The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Jack Sparrow’s Odyssey: Is Disney’s Latest an Homage to Homer?

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

Image The opening moments of the third Pirates movie, At World’s End, suggest a darkening of tone that is initially quite surprising coming as it does from a Disney movie. As a procession of accused pirates and pirate abettors move in groups to the hangman’s noose, the focus is on one small boy, turning a coin over and over in his hand as he approaches an inevitable fate. I remember sitting in the theatre watching this boy walk towards the noose and thinking that this would be the perfect moment for some kind of heroic rescue. Perhaps swashbuckling pirates from Sparrow’s former crew would be coming from the sides at any moment, their coming heralded by a lone parrot or still-skeletal monkey. Instead, as the boy approaches the hanging platform, he begins a song quite familiar by now in ironic celebration of piracy. As the refrain is taken up by the entire procession, we see the unfolding of what serves as the primary motivation for the rest of the film.

The East India Trading Company and the governments on land have crossed the line to authoritarian regime seeking to punish all dissent with death, and there is a continual metaphor for current politics running through as new policies are announced infringing upon freedoms of assembly and speech. There is a certain lack of subtlety on the part of the politics of the film. Ever since the first movie, the Pirates trilogy has encouraged us to root for the pirates and their “outlaw” ways. The authorities have been portrayed as bumbling and overzealous all at once. This trend continues in the third movie, except with the performance of Tom Hollander as Lord Beckett suddenly bringing a vicious and competent streak as a George Bush-esque figure who has decided to use a pirate legend—Davy Jones—to wipe out the rest of pirates. All this Beckett does in support of his vision of a business driven world order where piracy and rebellion are rendered obsolete.

This early mass execution sets in motion the epic quest of the movie: the song is a calling to the Pirate Lords to act against the new threat. Who the “Pirate Lords” are exactly is somewhat unimportant: it brings to mind for me a thieves’ guild style brotherhood of uneasy alliances. The Pirate Lords lack the organization of Beckett’s vicious company—one amusing scene has the Pirate Lords enacting a mockery of the democratic process to “elect” a king—an act usually doomed to failure as every Pirate Lord has a habit of voting for him or herself. The quest of Jack Sparrow and his many comrades has transformed from a personal tale to an epic one. Perhaps too epic, as many viewers have accused: the plotline is awash in double-crossing, backstabbing, and convoluted movement. Throughout, there is an epic notion of honor and the continued reference to the Pirate’s Code as a group used to acting out of pure self-interest attempts to unify for a more collective interest in their own survival. The obstacles follow a traditional epic pattern: rescues from Davy Jones’s Locker, battles on unusual islands, and efforts at gathering an entire war force of pirates to do battle.

Watching this elaborate plot gather steam I was reminded more of traditional epics than of the usual high octane summer movie. The visuals of this particular installment invoke a number of mythical traditions on one level or another, moving from the previous focus on an essentially European feel of generic piracy. With this new focus, more powerful figures of myth emerge. Prior to the third movie of the Pirates saga, we did not see much of the gods. Certainly, plenty of supernatural dealings were afoot, mostly involving various ways of returning to the dead: however, the logic justifying these events fell to curses and mysticism, not divine intervention. Avoiding gods in this manner allowed the two movies to avoid both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the more pagan implications. However, in the third movie there is suddenly a divine presence, and not just as an absent force: she is literally embodied in the film. This character, Calypso, is not exactly a god in her place within Greek mythology—there, she is a sea nymph, and domain over the ocean belongs not to her but to the god Poseidon. The choice of Calypso of course allows for her character to play a role as a love interest for Davy Jones.

More than this, however, the particular choice of Calypso invokes the Greek legend of The Odyssey itself: Calypso rescued Odysseus only to hold him on her island for seven years with the power of her charms. Calypso is the ultimate tempestuous scorned lover. She also belongs to a story that has much in common with the Pirates saga—high seas supernatural peril with a string of obstacles to success. The story of the Odyssey is of a man at sea going to the ends of the world as he tries to return home. The presence of Calypso in this third movie lead me to wonder, where is home for the pirates on their own odyssey? In The Odyssey, the quest was more interesting than the return home, but the quest would not have meaning without a home to return to: a voyage without purpose is just an adventure.

Calypso also plays a role in trying to humanize even Davy Jones. In the second movie, Davy Jones was minimally developed as a villain: I was more taken in by his impressive appearance and presence than by any actual development of his motivations. The third movie recasts him as Calypso’s lover, as a man who dared to love a goddess and took on immortality as a way to cement their union. The union’s price is a traditional reminder that immortality always has a cost: Jones can only return to land and Calypso one day for every ten years of sailing as guardian of the realm beyond world’s end. Davy Jones goes wrong when he returns for his one day and Calypso has already moved on, making his sacrifice seemingly worth nothing. The metaphor of the fish men aboard Davy Jones’s ship becomes a tale of humanity lost.

Unlike Calypso, the character of Davy Jones himself belongs to no established mythos—he certainly has no dealings with Calypso within Greek mythology—but instead belongs to a less formal realm of superstition. The name and reference are casually associated with a form of devil of the sea—thus making Beckett’s choice of Davy Jones as his weapon a pact with the devil. Despite this placement of Davy Jones within the realm of superstition rather than mythology, Davy Jones’s Locker is here embodied in a manner reminiscent of the Greek underworld, with the emphasis on the ferrying of lost souls from one existence to another. Including this focus on the story taking place beyond the world’s end allows for a Grecian envisioning of the afterlife. The image of the dead below the water’s surface for all eternity is a powerful force in reshaping the motivations of Jack Sparrow to the point where he aspires to take the Devil’s place.

Three conflicts power the movie and these quests. The Pirate Lords are in conflict with mainstream authoritarian society, making a stand against big business and trying to continue their lives away from mortgage payments and time cards. Will Turner remains in conflict with Davy Jones, trying to free his father and at the same time stay with his lover. Jack Sparrow, on the other hand, is at odds with everyone but his only true conflict is with his own mortality: his escape from Davy Jones’s Locker makes him determined not to spend his eternity there, and the only way to avoid becoming a permanent resident of the land of the dead is to aspire beyond that to be the devil himself, Davy Jones.

However, Jack Sparrow could never have filled the shoes of Davy Jones: nothing bound him to the mainland. Jack Sparrow would not have been making a sacrifice. All his interactions with women are continually made a joke. The ending of Pirates 3 offers a poetic choice for who should fill the Devil’s shoes, and leaves Jack still grappling with the problem of mortality. But for Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, and the rest of the pirates—the sea is home. The ties to land and lover are minimal because the ship is home and the sea a lover, as tempestuous and unreliable as Calypso. And out on the ocean where these Pirates rule, the reach of businesses and governments—whether those of Beckett or Bush—can be left behind with a change of the tide.