With the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more accessible than ever, and a summer season void of blockbusters, this month we’re diving deep into Disney’s swashbuckling series. Grab your cutlass and hoist the colors: here be Polygon’s take on all things PotC.
Jack Sparrow, the wily, morally ambiguous pirate with a Keith Richards gait, was an immediate audience favorite, as tweens experienced their first bad boy crush in a family movie based on a ride at Disney World. But the franchise overlords were wrong to make Jack the de facto star of the series. The true edgy bad boy deserving of attention, and the command of the Black Pearl, was Captain Hector Barbossa.
Along with Jack Sparrow and Jack’s friend and first mate, Joshamee Gibbs, Barbossa is one of only three main characters to appear in all five Pirates movies. He’s introduced as the main antagonist and captain of the Black Pearl, though as the perpetually knowledgeable Gibbs explains, Barbossa once served as Jack Sparrow’s first mate aboard the ship. After Jack shared the location of the treasure they were hunting, Barbossa organized a mutiny and marooned his captain on a deserted island. Ironically, however, the Aztec gold they plundered turned out to be cursed, dooming Barbossa and his crew to remain undead until they returned all of the medallions along with a blood sacrifice.
The audience first meets Barbossa when Elizabeth Swann demands a parlay aboard the Black Pearl but winds up kidnapped. Played by Oscar- and Tony-winning actor Geoffrey Rush, he’s an immediately intimidating presence. He stomps around the deck barking orders to his crew, and sneers at Elizabeth’s attempts to shame him into releasing her by citing the Pirate’s Code. “First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement, so I must do nothing.” he tells her. “And secondly, you must be a pirate for the Pirate’s Code to apply, and you’re not. And thirdly, the Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”
Rush’s delivery of the line is both condescending and amused, as if he’s impressed by Elizabeth’s boldness, but still wants to scare her a little. Things really start to pop off when Elizabeth is invited to dinner in Barbossa’s quarters, and he explains the Aztec curse. Barbossa concludes his monologue by telling her, “You best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner … yer in one.” He steps into the moonlight, revealing his true form: a skeletal frame covered in bits of ragged flesh.
Barbossa terrified me in 2003. By the time the second film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was released three years later, I missed his presence. Barbossa is killed at the end of The Curse of the Black Pearl, and in the sequel another intimidating, undead captain, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), fills the void. But at the very end of Dead Man’s Chest, after Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl are dragged to the bottom of the sea by the Kraken (it’s a wild film), the voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) tells Jack’s mourning crew that there is a way to bring him back, but they’ll need a captain who knows how to sail to the ends of the earth and back. Hans Zimmer’s score crescendos, black boots descend a wooden staircase. “So,” asks a seemingly alive and well Captain Hector Barbossa, “what’s become of my ship?” He takes a bite from an apple and the juice runs down his chin. He lets out a guttural laugh. The screen cuts to black.
Reader, I screamed. Barbossa’s return meant we were in for one of my favorite movie tropes: former enemies teaming up. In the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, the newly revived Barbossa rescues Jack (and his beloved ship) from the purgatory-like state of Davy Jones’ Locker. Once they become allies (though of course, each has his own private agenda) the contrast between Captains Barbossa and Sparrow is at its most pronounced. Each embodies the pirate ethos of self-preservation and -enrichment. But where Jack Sparrow is characterized by a loose, stumbling nature, Barbossa is tight and controlled. It’s hard to imagine Barbossa letting himself get tricked into passing out in a drunken stupor. He knows exactly what he wants: to captain the Black Pearl, amass a horde of treasure, and eat bushels of apples.
And he’s actually a really good captain! For a pirate, that is. Rush really sells Barbossa as a dignified, competent leader doing a difficult job. When he stands in the middle of the deck surveying his domain, with the sea wind whipping around him, he looks completely at home. He makes steering the ship look difficult, while never making me doubt that he can do it. Barbossa is also a much more decisive leader than Jack Sparrow, whose magical compass that points to its holder’s deepest desire can rarely maintain a direction. And he’s been much more successful than Jack at taking and keeping the Black Pearl, which, for a group of people whose whole way of life is built around stealing and hijacking, seems like one of the most important metrics of success.
More to the point, he’s a better character than Jack Sparrow from a storytelling perspective. As director Gore Verbinski acknowledged over the years, Jack was designed for fun diversions, not carrying the burden of a story arc. That may explain why Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which casts Jack Sparrow as the protagonist, sits at a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes. The fifth film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, has an even bleaker RT score of 30%. It’s a shame because Dead Men Tell No Tales features a lovely redemption arc for Barbossa.
Set 13 years after the conclusion of At World’s End, Dead Men Tell No Tales sees Barbossa as a commander of an entire pirate fleet. He’s amassed plenty of gold and again captains the Black Pearl, after restoring it to its original size. (Captain Blackbeard, the villain of On Stranger Tides, used magic to miniaturize it and display it in a bottle.) The main plot of the film involves Henry Turner, the son of Elizabeth and Will, searching for the Trident of Poseidon. He believes that breaking the Trident will break the curse that prevents Will from visiting his family more than once every 10 years. Barbossa agrees to help, believing that it will lead to more treasure. But he soon discovers that Carina, the young astronomer helping Henry locate the Trident, is actually his long-lost daughter. He tells Jack that he wanted her to have a better life than that of a pirate.
For a selfish rogue who’s only ever wanted treasure, that’s a big twist. He seems to thrive as a pirate, but wants something more for his daughter. Barbossa decides not to tell Carina that he’s her father, allowing her to continue believing that her father was an astronomer like her. Whether that’s a selfless choice to avoid causing her pain, or a selfish one to avoid dealing with uncomfortable truths is up for interpretation, but his next move is decidedly the former. At the film’s climax, Barbossa sacrifices himself to kill the pirate hunter Captain Salazar, allowing Carina and the rest of the crew to escape.
Barbossa’s arc from mutinous villain to a captain willing to sacrifice himself for his family and crew is more compelling than anything any writer could come up with for Jack Sparrow, quips be damned. (That’s not to say that Barbossa isn’t also funny — Rush gets some chuckle-worthy lines in.) Maybe if the spinoffs had focused more on Barbossa and his adventures, with Jack Sparrow filling his OG trilogy role of quirky side character, they would have been a little less shallow.
In a featurette for the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl DVD called “Becoming Barbossa,” Geoffrey Rush said, “I suppose if you stand outside and look at it, I was playing the villain. But on the inside, I was playing the hero.”
By the time Barbossa dies (again), he doesn’t fit neatly into either category. Hero or villain, though, Barbossa will always be the true captain of the Black Pearl, and of my heart.