Pirates of the Caribbean was never meant to be a franchise. Not really. Of course one could also argue the concept was never meant to be a movie either. Originally a theme park ride which opened at Disneyland in 1967, Pirates of the Caribbean becoming a movie is the kind of high-concept thrown around by Disney execs huddled at a conference table. Indeed, it was creative executives Brigham Taylor, Michael Haynes, and Josh Harmon who brainstormed the basic plot for a Pirates movie during the same period the studio greenlit The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion movies. However, what made the eventual Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl a classic came from the type of creative inspiration Disney couldn’t anticipate or control… yet.
Released in 2003 with modest expectations from the Mouse, and even more cynical predictions by the rest of the industry, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie ended up standing tall among the last of a dying breed: a surprise box office hit not based on a property with a built-in audience. Coming out at the crossroads of summer blockbusters being driven by practical and digital effects, and analogue filmmaking versus digital cinematography, the movie was released as an old-fashioned adventure yarn in the spirit of Errol Flynn with a modern twist.
Curse of the Black Pearl was not seriously set-up for sequels, prequels, or a shared universe, yet it would spawn all of them in one way or another. Still, in its most undiluted form, Pirates’ success was predicated on a creative spark from the filmmakers involved, chief among them director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp, which Disney could not stifle or curb. Instead the pair made a throwback quite unlike anything else in the marketplace, and its singular quality is also why its eventual sequels would, to varying degrees, fail to recapture that 2003 lightning in a bottle.
After being thought up by Disney executives, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie incubated during a very different era for the studio. Disney’s live-action movies then released under the Sleeping Beauty’s Castle banner had long been struggling. Worse still, their animated movies were also beginning to falter with duds like Dinosaur (2000) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) signaling the Disney Renaissance was over. Within this anxiety, Disney first hired Jay Wolpert and then Stuart Beattie to write screenplays between 2001 and 2002 for Pirates, even as the studio vacillated on what they wanted. For his part, Wolpert imagined his heroic Jack Sparrow to be played by Hugh Jackman (hence the name Jack), but the studio didn’t think he could carry a blockbuster solo. In fact, Disney wasn’t even sure Pirates was going to be a blockbuster.
On the one hand, the studio was approaching Matthew McConaughey to play Sparrow after the actor proved a solid team player on their Touchstone Pictures’ Reign of Fire—it also helped that executives believed McConaughey resembled Burt Lancaster, who just happened to star in the last successful Hollywood pirate movie… 1952’s The Crimson Pirate. But Disney was also considering shuttling the concept over to the direct-to-video market, with either Cary Elwes or Christopher Walken as Captain Jack. Aye, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner had such cold feet on the project, and eventually about Depp, that he tried to stop production at the eleventh hour before cameras rolled in 2002, nervous because The Country Bears (starring Walken) flopped that summer.
But given the original setup for the picture in those early drafts, it is easy to see why there was a lack of confidence in the material. In its initial conception, Pirates of the Caribbean was intended to be a PG buddy comedy about a pirate named Jack Sparrow and his jailor Will Turner setting off to rescue the governor’s daughter; she’d been kidnapped for ransom by the dastardly Captain Blackheart, a generic baddie for a more generic plot. There were no twists or turns, Aztec treasure and curses, marooned islands, or the subversive streak cherished by the eventual filmmakers who discovered the heart of the movie was “sitting on a beach drinking rum.”
That inspiration luckily came in the quick turnaround of Dick Cook, the newly minted Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group chairman, convincing first Jerry Bruckheimer to produce the flailing Pirates of the Caribbean project and then, at Bruckheimer’s insistence, talking oddball actor Johnny Depp into starring in a Disney movie. Depp actually took the meeting with Cook to land an animated voice acting gig that would appeal to his children, but upon hearing the word “pirates” and the prospect of sword fighting, his ambitions for working at Disney quickly grew.
