It’s been a very pirate-y couple of days for me. Starting with the end of this week’s episode when Eric imparted upon our viewers a swell fun fact about notorious 18th century pirate/huge wuss “Calico” Jack Rackham. Then he got angry because I knew more just from memory about the actual circumstances of Calico Jack’s hanging than he had researched, as well as the mean-but-awesome final words his longtime lover and fellow pirate Anne Bonny said to him:
The swashbuckling continued when I attended the local moving picture house last night with Eric and Tommy Moon to see the critically acclaimed film Tom Hanks vs. The Pirates. It’s the harrowing tale of a bunch of chubby union workers fighting the bad guys from Black Hawk Down on a big ship, then more of the same on a smaller boat. It’s a great film filled with nuanced and complex characters, most of whom get shot in the brain by Navy SEALs. I highly recommend it (the movie, not being shot in the brain).
After the film, us three gentlemen mused upon the coincidence of two pirate-related events occurring in one week. Then my dad griped about how, when I got up to pee at one point near the end of the film, I did so claiming “I know nothing will happen for a few minutes.”
“Oooh,” he responded as the adult in the situation, “Did you know that from all your stupid fucking Marine training?”
To which I replied, “No, I knew that from remembering how long the movie is, schmuck.”
“Oh yeah? Well how’d you know how much of the movie we’d seen, asshole?”
“I looked at my watch, prick.”
That’s my dad. Also my former little league coach.
Today, two US sailors on an oil rig supply ship were abducted by pirates off the coast of Nigeria. So, you know, we’ve got that completely un-funny thing going on right now. And, while it’s very rare for American citizens to be the target of modern pirates, the taking of hostages is pretty regular in places like the Gulf of Guinea, where 132 people have been taken so far this year. Total fucking bummer, right?
With all of these tales of piracy a-tumbling around in my brain-skull, I got to thinking. Why the hell do we think pirates are cool, even back in ye olden times? Where does this mythos of the badass, kickass, anti-hero come from? Well, much like the over-protective mother of a stupid child or a Republican political strategist, I’m going to point my finger squarely at the media. In the centuries since the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (approx 1650 – 2005), film, television, and literature (approx 2150 BC – 2007 AD, according to P. D. Montgomery) has turned seafaring bandits from douchebags to good guys in the public eye. And whodunnit? Well…
Cap’n Paul’s List o’ Popular Fictional Scallywags that Fooled Ye Into Thinkin’ Pirates Be Decent Folk (Arr har har har!)
1. Long John Silver: One of the earliest works wherein pirates and their “adventures” were romanticized was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which depicted the aforementioned one-legged pirate as a harsh but ultimately pitiable character. It was the beginning of widespread views that pirates were truly decent at heart, despite their violent culture. He has been portrayed many times in various films, typically with a more sympathetic light than in the original book, and occasionally with muppets.
In Real Life: Silver would have gutted everyone who stood in his way, even that whiny Jim he wound up all buddy-buddy with. In fact, he never would have gotten that far, because the moment his crew found out Flint’s treasure was gone they would have cut his throat and raped his corpse before Ben Gunn and those other dingusses (dingi?) could have attacked. Because that’s what pirates did. And why aren’t people more afraid of Tim Curry, damnit? He’s played an evil clown, a transvestite space alien that ate Meatloaf (the musician, not the food), and a communist (twice)! He’s fucking terrifying.
2. Captain Hook: A comical character with an obsession for trying to murder young children and endangered reptiles. Portrayed on stage and in films as a bumbling villain who get’s eaten alive in the end. Some real lighthearted shit you came up with here, J. M. Barrie. Sounds perfect for a Disney cartoon, eh?
In Real Life: Did you not read the first sentence of the last paragraph? This dude was basically a combination of Captain Ahab and a character Tim Curry would play. And in real life those kids would be deader than bubblegum music. Just strung up around the railings of his ship like Christmas lights.
3. Everything Errol Flynn Ever Did: This dude and the roles he played probably did the most to establish the buccaneer as a noble and rebellious figure in modern film and fiction than anything else. Except maybe Douglas Fairbanks, but fewer people remember him, so fuck it. His roles were so iconic that I bet anyone reading this can picture someone vaguely like him doing some fake-movie-pirate crap right now without naming a single movie Errol was actually in. Totally called it, didn’t I?
In Real Life: All bullshit. And Errol Flynn was, allegedly, kind of a drunken asshole. Not like the fun, BroCast kind, but the young-girl-loving, Nazi-sympathizing, huge dickhead kind. Which sounds a lot closer to what an actual pirate would be like.
4. The Dread Pirate Roberts: Oh that Wesley, so dreamy. Saving Princess Buttercup and befriending Inigo Montoya and Andre the Giant and what have you. Also Billy Crystal acting all funny and Jewish. Also there was apparently something to do with bitcoins and the free market that mostly involved lots of illegal narcotics, though I must have missed that subplot in the movie.
In Real Life: So he saves Sean Penn’s ex-wife and we just forgive all the unmentioned pillaging he did in the five years prior? Sorry, that dog just won’t hunt. And while the idea of an online, mostly-unregulated marketplace does sound like a decent idea, it probably could have used a few extra measures to prevent it from becoming 70% narco-traffic. And that particular Dread Pirate Roberts allegedly tried to hire somebody to murder a guy who was stealing from him. So assholes all around.
5. Jack Sparrow: Of course, no list of fictional pirates would be complete without the latest popular incarnation of the gold-hearted rapscallion of the Caribbean. He talks funny, walks weird, saves the day repeatedly, and probably allowed Johnny Depp to buy a yacht the size of the house you grew up in. And several houses twice the size of that yacht. He’s just a swell fella and, let’s face it, was in one good movie, one okay movie, and two shitty ones. So far.
In Real Life: What’s that you say, ladies (and some fellas)? A sex symbol and image of your fantasy? Well get ready for all the venereal diseases you can imagine. Plus some you can’t. And do you know what that undercarriage must smell like after months at sea on a ship full of dudes in the 18th century? Like somebody put a rotting flank steak in a running shoe and left it in a greenhouse for a week. Still turned on? You are? Really? Gross.
Have I shattered enough of your hopes and dreams for today? Good, then I win. Pirates suck today and they sucked back when. They’re assholes and always have been. You can romanticize their culture all you want, but it was filled with blood, theft, and non-consensual sex. Like a particularly depressing episode of Law & Order: SVU, but with more capital punishment and scurvy.
So as this current high-seas drama unfolds and eventually comes to a hopefully happy conclusion, remember that pirates didn’t “become uncool.” They never were. They’re assholes. And the only parts of piracy worth celebrating are when the victims come home safe. Or when Navy SEALs shoot somebody who deserves it in the brain.