of the same coin shows that the answers are also foolish and shortsighted, like a child to put his finger into the failing dike. The reasoning behind this judgment is theology. Now the absence of the rosary points to punishment and fear, and the movie makers are abundantly aware of what they are doing. These dilemmas are real for us. We can relate to the fantastical settings and characters because we are often faced with the same conundrums. Emotionally, we would rather that God protect us from the tough spots, but in faith we realize that He ultimately protects our free will over anything the disordered world, turned topsy-turvy by original sin, can throw at us. We are to freely love Him, even over all His good and holy creatures.
Speaking of loving freedom, you may have also noticed that I left Jack off the list. I believe that, despite his history, his profession, his cunning serpentine wit and even what he would have us believe, he is a virtuous man. Listen to the females with whom he cavorts. Elizabeth names his virtuous side and Tia is disappointed that he has claimed virtue as his own. Furthermore, why else would cannibals make him king?!? Jack seems to be in the toughest spot of all, the black spot. If there is anything that he tries to protect, it’s his very life and freedom. He’s even tempted by the artificial immortality of captaining the Flying Dutchman. Interestingly, when faced with the moral choice, there always seems to be something that protects him from himself. It’s even more rewarding than the conversation between Gandolf and Frodo in which the Wizard comforts the Hobbit with the assurance that there is a greater power out there struggling with them for the good, a power that will ultimately win. I find it ‘more rewarding’ because the conversation happens silently within the heart of our protagonist. That’s why I enjoyed the scene in which Jack finally embraces his virtuous nature and destiny. Under the haunting words of Elizabeth and his own prick of conscience, he reverses his dingy and returns to the ship. Right wins out and after he is betrayed with a kiss, he growls with full gusto, “Hello Beastie,” entering the Leviathan. Virtue strengthens the man to fight that from which he has previously fled.
Changing subjects, I argued at the very beginning of this article, that the Pirates Quadrilogy is much more effective than Peter Jackson’s embodiment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here is another reason why I believe that to be true. Cursed sea creature pirates are a much clearer metaphor than partially decayed orcs for two reasons. The former is a metaphysical statement, the second is just a physical image. Both are exterior reflections of the corruption sin brings to the interior of the human person. The cursed pirates of the first installment are like the orcs. The pirates of two and three, however, take the next step and explicitly define an element of choice inherent in sinfulness and show the decision’s consequence. Davy Jones promises to delay judgment and punishment, but he cannot hold off its deforming effect. In choosing to serve an evil master the physical appearance of each crew member changes over time to reflect his weakened spiritual disposition. The fact that they become “fish people” rather than the skeletal pirates of the Aztec curse is not just for novelty. Sin reduces us to our more animalistic tendencies, to seek pleasure for pleasure’s sake, to suspend our reasoning ability for what is instinctual and base. When taken to the extreme, one by one the surrendered souls finally loose themselves to an inanimate object, the ship. Any humanity or higher function is lost entirely. The idea that sinners begin to resemble the lesser creatures of the environment they inhabit is genius at work and very theological.