On Captain Jack Sparrow


I love words.  Words can be rapiers (“No one likes you.”)  They can be cudgels. (“You bastard, **** off.”)  They can caress, they can excite, they can provoke, they can appal. 

And I love writers who love words.  William Shakespeare. David Mamet. Robert Towne.  Cole Porter. Ira Gershswin.  Frank Loesser, who wrote the music and lyrics of  Guys and Dolls. Damon Runyan, who wrote the stories which inspired Guys and Dolls, and who pioneered a baroque form of urban New York gangster speech which turned everyday dialogue into poetry. And David Milch, who stole from Loesser and Runyan profligately and superbly when he wrote the dialogue for his series NYPD Blue, in which Sipowicz’s ornate and syntactically challenged version of English became known as Milch-speak, and was for many years the default dialect of the show.   

And, of course, Aaron Sorkin, whose series The West Wing was the wittiest and most well written show on television for many years.  Half the time, I have no idea what they are saying – but they say it so well.

Captain Jack Sparrow also loves words.  He uses words the way he walks, with bizarre arm-flapping feminine grace. He oozes words, he spits words, he lobs words with his tongue.  And he is from time to time given some of the best dialogue ever to grace a major studio blockbuster. 

These thoughts are prompted by a Sunday afternoon visit to see the third in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, At World’s End.  These movies are of course critically reviled (although my agent John Jarrold includes the first Pirates film in his all time Top Ten – and John really knows his movies.)  But I find them hugely diverting, visually exhilarating, and very funny, despite the rambling and sometimes incoherent narratives of the last two films.  (I suspect two runners carrying differently dated drafts of World’s End collided in the corridor and mis-collated their scripts – this is the only way to explain some of the narrative oddities in this film.)

But the dialogue! It’s delightful. In one scene,  being asked to betray his friends and crew, Sparrow uses the word ‘divulgatory’.  Is there actually such a word? I neither know nor care.  But in context, it’s perfect - it’s a word that slimes out of Sparrow, and the soft ‘g’ at its heart perfectly resonates with the ‘ch’ in ‘treachery’.

 Then, later, Sparrow has a great line – I haven’t got the script so have to quote from fallible memory – when he describes a woman as ‘the fury like which Hell hath no.’ 

The writers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, have two tongues each, firmly in their respective cheeks.   Their approach to the screenplays is to concoct a period piratical tone that absorbs every conceivable cliche,  but is handled with zest and wit and is a joy for actors to speak.  In the first Pirates movie,  Gibbs (the bosun with the preposterous sideburns),  hears Elizabeth Swann singing, and speak to Norrington:


 She was singing about pirates. Bad 
 luck to sing about pirates, with 
 us mired in this unnatural fog – 
 mark my words.

 Consider them marked. On your way.

With ‘us mired in this unnatural fog?’  No wonder this character manages to steal his every scene;  it’s poetry, by the sloppy bucketful.

And later, Barbossa (original captain of The Black Pearl, played at pantomime pitch by the extraordinary Geoffrey Rush) has another lovely speech, after being spoken to patronisingly by Elizabeth.

          There was a lot of long words in
          there, miss, and we’re not but
          humble pirates.  What is it you    

          I want you to leave.  And never
          come back.

Barbossa and the pirates laugh.

          I am disinclined to acquiesce to
          your request.
          Means ‘No.’


 Let’s respect them. 

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