The modern mainstream perception of pirates can be traced to popular Victorian comic opera writers Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 long-running hit, Pirates of Penzance, a rowdy farce that perhaps set the course for their development as comic figures. The iconic Peter Pan character, Captain Hook, evolved throughout early 20th century productions of the play, with his stereotypical look reaching completion in the 1924 Paramount film version.
Hook, along with the portrayal of Long John Silver in the ’50 film adaptation of Treasure Island, established the most enduring signifiers: the Cornish-sounding accent, eye-patch and peg-leg, striped shirt, the parrot on the shoulder, dubious hygiene, marathon rum consumption, and the menacing ever-presence of pistol and sword. Recent interpretations in popular culture have imagined pirates even more flamboyantly: Johnny Depp has admitted that he modeled his much acclaimed performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest after the Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards.
Indeed, thanks to these fanciful depictions, pirates are a beloved mainstay of popular culture approaching the level of theatricality of a rock star. The History Channel’s True Caribbean Pirates manages to use their wide appeal to draw in a general audience while striving for the historical accuracy needed to captivate a viewer with a working or even expert level of knowledge about the history of pirates. True Pirates of the Caribbean may be timely in its subject matter and treatment, but it’s a thorough and chronological account of what really happened during piracy’s Golden Age.
It goes beyond a talking head format, using dramatized sequences to bring the viewer close to the action. These action sequences are generously budgeted, and the acting is respectable, though the accents are not always convincing and the costumes seem a little too pristine. The historians take an anthropological approach to describing the pirate lifestyle with clarifying details that reinforce some popular ideas and debunk others, providing a far more rewarding experience than Hollywood alone could.
It unfolds at a reliable pace with a steady level of detail and kicked up production values, incorporating interviews with historians, CGI animation, and fairly lavish dramatizations in full costume to cover the prime of Caribbean piracy. There’s also a Black Beard re-enactor in full costume, hinting at a secret world of possibly fanatic pirate enthusiasts that might fill another sort of documentary. The result is more nutritious than flashy, and the documentary lets its more sensational aspects speak for themselves as it takes an even hand to each element of the narrative.
True Caribbean Pirates focuses on the prime age of piracy in the Caribbean, between the 1600’s and 1700’s, telling numerous tales about legends like Blackbeard, Captain William Kidd, Captain Henry Morgan, Anne Bonney, Jean Lafitte, Calico Jack, and Black Bart, that provide a detailed snapshot of life on the perilous seas. These are neat surprises, particularly the descriptions of female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, and time-honored myths, like buried treasure and treasure maps, are dispensed with. The chronological format gives it a comprehensive feel and serves as a useful way to acquire a working knowledge of a rich period in history replete with violence, brutality, and excitement in an era of political corruption in Europe. It’s a close read, and doesn’t give a lot of historical context outside of the pirates’ immediate environment. A broader discussion of colonization and its consequences at this juncture in European and American history are left for another discussion. The DVD is certainly educational and reasonably entertaining, though the length and depth of the discussion could grow tedious for someone with only a passing interest. The DVD also features “A History in the Making”, a conventional behind the scenes featurette. Ultimately, the documentary should be given credit for its refusal to linger on the aspects of piracy that popular culture has romanticized, and for its faith that a factual recount of these dramatic maritime stories will be swashbuckling enough.