Aaarrr! Hornswaggled!


pirates 2 blog.JPGWhen I was a kid, I thought pirates were pretty nifty. They had eye patches, peg legs, cool parrots (who might also have eye patches and peg legs), cool hats, pieces o’ eight (whatever those are).

Then one night (surely without my parents’ knowledge) I was cruising around the television dial and settled on a horror flick featuring pirates—”real” pirates that had somehow been whisked from the 17th-century and into the modern day. Not a one of ’em had a parrot. But they all had swords, and they spent the rest of the movie using them, killing innocent people in horrible, bloody, age-inappropriate ways.

That night, in the many sleepless hours afterward, two things happened. For one, I had my first legitimate reaction that would eventually pave my way to Plugged In—that kids like me should not be allowed to watch stuff like that. Two, I never looked at pirates the same way again.

According to, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has already gobbled up more than $100 million in its theatrical run. The fourth film in Disney’s wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean series (which has grossed more than $1 billion in North America), On Stranger Tides features lots of kind, colorful pirates led by, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow—a pirate king who’s trying to do the right thing.

Lots of folks have talked about the more uplifting moral messages the fourth installment. In our review, we made mention of it, too. It’s good to see these pirates taking a turn for the better, right?

Yeah, I guess. But there are times I wonder … are good pirates a good thing?

This thought was rummaging around the back of my brain somewhere when I came across this story by David Sirota, “The Problem With Bad Guy Heroes.” In it, he discusses America’s fascination with pirates:

From movies to Halloween costumes to Major League Baseball and NFL teams to amusement park rides to Dave Eggers' pseudo-ironic novelty store, consumer messages basically teach kids that pirates and the pirate ethos are totally awesome. In this part of our culture, kids are told that pirates' brutal and violent quests to steal, rape and pillage are just "treasure hunting"—a jolly endeavor marked by innocuous growls of "arrr!" Even the more serious "educational" material about pirates, such as this brochure from National Geographic, lauds pirates for their "seagoing democracy"—barely mentioning (and not really lamenting) the fact that pirates were actually "outlaws who pledged allegiance to no country and ravaged ships of all nations indiscriminately."

Juxtapose all that revisionism with current news headlines about piracy that kids are inevitably absorbing (and yes, whether you like it or not, kids do absorb general messages from headlines). Two years ago, it was foreboding stories about evil Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa abducting working-class American grunts in the merchant marines—stories capped off with video-game-like graphic simulations that celebrated how the pirates were killed. Today, it's news that even rich yachters are threatened by these 21st century boogeymen. …

Taken together, kids are taught that pirates are great titans and awful villains—or both. Or neither. Or, um, something …

Pirates aren’t the only villain we lionize, of course. Sirota calls up our fascination with gangsters, too. And I wonder whether some of my favorite superheroes fall under the same umbrella—vigilantes who simultaneously break and enforce the law.

Hey, I don’t want to get on anyone’s case for thinking there’s some fun to be found in pirate movies. I like Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow as much as anyone, and the original ride at Disneyland—sans Capt. Jack—is one of my faves. Disney’s obviously not going for historical accuracy in these things.

Still, when Will Turner turns pirate in the first film and it’s uniformly lauded as a good thing, part of me cringes a little.

A pirate? That’s not Johnny Depp in dreadlocks for me.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  godsgrl:

I myself have been a close follower of the series since its beginning. I have always found villians more interesting, because they always (or most of the time) seem to be more complex characters. That being said, I think that making villanous people have heoric tendencies shows that people are not one-dimensional. God has given us free will, which means we choose what we do. Do good people make bad decisions (like Will selling out his comrades and the woman he loves to save his father)? Yes. Can bad people make good choices (like Jack giving up immortality to save Will, who had become one of his only "friends")? Yes. At the same time, this does not justify the villanious actions of some people. Take for instance, (SPOILER ALERT) Blackbeard's last "redeeming" act--unknowingly saving his daughters life. Sorry Angelica: his soul was not redeemed simply because he saved your life. Real redemption doesn't work like that, it comes from accepting Christ, something I don't think he would have done.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  The Reviewer:

You aren't the only one who cared about the Naval Officers! James Norrington was my favorite character too. He always got the short end of the stick for being the most noble character. And then they killed him off in the third one.

In this installment I was really disappointed when the two main British soldiers were killed especially; and also the fact their deaths were pretty much played for laughs. When that one Navy officer stood up at the end and declared the land for Britain, I heard the people behind me laugh when the Spanish shot him dead. I certainly didn't find that funny. He was only doing his job--the mission for the king that everybody either lost site of or didn't care about to begin with.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Chalita:

Symathy for the devil has been going on forever, and I doubt it'll get any better. I think it's something we should check often in our own lives, like "am I too into the bad guy?" However, it's hard because most bad guys (usually the PG and PG-13 ones) are exicting and cool. Every pirate, brit soldier, and even sea monser in Pirates is fun and in the end, mostly harmless. While Captain Jack may not be exactly a model for children, he's fun for us teens and college kids haha.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  lupinskitten:

Hey, don't look at me -- I've always been a Commodore Norrington type of girl. A sensible, sarcastic man with an actual job? Who cares about the pirates?

I think the first film is a masterpiece -- it's epic, fun, memorable, and hilarious. The sequels for me have all been duds to a certain extent and never quite recaptured the brilliance. I am not altogether surprised the heroes of the film are pirates (to some extent... if you can call Jack continually sacrificing Will for his own purposes heroic) but it did not really become profoundly obvious to me until the last film, when walking out I said to my father in horror (SPOILERS) "... they killed off all the Navy officers in this movie! and none of them were even EVIL." They were just there at the wrong time, wrong place -- and no one cared about them.

Except me.

Hollywood has always made horrible people into heroes -- both in the movies and in real life. The Pirates of the Caribbean might be fun to hang out with, and one can hardly blame Disney for glossing over the realism of piracy and all its hororrs, but the real deal? No thanks.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Jazzy_99:

All my friends say that pirates of the caribean is awesome but it is PG 13 and my parents do not think it is worth it. I do not think I'm mising out,though.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  jmn15:

I enjoy pirates of the caribbean, but that said that horror movie you watched was probably a way more realistic portrait of what an actual pirate would act like. I think some people have forgotten that and think all pirates were like Jack Sparrow.