Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

31 July

Black Tot Day, 1970

Today in 1970 was the last day on which British sailors were issued with a daily rum ration. The ration had initially been beer – much safer than water – and had been set at a gallon (4.5 litres) a day in the 16th century. But that’s a lot of beer if there are a lot of men, and so the ration became a half pint of rum in 1655, after the British had secured whole chunks of the rum-rich West Indies. Drunkenness being a problem, the half-pint ration was mixed with water 1:4 and served twice a day. In 1824 the ration was halved to a quarter of a pint and in 1850 an admiralty committee recommended the ration be ended. However, it persisted until 1970, when it was decided that modern high-tech warships and alcohol didn’t make good bedfellows. On 31 July 1970, after the usual pipe of Up Spirits, the last rum ration was poured at 6 bells (11am), while some sailors wore black armbands. A can of beer was added to rations to compensate.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, dir: Rob Marshall)

Well stap me vitals, a decent POTC movie. Yes, I believe the consensus is that this fourth one in the series is a bit of a dog, but that’s only because the consensus has been in hock to the unsustainable idea that the first three were any good. They weren’t. Number one was passable, though way too long. Number two was pantomime piracy without any jokes. Number three was an unforgivable three hours long (nearly) and still had trouble telling its story without breaks for exposition every few minutes.

Which brings us to number four – which removes the bland and increasingly embarrassing Orlando Bloom and the implausible Keira Knightley, promotes Captain Jack Sparrow properly to the lead role and shaves all the shag off the POTC dog to reveal a lean, light questing beast.

Penelope Cruz has been drafted in to spar with Depp, and they make a feisty bickering and possibly romantically inclined duo. Ian McShane is a devilishly piratical Blackbeard – “the pirate all other pirates fear” – joining Geoffrey Rush to make a duo of ancient mariners who understand that in this sort of film it’s all about swash, not swish.

Talking of buckling, Keith Richards as Depp’s dad – and how many column inches did this bit of casting generate – is a waste of everybody’s time and is in the film so little that there’s the suspicion his performance is mostly on the cutting room floor. Round the edges, again having learned from the other films, is lively but not obstructive character support, with Richard Griffiths making a fabulously fruity King George. And Judi Dench turns up early on for a ten second cameo in the brilliant opening chase-through-London sequence, which probably would have gone on for an hour in POTC 3.

Perhaps best of all is the plot, which is exactly the sort of ridiculous story that salty sea dogs might tell each other on a stormy night on the high seas – sexy mermaids, silver chalices and a zombified ship’s crew all figure as Sparrow, Barbossa and Blackbeard chase across the oceans in search of a fountain of youth.

And if the previous films relied too heavily on effects generated in post-production, new director Rob Marshall leans less heavily on them, preferring to set a lot of scenes at night, in the murk and the gloom, leaving a small space for the human imagination to work. There’s real sword fights. And even a bit of seafaring lore, a nod to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (source of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

It’s still a POTC film, so let’s not get carried away, but it’s a good one, far far better than might have been expected from a franchise this waterlogged.

Why Watch?

  • A dead franchise brought back to life
  • Penelope Cruz is the right foil for catwalk pirate Jack Sparrow
  • Ian McShane’s Blackbeard
  • Orlando Bloom isn’t in it

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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