Monthly Archives: May 2017

Announcing #WomenPirateWednesday!

On Wednesday, May 31, 2017, I will launch the first #WomenPirateWednesday (also #WPW) via twitter (@SamRStaley).

The idea is to highlight women in pirate history, literature, movies, entertainment, academia, and culture more generally. This weekly event will feature books, podcasts, movies, blog posts, and anything directly or tangentially related to women and the connection to pirates. I will be borrowing content liberally from podcasts hosted by Phil Johnson at UndertheCrossbones.com. My twitter posts will generally begin at 10 am ET and end at 10 pm ET.

Here’s a quick peak at the women featured on the first day:

Of course, The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay can be found at amazon, SYPPublishing.

Each week I’ll have a preview of the line up on this blog. Leave comments if you have content that you would like featured!

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Five ways the Pirates of the Caribbean films misrepresent real pirates

I recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and had to once again take a deep breath. The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, I reminded myself, is intended for entertainment, not historical accuracy (my review of the film is here). As a social scientist and writer of historical fiction (The Pirate of Panther BayTortuga Bay), I have to step back and remind myself that I take liberties when writing my books, too. Nevertheless, the films play loose with pirate history, and those misrepresentations should be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, these deviations from historical fact should be intentional and deliberate, not a result of carelessness or lack of interest. So, I have put together a list of five historical inaccuracies promoted or used in Dead Men Tell No Tales that may serve the plot but probably make historians cringe. This is not to say that the director, screenwriters, or producers were reckless, negligent, or didn’t care. Rather, this short list just provides a little real world correction to impressions that may have been left by the movies themselves based on what we “know” historically about Caribbean piracy.

  1. The ships are too big. Most pirate vessels were small, often one-masted schooners, because they needed to be nimble, fast, and navigate shallow waters. Larger vessels with multiple gun decks were slower and harder to maneuver. They were also easier to run aground. They were best used for blockades or large fleet battles. Hence, these larger ships were called “ships of the line” because they would be arrayed in lines, bow to stern, to engage the enemy. That’s the way fleets did battle up until the 20th century. Pirates were usually solo actors, like Jack Sparrow. A few, such as Blackbeard, were able to command multiple ships. But even Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was a frigate without the multilevel gun decks depicted in the films. Frigates were among the larger warships designed for speed, agility, and firepower.
  2. The ships are too fast. Numerous scenes show larger ships of the line overtaking similar sized ships. While some of this can be chalked up to the fantasy elements of the film, in reality ships would pursue each other for days because the differences in speed were only 1 or 2 knots among similar sized vessels. The ships in the films are large, multi-deck warships that would be lucky if they could muster 10 or 12 knots under full sail. Schooners, brigs, and frigates were smaller vessels with relatively more sail area, and were designed for speed. A frigate, for example, could achieve speeds as high as 17 knots. (This is one reason why Isabella commands a brig in The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay.)
  3. Jack Sparrow is a sad excuse for a pirate captain. Pirate historians would be scratching their heads wondering why his crew continues to sail with him. He is an ineffective, bumbling criminal. He can’t even rob a bank effectively. Historically, pirates raided and plundered towns routinely. In fact, the fort in St. Augustine, Florida was constructed as a direct response to pirate raids on the town. Captains had to be effective leaders to earn the respect of their crews. In the films, Jack Sparrows crew follows him through friendship, loyalty, and pity.  
  4. Pirate captains were respectful of their crews. While pirate captains routinely used fear, intimidation, and violence against their targets, they had little scope to use the same tactics against their crew. The tyranny Barbossa uses against his crew would not have been tolerated, although the riches may have given him more latitude than usual. Pirates were ruthlessly rational and tactical, using violence to achieve specific ends. A democratically agreed upon set of Articles served as a binding constitution that provided transparent ways to distribute the booty in shares. Economist Peter Leeson has an excellent, accessible book on this called The Invisible Hook. (Or listen to the podcast with Peter at Under the Crossbones here.) Pirate crews were volunteers, and they elected their captains. A pirate captain in the Caribbean would not exact tribute from his crew without risking immediate defection. The crew could always elect another captain.
  5. The British Navy’s anti-piracy campaign was professional.  In the movies, the British colonial administrators are driven by deeply held beliefs in legend and superstition. In reality, the British successfully purged pirates from the Caribbean was eminently practical—they wanted to protect the shipping lanes for commerce. The British were remarkably successful, bringing the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” to an end by 1730s. They achieved this through concentrated force, the ruthless pursuit of pirates, and a liberal willingness to hang anyone caught in the act of piracy. Pirates (as well as sailors generally) were very superstitious. So, this focus on legend and mysticism fits well within pirate lore and even beliefs among common sailors. However, in terms of colonial policy and strategy, the British Navy took a highly professional approach to ending piracy in the Caribbean.

