The Pirates of the Caribbean movie series may be based on a simple Disneyworld ride but it surprised viewers and critics alike with the rich and multilayered world it created. The first movie, in particular, The Curse of the Black Pearl, remains critically acclaimed to this day. Even if some critics have mixed feelings about the rest of the franchise, it’s undeniable that its creators managed to infuse the movies with meaning and clear as well as hidden symbolism. Here’s a look at the symbols used in the Pirates of the Carribbean movies and how they add layers of complexity to the story.
The three main characters’ names
Looking for the symbolism behind a character’s name can sometimes feel like grasping at straws but when all three main character’s in a movie share similar name symbolism, it’s clear that it’s no accident.
Jack Sparrow, Elizabeth Swann, and Will Turner are very different characters but they all share an avian motif in their names as well as similar motivations in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – The Curse of the Black Pearl.
The infamous pirate Jack takes his surname off the sparrow, the small and unassuming bird common in both Europe and North America and famous as a symbol of freedom. And that is indeed Jack Sparrow’s main drive in the movie – to be free from the shackles of the law, to reclaim his beloved Black Pearl, and to roam the open seas with it, away from civilization’s restraints.
The second key character in the movie, the noble-born Elizabeth Swann, also carries a rather clear surname. Swans are famous as both regal as well as ferocious birds and that describes Elizabeth quite perfectly. Beautiful when calm and ferocious when angered, like Jack, Elizabeth Swann also yearns for freedom from the small royal “pond” her father wants to keep her in. And just like her namesake, she’s not afraid to stand up to anyone to get what she wants.
The third character’s avian name connection is definitely less obvious. In fact, if it wasn’t for Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swann, we would have happily moved past Will Turner’s name without batting an eye. Now that we have to take a deeper look, however, it’s curious how much symbolism the film’s writers have managed to cram into a seemingly simple name.
First, for the avian symbolism – Will’s surname, “Turner” seems to refer to the tern – the common seabird often mistaken with gulls. This can seem far-fetched at first but Will Turner’s whole story arc in the first three movies (spoiler alert!) is that he turns his back on his grounded life as a blacksmith and not only turns to the sea but becomes a part of it by taking Davy Jone’s place on The Flying Dutchman. So, like the tern Will spends almost his entire life roaming the sea.
More than that, however, the Turner surname also relates to the twists and turns Will makes throughout the franchise – from chasing his father’s jailor to becoming the jailor himself, from working with pirates to being a pirate hunter and then switching sides again, to working against Jack Sparrow, to working with him.
And then, there is his first name – Will.
Like countless protagonists in movies and literature, the name Will is almost always reserved for the character that has to display the most force of will and sacrifice more than everyone else to gain the least.
Back to birds, however, the connection to sparrows, swans, and terns is almost definitely intentional as all birds are associated with striving for freedom, which is exactly what the three protagonists are fighting for in The Curse of the Black Pearl.
The Black Pearl
Jack’s most treasured possession in life is his ship, the Black Pearl. That is, in the rare moments when the Pearl is actually in his possession. Most of the time, however, Jack is forced to fight tooth and nail to get it back and become its captain again.
Given that this is at the core of Jack’s story, the Black Pearl’s symbolism seems rather clear. No, the ship doesn’t represent “infinite knowledge and wisdom” as is the symbolism of black pearls in Chinese legends. Instead, the symbolism of Jack’s ship is that the Black Pearl is endlessly valuable and excruciatingly difficult to get ahold of.
Like actual black pearls that people of that time were desperately trying to fish from river beds and the bottom of the sea, the Black Pearl is an invaluable treasure that Jack desperately wants to find and keep for himself.
Corsets are uncomfortable devices that women were forced to wear for centuries. Corsets, therefore, also make for excellent metaphors. And The Curse of the Black Pearl used Elizabeth’s corset perfectly in that regard.
Early on in the movie, the character is shown getting stuffed into an extra tight corset just as we’re getting to know her. We realize just how constricting and stifling her life is and how much she longs to break free.
Interestingly, it’s also Elizabeth’s corset that puts into motion all the events of the first movie – beginning with her falling into the sea after fainting from not being able to breath because of the corset. In other words, it’s society’s very efforts to restrain Elizabeth that pave the way for her fight to freedom.
What’s more, while you’d expect a simple Hollywood flick to be heavy-handed with such a metaphor, The Curse of the Black Pearl actually pulls it off swimmingly.
In a movie where not only the main character but almost all characters are desperately chasing after their most coveted dreams, loves, or salvation, a wonderful device like Jack’s compass fits into the story quite perfectly. Instead of showing true north like any normal compass, this magical item always points in the direction of its holder’s one true desire.
While the fifth movie, Salazar’s Revenge, arguably overused the compass, the first three movies utilized it perfectly. Not only did the compass symbolize Jack’s true goal and the desperation with which he chased after it, but the compass showed us just how desperate every character was to get what they coveted, as the compass changed hands several times and always had somewhere different to point to.
