My review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


Last night I saw the latest installment of the Disney franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I won’t go into huge details about the plot but beware of spoilers below.

In a nutshell, the gang, which includes Henry (son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan), Carina (a new addition to the franchise – a woman of science in search of an astrological map based on clues in Galileo’s diary), Jack Sparrow and Barbosa, are all after the mythic Triton of the Sea, which is said to break every maritime curse. Henry is after the Triton to return his father to land (who is cursed to remain dead at sea and is only allowed on land once every 10 years) while pirate hunter Captain Salazar (the villain played by Javier Bardem) wants to return to life in order to seek revenge on Jack Sparrow.

This movie was not the strongest of the franchise. It does not refer at all to the fourth film and is instead a ‘soft reboot’ of the series based on the first three films. I have always enjoyed the Pirates films because they’re fun and I’ve written before about historical details they include into the plot. This film, however, was slightly infuriating to watch because this time they seemed to not just throw out any real historical detail, but made a mockery of it.

The first major offense was against the new character, Carina. I found her interesting because she is a ‘woman of science’ and seeks to gain greater knowledge about the stars. She is in the Caribbean to seek out clues written in an old diary that belonged to Galileo, left to her by her mysterious father. The timeline of these films has always been a bit confusing but it’s safe to guess that this one takes place around the mid-eighteenth century. Jack Sparrow is a washed up ex-pirate, piracy is pretty much gone from the seas, the scientific revolution has changed navigation, and the Navy has control of the Caribbean. Yet, because Carina is a woman of science, she is wanted for crimes of witchcraft (which are never specified) and is set to hang as a witch.

I’ll leave aside the fact that using a witchcraft device as a way to move a woman’s plot forward is tired and overdone. How about the fact that the Witchcraft Act of 1735 ended accusations of witchcraft? Instead, this law prosecuted anyone who claimed someone had engaged in sorcery. If this film takes place in the mid-eighteenth century, it is highly unlikely that the Admiralty and the Navy would arrest an Englishwoman for witchcraft in St Martin. (There’s also the small detail that witchcraft was outside of the Admiralty’s and Navy’s jurisdiction,[1] but I just cannot right now.) While witchcraft was legally recognized in the British Caribbean, it was mostly amongst African slaves based on combinations of their own spiritual practices and some influences of European religions.[2] (Historians of science and witchcraft, please correct me if I’m wrong!)

Naturally, an accusation of witchcraft must be carried out so a public execution is in order. Jack Sparrow has also been captured and is set to hang as a pirate. Here’s where the second offense comes in. The people of St Martin are in luck – they’re in for a double public execution! Before their punishments can be carried out, Carina shouts from her scaffold to quiet the crowd. She needs to make her speech. This mollified me a bit because public executions were not just punishments, they were entertainment and ritualistic events. The key component of a public execution was the last dying speech, in which the condemned stated their crimes, atoned for them, and warned others away from pursuing that life.[3] However, just a few seconds into her speech (after she’s declared herself innocent and as a woman of science) Jack jeers at her and demands to know when has it ever been allowed for someone to speak before their hanging? The crowd yells in agreement.

“Every time! At every hanging in the British world!” I whisper-shouted in annoyance.

“Becca, these films aren’t meant to be historical,” my friend hissed back. I suppose that’s true.

At this point I had probably annoyed my friend because earlier in the film I was just as annoyed when Jack Sparrow and his crew robbed a new Caribbean bank to steal the gold and treasure. I’ve written before about how pirates generally were not after gold and treasure because these items would slow down a ship and were not useful at sea.

Disney, I implore you. Can more effort be put back into these films to include a few dressings of historical accuracy or theory like the first movie in the franchise? Can the trope of pirates and buried treasure be gone forever? And please, can a woman be intelligent without an anachronistic witch-hunt?


[1] Admiralty jurisdiction regarded all British maritime legal matters, and later specifically piracy. I’ve written about this in regards to the British American colonies: ‘The Problem and Potential of Piracy: Legal Changes and Emerging Ideas of Colonial Autonomy in the Early Modern British Atlantic’, The Journal of Maritime History 18:2 (2016), 130 – 131

[2] Diana Paton, The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism, and Modernity in the Caribbean World (Cambridge, 2015), 17 – 42.

[3] For most information about the public execution ritual, see J.A. Sharpe, ‘“Last Dying Speeches: Religion, Ideology, and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past & Present 107 (1985), 144 – 167.

About Dr. Rebecca Simon

Los Angeles-based historian who's expert in all things pirates and public executions. PhD, King's College London, 2017.
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1 Response to My review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

  1. Pingback: Monthly Roundup: May 2017 – SGSAH Blog

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