Tortuga Bay, 2016 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist

Writing historical fiction puts authors in a dilemma—often history, or what we “know” to be historical, is at odds with a good story.  This appears to be the case in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies where battles between big ships seems to carry more dramatic effect. Authors of historical fiction have to make these trade-offs as well. For example, we have no historical records that a woman commanded a pirate ship in the  Caribbean, but Isabella does in the Pirate of Panther Bay series. Nevertheless, a woman in a leadership position, an escaped slave nonetheless, creates dramatic tension that moves the story. I have tried to nest the story in the real historical context of the times (and appear to have done this based on reviews).

I wonder if a more nuanced approach to storytelling in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies might have allowed a bit more historical accuracy without sacrificing dramatic effect. I have found smaller vessels provide more opportunities for dramatic tension and conflict that larger ships. This is why I found the original escape and pursuit of Jack Sparrow somewhat more satisfying n the Curse of the Black Pearl—at least the ships in the movie were closer to the right scale. But it’s also why Isabella continues to captain a smaller ship in the book series.

For more great history and all things pirate, check out Under the Crossbones, a podcast hosted by Phil Johnson. Phil interviews me in Episode 20 here, and he’s up to 92 episodes.

More details on the Pirate of Panther Bay series, including classroom guides and information on the literary awards the books have earned, can be found here.

The Pirate of Panther Bay is available at amazon.com here.

Tortuga Bay is available from amazon.com here.

 

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Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Reminding myself that the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise was inspired by a theme-park ride is useful. As a writer of historical fiction, I find myself enjoying the movie much more. Such is the case for the fifth installment of the series Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales where fine acting and first class special effects shoulder most of the burden for creating an entertaining film. The caliber of the actors and producers, however, suggest this movie had much more potential than what was delivered on the big screen.

Multiple story lines bog down the plot in Dead Men Tell No Tales, and many viewers will find the story hard to track. New characters are introduced on top of a cast that had already expanded under the first three films. Dead Men Tell No Tales sequentially follows the third film (At World’s End), complicating matters, because the fourth film (On Stranger Tides) was a “one-off.” The story tried to capitalize on the popularity of Jack Sparrow and his crew independently of the established story line in the first three films, creating a nonlinear break in the story.

Dead Men Tell No Tales picks up with a young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, The GiverGods of Egypt), the child of Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley, Bend it Like Beckham, Pride and Prejudice) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Curse of the Black PearlTroyLord of the Rings) on a quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, which legend holds will break all the curses of the sea including his father’s. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, Curse of the Black PearlPlatoonEdward Scissorhands) holds the key to finding the trident through his bewitched compass, which will reveal the location of its owner’s most prized object. Through a series of comedic mishaps, Henry discovers and joins forces with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, Maze RunnerWuthering Heights), who also happens to be searching for the trident to vindicate her father’s scientific calculations left to her in a diary. Corina, however, is about to be hanged as a witch because no one believes her scientific ruminations as a brilliant astronomer.