The Cursed Pirate Treasure of Cortés
While the titular “curse of the Black Pearl” may have been a bit metaphorical, there is also a very literal curse in the movie – that of Cortés’ hidden pirate treasure. Cursed by the Aztecs from whom the Spanish conquistador stole the gold, the treasure now turns everyone into an undying undead abomination until all pieces from the treasure are returned.
While the curse serves as a major plot point of the movie and makes for a rather entertaining final act, it also has the pretty obvious symbolism of the pirates’ greed backfiring on them. Not that a single pirate in the movie is going to learn from that experience, of course.
Chewing on an apple has always been a categorical sign that the character in question either has a dark side or is the movie’s outright villain. It sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud, but Hollywood has used this trope so many times that it’s as much of a cliché at this point as the Wilhelm scream.
Some say it’s because of Eve and the apple of knowledge in the Genesis chapter of the Bible. Others say it comes from the poisonous apple from Snow white and the Seven Dwarves story. Most Hollywood directors have a more practical explanation:
- Chewing on an apple while in the middle of a conversation conveys confidence, something every great villain has.
- The sound of biting on an apple is very sharp and distinct which also works beautifully for a villain interrupting the good guy’s speech.
- Eating while conversing is generally seen as bad manners and an apple is a very easy and convenient “meal” to use in any scene – it requires no cutlery, it can easily be carried in one’s pocket, it can be eaten while walking, and so on.
So, it comes as no surprise that as the main villain in The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Barbossa chews on an apple while talking with Jack Sparrow in the movie’s final act. A green apple, no less, to drive home the point of his villainy even more. What’s even more fascinating, however, is the use of the apple in Barbossa’s death scene.
In it, Barbossa not only falls down in a classic overly dramatic fashion once he’s stabbed by Jack, but his hand drops by his side, and the only-once-bitten-into green apple rolls slowly down the pile of gold. This is a clear recreation of the death scene in the movie Citizen Kane, often called the greatest movie ever made. We doubt the crew of The Curse of the Black Pearl actually meant to equate their fun action-adventure to the all-time classic, but it is a fun nod to it.
The Jar of Dirt
Captain Jack’s jar of dirt is a major source of jokes throughout the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, many of which were improvised on the spot by Jonny Depp. And the jar does feel like something that likely has deep-rooted symbolism.
Outside of the movie, however, there doesn’t seem to be any inherent mythological meaning or symbolism to a simple jar of dirt. This does make it arguably even more fascinating in the context of the movie. There, the jar of dirt is presented as just a “piece of land” Jack gets to carry around with him so he could “always be close to land”. That way, he’d be “safe” from the powers of Davy Jones who can only get Jack if Jack is away from land.
Essentially, the jar of dirt is a rather silly cheat code. It works quite well too, since it comes to symbolize both Jack Sparrow’s trickery and the voodoo-inspired sympathetic magic of Tia Dalma. Unfortunately, like most of Jack’s attempts at trickery in the Pirates franchise, the jar of dirt fittingly ends up shattered into pieces on the deck of the Black Pearl.
One of the more memorable scenes from the first trilogy of Pirates of the Caribbean movies was when Jack ended up in Davy Jone’s locker. This special place or extra dimension controlled by Davy Jones was to serve as Jack’s punishment – alone in a vast white desert, with the crew-less and stranded Black Pearl, unable to get to sea.
Yet, in a true narcissistic fashion, Captain Jack immediately conjured himself the best possible company – more copies of himself!
This doesn’t just symbolize Jack’s high opinion of himself, however, but is also a funny nod toward one of the movies’ main throughlines – that Jack can’t possibly fathom anyone but himself in control of the Pearl.
Tia Dalma’s Swamp
Witches in movies and literature are often shown to live in creaky wooden houses either in the forest or by a swamp. From that point of view, we’re hardly surprised the first time we see Tia Dalma’s wooden house by the swamp.
But when we later realize that Tia Dalma is actually the mortal incarnation of Calypso, the goddess of the sea, the fact that her shack is situated in a swampy area of the Pantano River in Cuba, which winds its way to the sea, is even less surprising as it symbolizes her unending connection to the sea.
One of the easiest details to miss in Dead Man’s Chest is also one of the best – Norrington mopping the deck of the Black Pearl with his old commodore wig. This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail is as bittersweet as Norrington’s entire tragic story in the Pirate’s movies – from a valiant man of the law to a heartbroken pirate, to a tragic death standing up to Davy Jones.
In fact, wigs do tend to bring bad luck in the Pirates franchise as Dead Man’s Chest also shows a cannibal tribesman wearing a governor’s wig at one point. While it’s unlikely that the wig belonged to Elizabeth’s father, Governor Swann, the governor it did belong to probably didn’t part with it willingly.
The White Crabs in Davy Jones’ Locker
As Captain Jack chilled with several versions of himself down in Davy Jones’ locker, he fortuitously encountered a great many oval-shaped rocks lying on the flat desert. When he went to inspect them, however, he quickly realized these were actually unique-looking white crabs that suddenly rushed toward the Black Pearl, lifted it off the desert’s floor, and carried it to water.
As bizarre as this sequence is, it suddenly starts to make sense when you realize that the crab symbolizes Tia Dalma, aka the sea goddess Calypso. In other words, the crabs weren’t a random plot contrivance, they were Calypso helping Jack escape from Davy Jones’ locker.
