Pop 20

Pirates — when fiction meets fact

by Aaron Sagers


17 April 2009


Yo ho, oh no—not a pirate’s life for me, thanks.

Over the last few days, a certain level of guilt visits me in the morning when I wake up to see the dueling action figures of Captain Jack Sparrow and Dread Pirate Roberts on my dresser drawer with Han Solo looking on from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

I grew up loving the eyepatch and pegleg set, but I don’t know if it’s acceptable anymore because there are less jollies to get from the Jolly Roger now that piracy has hit home.

Like many people, I spent the end of last week following the hostage drama off the coast of Somalia. At first, the situation appeared exciting when the crew of the Maersk Alabama fought off the pirates on April 8. There was a sense of adventure and derring-do, but when Captain Richard Phillips handed himself over to protect his crew, it became a darker scenario. Each day, the Somali pirates resembled cornered rats even more, and the resolution looked increasingly grim. So when the Navy SEALS showed up and did their thing to save Phillips, it was a hellz-to-the-yeah moment. (Yeah, it’s unfortunate three people had to die, even if they were bad guys, but I prefer the sniper bullet outcome over the alternative that would have seen a working-joe American dead.)

From a pop-culture standpoint, something else might have died with the ordeal, and that’s the myth, the archetype and the romanticism of the pirate character.

Long before Johnny Depp ushered in a new era of pirate love in 2003 with his Jack Sparrow character, I was a swashbuckler at heart. Growing up in Orlando, my countless visits to the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” ride at Disney World—before the movie was a glimmer in the mouse’s eye—was a religious pilgrimage, and like any devout follower, I recited the gospel of Davy Jones and mouthed the lines from the ride each time the little boat on tracks traveled through the wet, vaguely-chlorine smelling darkness. I can still sing the complete theme song from it, and I credit the attraction for my continuing affinity for redheads.

Beyond the ride, I had a hand-me-down, but well-worn by me, copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” that became the focus of many school book reports and dioramas, and the Disney movie based on the book taught me the perfect pirate “y’arrgh.” I never quite craved a hook for a hand, but I had an eyepatch from the Revco pharmacy. G.I. Joe won in the end, but I always thought the punk -pirate villains, the Dreadnoks, were cooler (I mean, Zartan could turn blue in the sun, and his cronies wielded impractical but awesome chainsaws and jackhammers into battle). Even today, I have a weirdly deep personal connection to the Jimmy Buffett song, “A Pirate Looks At Forty,” and his other nautical wheeling songs make me hear the call of Mother Ocean.

Yet, with the pirate threat becoming a part of our world, I think even a fast-food stop at Long John Silver’s might seem a little distasteful for people—more than usual, that is. Once fantasy becomes reality, we’re less inclined to find it appealing.

Sure, pirates aren’t new; they’ve operated on seas where law doesn’t reach for a long time. But our image of a pirate is based on a fictional hero, or anti-hero, living a rebel’s life of freedom and excitement surrounded by rum and booty. For the most part, our notion of real-world pirates has been limited to the kind that use LimeWire and might ruin Hugh Jackman’s summer.

Now, though, they actually seem scary and not because of their planks. We’re suddenly stuck with an expression both confounded and incredulous like Martin Short from “Captain Ron” now that we’ve found out there really might be pirates in the Caribbean—and definitely in the Indian Ocean.

By comparison, if I had to worry about a brain-eaters storming through my door, I’d take less pleasure killing zombies in late-night “Left 4 Dead” sessions. Sith lords would not be as awesome if I legitimately had to worry about my boss strangling me with his mind when he’s having a lousy day at work. I won’t even get started on ninjas.

My intention is not to make light of the fact that people are getting captured and killed by pirates. But I predict there is going to be less laughing at the silly pirate who introduces SpongeBob SquarePants, and another Jack Sparrow adventure may not be as bankable since the real deal is out there and taking prisoners. What’s worse is that they have promised to target Americans more now.

Expect the pop-culture pendulum to swing to the other side and make heroes out of the Admiral Norrington characters—or at least expect to see more like Charlie Sheen’s character from the 1990 flick, “Navy Seals.” As it happens, Spike TV has already ordered a pilot for a reality show called “Pirates Hunters: USN” based on American warships and their missions to stop piracy.

So forget about the “X” because Somalia marked the spot where our pirate archetype died.—__

Dig! (Or what I’m popping into this week): “The Godfather II” on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC

Far superior to its predecessor, this Electronic Arts game is based on minor characters and tangential plot points from the classic Coppola film. You play as a mafioso who must take the reins of the crime family when your Don is killed in Cuba. By building up an arsenal and assembling a family made up of specialists, you’re called upon by the Corleone family to get New York under control and expand into new areas. At first the game looks like it’s going to be too much like “Grand Theft Auto,” but real strategy is involved here as you intimidate businesses, fight rival families and plan hits. As far as mob games go, this one is the most organized I’ve seen yet.


Entertainment columnist Aaron Sagers writes weekly about all things pop-culture. He can be reached at [email protected]

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