With a screenplay being hastily rewritten by new scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who’d just come off Shrek and another all-time classic swashbuckler in The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean became a movie produced too quickly by a struggling movie studio to fully control, especially as its moving parts were transported to the actual Caribbean, including Elliot and Rossio, who continued rewriting the movie on-set to director Gore Verbinski’s specifications. For context, Verbinski’s biggest hit at that time was the decidedly not-family friendly The Ring.
“To make this film in under a year from an outline, it was really essential to bring them in,” Verbinski said about Elliot and Ross during his Curse of the Black Pearl audio commentary. The director had the writers’ shrewd intuition, which added a supernatural curse that upped the movie’s CG-spectacle for modern blockbusters and made it more in line with the Disneyland ride, as well as the ability to add narrative and verbal complexity on the fly.
Said Verbinski, “In looking at the genre and saying, ‘Why hasn’t it worked?’ I found a lot of the sort of dialect [in recent pirates movies] didn’t feel like it was really from Robert Louis Stevenson. You know, the ‘Black Spot,’ any kind of that pirate flavor out of Treasure Island. It sort of went away.”
With Pirates of the Caribbean, it came back with a vengeance. Released eight years after Renny Harlin’s lackluster Cutthroat Island failed at modernizing pirate movies by way of ‘90s aesthetics, Verbinski and Depp brought the old-fashioned wonder of Stevenson and Golden Age Hollywood pirate movies of yore roaring back. While the film’s marketing revolved around the then-cutting edge CGI effects of cursed men who in the light of the full moon turn into skeletons like they’re right out of some Disney park attraction, the reason the movie is still extraordinarily satisfying nearly 20 years later is because of what occurs outside these relatively limited digital set-pieces.
Narratively and visually, Verbinski and his merry crew of filmmakers pulled from Michael Curtiz’s classic Captain Blood (1935), which is likewise set around the escape of an imprisoned pirate with a brand on his flesh at the British Port Royal colony in Jamaica. Several scenes, like the decidedly PG-13 levels of roustabout action on the island of Tortuga, are even lifted directly from that movie. Others, like when Jack Sparrow and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) sneak aboard an enemy ship while breathing underwater in a capsized rowboat, are taken shot-by-shot from the much goofier Crimson Pirate.
But more than just paying homage to classic pirate movie iconography, the original Pirates of the Caribbean recaptured those earlier movies’ mirthful sense of adventure. The “dialect” Verbinski refers to is not resurrected by Depp’s idiosyncratic Jack, but it oozes out of stage thespian Geoffrey Rush. A classically trained character actor, Rush leans hard into the hard-Rs of his speech, all but literally muttering “argh.” He leans into every pirate stereotype and makes a feast of the scenery while doing so. Verbinski even joked he only wanted Rush because Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers were dead: that old school charisma is what turned this potential “paycheck” role into one every bit as essential in recapturing swashbuckling fun as Depp’s.
The same could be said for so many of the other elements, from the use of actual on location shooting (and in the Caribbean for parts of the movies unlike the Californian coasts used by Captain Blood) to at least one actual replica of an 18th century merchant vessel—The Lady Washington, redressed to look like the Interceptor in the film. The other two major vessels in the movie, the Black Pearl and Dauntless, were at least built two-thirds to scale on sea barges while CG filled in the rest.
And despite it being her breakout role, Keira Knightley’s performance as Elizabeth Swann is often overlooked. At only the age of 17, Knightley holds her own against co-stars Depp and Rush, and creates a compelling protagonist who is visibly working the angles of her situation in every scene. In lesser hands, Elizabeth could’ve been blandly innocuous, the “love interest,” but in the finished film she drives the plot, convincingly outsmarting Barbossa and Sparrow at every turn. And while performing the functions of an old-fashioned Hollywood love story, Knightley’s screen presence turned her into a star just as readily as a teenage Olivia de Havilland became one after Captain Blood.
But then that first major Hollywood pirate movie was on Verbinski’s mind during the production of Pirates of the Caribbean, both in how that 1935 movie’s swashbuckling scope made its director and two leads A-listers, and also in how he could subvert its tropes now in the 21st century.
