Astronomers and Pirates

In an effort not to travel, the internet offers a great resource while it’s still free. If you don’t want to wander from home, it brings movies you might’ve missed right to your domicile. This year has been so busy that we’d missed completely Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I know, as the Pirate movies spin on and on they become more special effects extravaganzas with insipid, if complex, plots. Still, we’ve been watching from the beginning, so last night we decided to see it through. The movies are fun, if less well written than they were at the beginning (and the movie began without a script). There are moments worth attention, however.

The story follows Carina Smyth as she attempts to discover her father through following his diary. This, of course, brings her path across that of Captain Jack Sparrow. Smyth is an astronomer and horologist. Because she’s female and this is the eighteenth century, she’s labeled a witch. Both the proximate and ultimate cause of the accusation is her gender. Although she proves to be the real hero of the film, the men can’t help thinking she’s a witch although she’s using science to find answers. In fact, if a male astronomer did the same things she did, there’d be no story here. This is a post-Galileo world. It’s also post-Salem. We don’t watch these films for history, of course, but it is true that although the witchcraft trials ended at the turn of that century, the accusations continued for some time after. The woman of science is a threat to the male establishment. She alone, however, discerns the truth.

Swashbuckler cinema was a male invention. Still, even in the twenty-first century too much of it comes at the expense of women. Jack Sparrow’s famous compass, for example, is passed on to him aboard a ship called the “Wicked Wench.” Surely this is meant to be funny, but at whose expense? The other women in the movie hardly come off better. Shansa actually is a witch, working for the establishment. Beatrice Kelly, in Jack Sparrow’s noose wedding, is portrayed as an undesirable bride, purely for laughs. Disney is famous for its princesses, but also for its wicked women. Even the strong female characters such as Mulan, Moana, and Anna find themselves being helped to success by male characters. Obviously the genders do interact in real life, and as recent history has shown us, men will demonize women if it helps them get ahead. You might think a movie of anti-heroes, however, would show the most intelligent character receiving a bit more respect. Especially since she’s a woman in a pirate’s world.

Stranger Tides

Yo, ho, ho and a plate of spaghetti

The closest I’ve come to appreciating pirates is the command of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that its devotees must wear pirate costumes. Nevertheless, being only human, I was curious about the fourth installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series although the old storyline had mercifully died out. This weekend my family joined a handful of others still showing interest and went to watch Captain Jack Sparrow’s antics on the silver screen. Perhaps it was because this movie actually followed, loosely, an actual book instead of a theme-park phantasmagoric pastiche, but I found the movie surpassed my expectations. I’m discussing it here because of the heavy dose of religious concepts brought into the story by the inclusion of a missionary.

In typical Pirates fashion, the character introductions are unconventional, and so it is with Philip, the missionary. Tied to a mast on Blackbeard’s ship as a kind of human talisman, the poor man is cut down by Sparrow and a crewman during a mutiny. The crewman declares to Philip, “You are either for us or against us!” to which the missionary replies, “I am neither with you, nor am I against you!” The crewman asks Sparrow if that is possible, to which Captain Jack replies, “He’s religious, I believe it’s required.” This was possibly the funniest line in the movie, but it was so because of the underlying truth. The sarcasm here is directed at a representative of a church that will ultimately lead to the destruction of eternal life. Granted, the agents of that destruction are Catholic, presumably.

Once the fountain of youth is discovered and Blackbeard and Barbossa engage in their swordplay, Spanish troops arrive and promptly destroy the pagan fountain declaring that the church (presumably Catholic) is the only means to eternal life. The Protestant missionary, meanwhile, in an act of self-sacrifice returns to free a misunderstood mermaid. (This is Disney, after all.) The dialogue is difficult to remember from a single viewing, but the addition of religious elements beyond the supernatural lent a gravitas to this final Pirate film that the others lacked. Even placed among the fantastic, the religious elements grounded it in a reality where faith, sacrifice, and fortitude became intrinsic to the story. I doubt I’ll head off to the Spanish Main any time soon, but I appreciate movies that offer a bit of substance along with their entertainment on that transatlantic crossing.