Land’s End

Although not due for release for another two years, the internet is already buzzing about Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Thing is, once a studio finds a successful formula, they’re reluctant to let it go. Nevertheless, with a couple days off for New Year’s, and all the family here, we decided on a marathon of the four movies available for home viewing. I used to use a clip from the second movie (Dead Man’s Chest) in my classes to demonstrate how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture. In the scene where Pintel and Ragetti are rowing toward the beached Black Pearl, Ragetti is leafing through a Bible, although he can’t read. He says, in his defense, “It’s the Bible. You get credit for trying.” Indeed, the Bible appears disguised as the huge codex of the pirate code (a kind of over-compensatory pentateuch), and, as I noted before, the book that saves the mermaid’s life in On Stranger Tides. In fact, for those willing to look behind the scenes, the Bible shows up repeatedly in the series.

Even as a landlocked child maritime themes and concepts were compelling to me. I yearned for the ocean without ever seeing it. Long I stared at the cover of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us in wonder. When I finally had the opportunity to strike out on my own, it was to Boston I headed, with its rich New England tradition of the sea. I have tried, ever since, to return there. Theologians, although I don’t count myself among their number, have often found a religious resonance with the sea. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, based as they have been on a Disney ride, nevertheless manage to tap into the romance of the ocean. Not compellingly written, apart from the fun antics of Captain Jack Sparrow, they don’t present an entirely coherent story line, but they do put the viewer, vicariously, at least, on the ocean. And they have been among the most successful film series ever released. Many, I suspect, are drawn by the lure of the open ocean.

Rewatching the films also reminded me of Cthulhu’s influence on the character of Davy Jones. The origins of the euphemism “Davy Jones’ locker” are uncertain, although some trace it back to Jonah. Nevertheless, it stands for the place of death on the sea floor—the very place where Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming according to his creator H. P. Lovecraft. No doubt, Lovecraft’s description of Cthulhu played into the depiction of the character of Davy Jones as presented by Disney. At the end of At World’s End, Jones falls dead, once again, into the maelstrom that will take him back, dreaming, to the ocean floor. In so doing he participates in the endless give and take of the sea. I suspect a couple years hence will find me in a theater to watch what seems a somewhat tired trope, but it will be more the sea than the sparrow that will draw me in.

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Mermaid Missionary

Last summer I was invited to address a church in Princeton about Christian themes in the movies. Back in my seminary days I often presented biblical material at adult forums, but my interest in religious themes in movies has grown over the years. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have watched secular movies with an eye toward religiosity since I was in high school. The day of the presentation followed a recent viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Although I’ve posted on it before, that particular movie is among the most heavily freighted with Christian themes of any I’ve seen. Now that I’ve had a chance to watch it again on the small screen without the distractions of getting home through traffic afterward, I would redouble my assertions. The very premise of the movie—the hope for eternal life—is a decidedly Christian refrain and the pirates, who wear their sins on their sleeves, are eager to attain it. The missionary, mentioned in my previous post on the film, serves as a kind of foil for that theme, insisting that all souls can be redeemed. Except, he decides, Blackbeard’s.

The reason that Blackbeard falls out of the missionary’s personal book of life is his mistreatment of a mermaid. Now the swarming, man-eating mermaids are among the most memorable images from the story. One has to be captured to unlock the magic of the Fountain of Youth, and the victim happens to be the missionary’s mermaid. In a Florence Nightingale moment, the two different species fall in love—celibate preacher and heathen, mythological creature. An odd couple indeed. Carried in a glass coffin filled with water, the mermaid also needs air to survive and the heartless pirates don’t really much care. To save the little mermaid from asphyxiation, Philip shoves his Bible into the gap he breeched between coffin and lid, saving the fishwife’s life. Talk about conversion!

When the glass coffin breaks, spilling all the water, the mermaid is reborn as a human. Echoes of Splash come to mind here, as well as Disney’s earlier effort, The Little Mermaid. The transformation in this case, seems spiritual as well as physical. Syrena, whose very name invokes the classical sirens, is the one who delivers the magical chalices (communion, anyone?) to Jack Sparrow to save the life of Angelica, or, more likely, to bring Blackbeard to an end. Our busy mermaid, now transformed again to her fishly form, saves the injured missionary by converting him to her way of life under the waves. There are shades of Lovecraft here as well as a reversal of Ariel’s fate in Little Mermaid. Although critics were harsh on this movie where a comic character now takes on a serious role, I still find it compelling. Nearly all the main characters undergo transformations as the story unfolds and whether heathenish or not, almost everyone ends up a better Christian of one sort or another.