“I knew the film could support [Depp’s performance] because Orlando’s doing Errol Flynn,” Verbinski said. “I mean if you look at Jack Davenport [as Commodore Norrington] and even Orlando’s performances, on their own they’re really solid, but in context they’re fuel for [Depp] to consume.” And consume them he did.
Captain Jack was always meant to be the amorous hero of Pirates of the Caribbean, a mischievous Han Solo to Will Turner’s Luke Skywalker that gets to kill Darth Vader at the end. But as screenwriter Elliot surmised in 2003, “The characterization, the personality of Jack is what we wrote. The expression of that is purely Johnny Depp.” He’d swing from pulleys like Flynn, but do so while screaming in bloody terror. He was a familiar narrative archetype, but as singular an anti-hero as Hollywood has ever seen.
A performer best known for eschewing his handsome good looks at this time in favor of prosthetics and off-center performances like in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Depp was not an obvious choice for the role. But at Bruckheimer’s insistence the character actor was in, and when he first met with his director Verbinski, the only thing the filmmaker was certain of is that Depp would play against his good looks.
Thinking back on their first meeting with affection, Verbinski recalled, “[He] said, ‘I don’t think Jack has a nose because he lost his nose in a sword fight, but it got sewed back on and it’s blue because the circulation is bad.’” It was a radical choice, one certain to die once Disney executives heard it, but it indicated the kind of subversive streak Verbinski thirsted for—one that could bounce off an old Hollywood aesthetic.
Said Verbinski, “This was in the infantile stages of the Bruckheimer and Dick Cook experience, and Synergy back home is talking about McDonald’s cups and happy meals. And on the third bottle of wine at a restaurant in London, we’re talking about a nose being sliced off.” It was the counterbalance the movie needed, and the type of creative-leaning these two eccentric talents gravitated toward. In Verbinski’s mind, Bloom must be D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers so Depp can play the rock star (Keith Richards to be exact). It also freed Depp up to improvise lines where he pondered if Will Turner, or the entire male population of France, were eunuchs. “You have to pervert the genre at almost every opportunity,” said Verbinski.
Yet perversion is not exactly a word that comes to mind with Disney. Not before 2003, and not soon afterward. But in the fast turnaround on a pirate movie in 2002, Verbinski and Depp could be quite perverse with the material, although not without pushback. For example, while the studio accepted Bruckheimer’s insistence that a pirate movie needed to be PG-13—a first for a Disney movie released under the studio’s official banner—there was immediate repulsion when Depp showed his personally selected wardrobe for Jack Sparrow, complete with five teeth capped to look like a golden grill in front. Depp was instantly summoned to a meeting with Bruckheimer and Cook.
“Three went away and then I secretly added one,” Depp said in 2003. “But the two that went away were the ones I used as bartering material.” In a 2010 interview, Depp later clarified how much concern there was over his performance as the dailies rolled in.
“They couldn’t stand [Jack],” Depp said. “I think it was Michael Eisner, the head of Disney at the time, who was quoted as saying, ‘He’s ruining the movie.’” Depp even referred to several executives as “Disney-ites” who feared he’d turned their heroic pirate into an openly gay character. “[They were] going, ‘What’s wrong with him? Is he, you know, like some kind of weird simpleton? Is he drunk? By the way, is he gay?’ And so I actually told this woman who was the Disney-ite; ‘But didn’t you know that all my characters are gay?’ which really made her nervous.”
According to Verbinski, Eisner even panicked when he saw a daily of the final shot of the movie, with Jack caressing the phallic-shaped handles of the Black Pearl’s steering wheel.
These were bold and bizarre choices made by both Depp and Verbinski at the peak of their creative talents. Today, it’s easy to forget how transgressive Depp’s Captain Jack appeared at the time, particularly after he turned Sparrow into a paycheck-generating caricature during the fourth and fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But in 2003, the character was brazenly unlike anything any studio would put at the forefront of a summer tentpole, least of all Disney. For that matter, it’s impossible to imagine such creative mojo being left unchecked on a Disney tentpole today, not when the studio has turned superhero movies into a finely tuned assembly line, and still seeks to do the same with Star Wars.
