I’m head-over-heels in love with what I like to refer to affectionately as the “Pirate Movies” (known in more formal circles as Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3). And, yes, I do mean all of them, including the sequence set on the island of the cannabalistic Pelegostos in the second film (how can you not love a language with phrases like “ma boogie snickle snickle”?). Well, actually, I do think it’s a little too gross when the one guy breaks his toe off in the cold in At World’s End, and the extra Jack whose brain falls out is probably over the line for me as well. But I’m willing to overlook quirks among friends.
The chaotic waters of the eighteenth-century Caribbean present such a fabulous mythological landscape, where the formal, stiff-lipped upper-class British society with its flowing silk gowns, powdered wigs, pomp and ceremony, and baroque turns of phrase interacts seamlessly with the untameable ruffian world of the open seas, pregnant with the promise of freedom and danger, and harboring monsters both mythic and mortal. This is the crossroads where the dead and living change places and the otherwise banally evil human Institution plumbs the netherworld’s depths. And the visual effects are nothing short of stunning: the way the Flying Dutchman surfaces amid a spray of crystalline droplets is just spectacular, and the field of stars reflected in the water is literally breathtaking.
One of the touches of genius in characterization is the way in which certain of the villains have been imbued with genuine pathos: there’s the image of Davy Jones wailing on his organ as a single tear wells in his eye, and there’s the apple that drops, unbitten, from Barbossa’s hand as he expires. “I feel nothing,” Barbossa confesses dolefully to Elizabeth early in the first film, and then, tragically consummating his desire, echoes this wish as he’s fatally shot: “I feel–cold.” These are the films that sport the funnest wedding scene ever captured on celluloid, with Will and Elizabeth frantically and incongruously exchanging vows while fending off monsters. And, finally, the movies return us to a sort of stasis-point from which they began: Jack sails off alone in a dinghy in just the way we were first introduced to him, Barbossa once again commands the Pearl, and Will and Elizabeth’s relationship reconstitutes itself to resemble what it was when they first met: interested but distant. Only where once we experienced this tension between them as an inevitable pull, now at the end it’s been calcified into a bittersweet, hauntingly half-tragic state of affairs. What might be and almost is has become what should have been–and, even yet, almost is.
There’s a rich and complicated tapestry here, and no doubt the efforts of untold masses were necessary to its creation. But I believe that one man is more responsible than any other for the marvel that is the Pirate Movies. It’s not Johnny Depp, although his swagger and off-kilter mannerisms are extraordinarily entertaining to watch. And it’s not Orlando Bloom, although he’s undeniably attractive. It’s not even Geoffrey Rush, whose versatility is astonishing.
That man is Hans Zimmer, the individual responsible for composing the scores for all three films (with help from his protege Klaus Badelt on the first).
I literally only bought tickets for the first Pirate Movie because I’d fallen in love with the music (thanks to Lady Amalthea’s purchase of the soundtrack) and wanted to hear it in the theater. (That explains the first time I saw it on the big screen, anyway. Four more viewings were to follow.)
Too many producers fail to recognize this essential truism: that a movie is only half visual. Too many film scores are nothing more than bare emotional cues or bland key changes intended to signal changes in scene. And that’s to say nothing of the crime of relying on jazz harmonies, or playing pop music during the credits to a movie with an epic, symphonic score–the credits should properly serve as the ideal opportunity to showcase a film’s themes in all their lyrical splendor, unconstrained by bothersome contingencies of plot. (Speaking of which, whose decision was it to put that headbanging techno-version of “He’s A Pirate” at the end of the CD to the second film? Wha???).
Zimmer makes none of the usual mistakes. Far from hovering in the background, on the edge of awareness, the Pirate music is a near-tangible presence in the films, as essential as any character. It reaches out and grabs you. It’s repetitive enough to be coherent but varied enough to keep your interest (this is especially true of the third film, in which several themes are skillfully interwoven). And it’s majestic, triumphal, ghastly, lugubrious, delicate, and anguished by turns, without ever descending into sappiness.
Zimmer was fun in Gladiator, he gave The Lion King its plaintive edge, he put the grandeur in King Arthur and the mystery in Da Vinci Code. But there’s nothing like the Pirate music to make your heart burst from your chest–to make you almost physically understand what is involved in Will’s losing his heart to the Dutchman, and Elizabeth’s with it. It’s life-changing.
- 12 July 2008