Tia Dalma and Davy Jones’ Lockets
As we learn later in the first Pirates trilogy, Tia Dalma is not just a voodoo priestess and she’s not “just” the mortal form of a sea goddess either – she’s also Davy Jones’ former flame. This easily explains why Tia Dalma and Davy Jones both have the same heart/crab-shaped lockets.
In fact, the lock of the chest where Davy Jones’ heart is kept is also shaped like both a heart and a crab. It’s simply because their love for each other never fully died out and still grips them despite all that they’ve done to each one another.
Will Turner’s Sword
Another fan-favorite and very subtle detail that appears throughout the first three Pirates movies is Will Turner’s sword. That’s not the sword that he uses, however, but the sword he crafts as a blacksmith for Commodore Norrington in The Curse of the Black Pearl. In fact, the very first scene of the franchise we see Orlando Bloom as Will is the scene where he presents that sword to Governor Swann!
Why is such a seemingly throw-away item so important? Because, if we follow the sword’s “travels” through the movies we notice a heart-breaking symbolism:
- Will gives the sword to Elizabeth’s father as a gift for his Commodore – Norrington, the man Elizabeth is supposed to marry.
- Norrington loses the sword at the end of The Curse of the Black Pearl when he also nearly loses his life.
- The sword ends up in the hands of Lord Cutler Beckett, the secondary antagonist and representative of the British Navy in Dead Man’s Chest. Cutler returns the sword to Norrington once the latter is welcomed back into the navy and is promoted to Admiral.
- In the third movie, At World’s End, Norrington manages to stab Davy Jones with the sword Will made for him. He accomplished this feat right after helping Elizabeth escape. Unfortunately, Davy Jones can’t be killed by such simple means and Norrington ends up being killed by Will’s dad, Bootstrap Bill, who’s still in Davy Jones’ service. The latter then takes the swords and notes what a great sword it is.
- Finally, Davy Jones uses the same sword that Will Turner had crafted to stab Will himself in the chest – mere moments before Jack could finally kill Davy Jones for good.
This fascinating series of events leads not only to Will Turner being killed with his own sword – which would have been symbolic enough – but it also results in him taking the place of Davy Jones as the undying captain of the Flying Dutchman. Essentially, Will’s craft as a blacksmith – a life he loathed – doomed him to be the captain of the Flying Dutchman – also a life he loathed.
Jack’s Red Sparrow
Onto a more lighthearted symbol, those paying attention at the end of the third movie would have noticed the slight modification Jack Sparrow made to his flag. Even though he was once again abandoned by the Black Pearl’s crew and Barbossa, Jack remained undeterred, and he added a red sparrow onto the Jolly Rodger of his little dingy. Pearl or no Pearl, the sparrow is always going to fly free.
The Flying Dutchman
A true terror throughout Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, the Flying Dutchman is a sight to behold.
But what is the true symbolism of the Dutchman?
According to actual pirate legends, this was supposed to be a ghost pirate ship, roaming the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies, through the south of Africa. The legend was especially popular during the 17th and 18th centuries – the Golden Age of piracy as well as the height of the powerful Dutch East India Company.
The ghost ship wasn’t believed to be actively threatening to people the way the Dutchman is in the movies. Instead, it was seen as a bad omen – those who had seen the Flying Dutchman were believed to meet a disastrous fate. Supposed sightings of the Dutchman were reported as late as the 19th and 20th centuries, describing it as a ghostly pirate ship, often floating above the water, thus the name Flying Dutchman.
Of course, the creators of the Pirates of the Caribbean couldn’t have the ship be just a bad omen, so they turned it into a terrible force that dragged people and entire ships down to Davy Jones’ locker.
The Brethren Court
The Court of the pirate brethren ends up being a big part of the story in At World’s End, the third – and some might say “ideally final” – movie of the Pirates franchise. In it, it’s revealed that pirates throughout the world’s oceans have always been loosely united under a court of eight pirate captains, each holding a special coin, a “piece of eight”.
The court has changed through the years with the pieces of eight changing hands through the generations, but it was always comprised of the world’s eight best pirate captains.
In the movie’s timeline, pirates are governed by the Fourth Brethren Court, but it’s revealed that it was the First Brethren Court that confined the goddess Calypso to a mortal body. And so, the movie’s plot unfolds, but for fans of symbols and metaphors like us, the Court presents an interesting question.
What is the court meant to represent?
Clearly, there was no such actual “pirate court” in history. Some pirates were known to have worked together and there were attempts at establishing “pirate republics” but never was there a true world-spanning pirate rule.
This doesn’t make the idea of the court any less awesome, however, as for many people throughout history, that was pretty much the dream of piracy. In its essence, piracy was seen as a rebellion against imperial rule. Pirates were widely seen as anarchists who wanted to pave their own ways through the seas and who sought freedom above all else.
Is this idea a bit too romanticized? Sure, very romanticized, in fact.
In reality, pirates were obviously far from “good” people. But the idea of a pirate’s court still represents that dream of a “free anarcho-pirate republic” that – for better or for worse – never was.