When Jack Sparrow gives up his compass for a drink in a local tavern, a crew of undead Spanish Navy sailors led by Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old MenSkyfall, Before Night Falls) are released to continue their quest to rid the seas of pirates. This puts Captain Barbossa‘s (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s SpeechThe Book Thief, Life and Death of Peter Sellers) pirate fleet in jeopardy. Barbossa is captured by Salazar, and his life is saved only when he relents to find Jack Sparrow. Everyone is now on the quest to find the Trident of Poseidon—Henry Turner to release his cursed father from the Flying Dutchman, Corina Smyth to prove her scientific brilliance, Barbossa to retain his power over the seas, and Salazar install himself as lord over the seas.

Keeping all this straight in difficult, and Dead Men Tell No Tales is prone to dialogue that fills in details and background for the audience (a classic case of Show Don’t Tell) with predictable results—slowing down the action. This is a problem because the Pirates of the Caribbean films are built on action sequences that include protracted sword fights, running duels among pirate ships and their pursuers, and chases through towns and jungles. Dead Men Tell No Tales has those scenes—one in particularly has Jack Sparrow dodging a ghost’s attempt to skewer him with a pike as he jumps from cannon to cannon between Bardem’s ship and the resurrected Black Pearl.

Juggling so many characters and story lines creates challenges for directors in a format as structured as film, where the the entire story must take place in a 2-3 hour window. Few characters really have a chance evolve. Henry Turner stays the same brash, precocious young man throughout the movie, although he falls in love with Corina. Salazar stays the same revenge and hate-filled pirate hunter. Corina becomes slightly less headstrong. While Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan make an appearance, but their time on the screen is not long enough to have a meaningful impact on the plot except to set up a sixth film.  (Hint: stay seated through the final credits.)  The lone exception is Barbossa whose hardcore piratical worldview sets up a personal dilemma that forces him to make a tragic but noble choice—and let’s Geoffrey Rush show his experienced acting chops.

Thus, the plot fails to bring much fresh to the story. The characters come off as flat despite excellent acting by the entire cast. (Even the brief part played by and credited to Paul McCartney—perhaps the only time a beetle is welcome on a wooden ship—was well done and, for me, worth the movie theater ticket price.) Dead Men Tell No Tales’ special effects, particularly those applied to the renderings of Salazar and his crew and the final battle for the trident, are also state of the art, so don’t be surprised to see a few technical Oscar nods to this movie next year.

Nevertheless, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an entertaining film that stays well within the framework and spirit of the first three films in the franchise.

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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a rousing romp through the universe

My movie review and commentary on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is live at the Independent Institute blog. Guardians 2 is a fun, entertaining romp through the universe with the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family. The acting is more than adequate—Chris Pratt‘s (Peter Quill) comedic talents are evident as are those of Dave Bautista (Drax)—but James Gunn‘s script and directing is outstanding. He makes the most of a capable ensemble cast, including Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Michael Rooker (Yandu), and the voices of Bradley Cooper (Rocket) and Vin Diesel (Baby Groot). The special effects don’t overwhelm the story or the action, providing a nice balance between character development and plot. I’ve got more details of my thoughts in the blog.

I think this movie is underrated by some credits. This is a very smart, well crafted film. In particular, the main tension between Peter and his father Ego (Kurt Russell) is driven by a deep philosophical idea about personal identity—a heavy theme no doubt. But Gunn doesn’t let the weight of the idea slow the film down.  In fact, I believe this film is a great example of storytelling where substance drives plot. More often, filmmakers attempting to make a point slow the action down because it’s not integrated well into the plot. I will be writing on this point in a future post on this website.

I write in part in the Independence Institute review,

Despite the heavy theme, Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 remains a engaging film, a rare combination of state of the art filmmaking and substance. Gunn is able to combine a keystone cops comedic lightness with first-rate special effects, making the film suitable for a wide range of audiences. Gunn leverages the comic talents of his cast and quirky characters to craft an entertaining, action packed, and amusing addition to the Marvel Comics film universe. The movie has already grossed more than $430 million dollars worldwide, double its production budget, and seems likely to legitimately earn a spot as one the highest grossing films of the year.

I highly recommend Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and I’m looking forward to the third installment which is already under contract.

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