Of course the changing tides were imminent in ’03 too. Ahead of release, Verbinski, Elliot and Rossio, and the armada of filmmakers attempted to make the ultimate pirate movie. The director even mused there were only five types of pirate stories to be told: buried treasure, building a crew, marooned anti-heroes, kidnapped damsels, and the good-man-turned-scoundrel. Pirates of the Caribbean did them all in a single movie, complete with Aztec curses.
But shortly after principal photography wrapped, and even as Disney executives privately stewed over what Depp was doing to the movie, the studio quietly added the subtitle “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” signaling they wanted sequels. Yet considering the kitchen sink approach to every classical trope being honored and subverted in the original movie… did there really need to be a sequel?
In retrospect, no. Admittedly there’s quite a bit in the second Pirates movie to enjoy: Verbinski and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s sun-drenched photography of Caribbean locations was back, as was Penny Rose’s historically authentic costuming, and of course Depp. But the script was looser; and though the CGI was impressive with the motion-capture performance of Bill Nighy as new heavy Davy Jones and the giant tentacles of a Kraken, which harkened back to another Disney favorite, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the more enmeshed the franchise became with CG-spectacle, the more it got away from what made the first a brilliant throwback.
The initial Pirates sequels also fell prey to the franchise fad of the early 2000s. Before gritty reboots or “shared cinematic universes,” the buzzword in studios offices was “trilogy.” While the original Pirates was a blast of creative energy put into one film with no setups or dangling plot threads, it was released in an era when Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and the Star Wars prequels dominated the box office; even superhero movies were haphazardly trying to jump on the fad via X-Men and Spider-Man rushing awkward threequel finales.
But no matter how grandiose composer Hans Zimmer’s score became, Pirates of the Caribbean was not Lord of the Rings, and trying to force that square peg into a round hole triggered diminishing returns. While the second movie had fun developments like Davenport’s Norrington becoming a major character who washed out of the British Navy and was now a disgraced pirate crossing swords with Depp and Bloom during a spectacular three-way sword fight, the third film had no clear vision of what to do with him after a cliffhanger ending. So he was unceremoniously killed off. I’d even argue the third movie didn’t know what to do with any character to match the franchise’s sudden pretensions. So Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner, designed to be classic happily-ever-after types in the vein of Captain Blood, are unconvincingly morphed into tragic star-crossed lovers with an ending that reaches for the majesty of J.R.R. Tolkien. By trilogy’s end, they’re doomed to see each other only one day per decade. It wants to be mythic, but it’s really bloated melodrama.
Still, it was better than what came afterward. Realizing there was yet more money in the Pirates brand after the trilogy concluded, Disney churned out two more movies where everyone but Depp and Rush were gone. Gorgeous 35mm cinematography was replaced by bland digital photography, on-location shooting in the Caribbean was kept to a minimum, and the performance that once got Depp an Oscar nomination became a phoned-in parody of itself. Even the characterization of Jack is off, with the resourceful pirate tactician everyone mistakes for a fool turning into a fool everyone inexplicably mistakes for being clever.
In this way, all the elements that made the original so refreshingly lovable were run aground, much the same way Disney’s modern attempts to repeat the narrative beats of George Lucas’ once revolutionary Star Wars movies from earlier decades had led to a recycled emptiness by the time we reached last year’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The creative transgressions of Verbinski and Depp in their prime were sandblasted and smoothed by a studio system that’s only become better at dulling the edges of any and every intellectual property. Just ask Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the original directors of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
The fifth and final Depp-led Pirates of the Caribbean movie attempted to use prequel elements wherein audiences met a de-aged Jack Sparrow winning battles in his youth. But by then audiences had tired of the shtick. So Disney now seeks to reboot the brand with Margot Robbie in the lead. Undoubtedly her maiden voyage in the franchise will be loaded with easter eggs and dangling setups for sequels and spinoffs, and perhaps even a shared universe of Pirates movies. It’ll surely make for a smoother transition than the original movie had to indefinite expansion. And yet, I suspect the standalone quality of the first is what will always make it the most valuable treasure buried in this franchise’s sea.