Commander James Bond and Captain Jack Sparrow. Both are British. Both are fictional characters. Both are heroes. Both are clever. Both appeal to the opposite sex.
Both are good-looking, quick with comebacks, original in their approaches to adversity, and adroit with weapons. Both are seemingly mesmerizing to movie audiences and have led their respective film franchises, the James Bond series and Pirates of the Caribbean, to huge fortunes in box office revenue: billions of dollars for each franchise.
Yet, a closer look at each character and the movies they inhabit provides throws into sharp focus the vast differences separating the films. By differences here, I mean very significant underlying premises and values, and these reflect the tenor of their respective times: the 1960s in the case of James Bond and the 2000s in the case of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
As for James Bond, that well-known franchise has been around for almost 50 years, and naturally later films reflect more recent ideas and social conditions, but nevertheless, the original James Bond movies from the 1960s and 1970s are the foundation of the franchise, while later ones merely ‘update’ the old formula. I shall mostly refer to the older ones.
My main point here is to show how popular art reflects the economic conditions which it is embedded in. In fact, if the art shies away from reflecting these conditions, it can risk commercial failure. Reflecting their very different economic and resulting social climates very closely, I will show, is the key to the success of both of these franchises.
A quick scan of the two fictional heroes’ outward appearances reveals a huge gulf separating the consumer ethos of James Bond from the scarcity-driven ethos of Jack Sparrow. James Bond wears many expensive outfits, usually suits and sometimes tuxedos. He has nice sports clothes and changes clothes often. He has neatly trimmed and clean hair and is always clean shaven. His shoes always look new. Even his name “Bond” connotes “stocks and bonds”, money, the moneyed set. “James” can be an aristocratic name, a name bestowed on English kings.
Jack Sparrow has one set of clothes, a rather grungy and baggy pirate outfit, nevertheless fantastically cool. He wears boots and his hair is long and kept in beaded dreadlocks, perhaps to save time washing and cutting it and also to show that as far as appearance is concerned, he will choose his own idiosyncratic way, since the other characters have more ‘normal’ hairstyles.
This idiosyncratic way is also reflected in the kohl makeup around his eyes; it is a little bit feminizing and subtly references the subaltern: India, the Middle East, Turkey, perhaps, or Morocco. His beard is divided into two long braids and he has a rock-star style mustache. His name “Sparrow” connotes a common, but resilient and somewhat clever and quick little bird, nothing aristocratic or refined. It also recalls nature. “Jack” is a short, nickname for “John”; “Jack” is a mythic name, often used in fairytales for the main character.
James Bond, we implicitly understand, has money, goes shopping, likes purchasing and changing outfits. He cares about presenting an appearance congruent with ‘middle-class’ and consumer and ‘dominant’ British/American business culture (we could even call him a “colonializing figure” in this way, to which I will add more later). James Bond always presents himself as impeccably groomed, but in a very ‘standard’ (i.e. following general colonializing ideas of the masculine promoted by the British/US colonializing cultures) masculine way.
Bond doesn’t wear an earring or rakish artistic hats, for example. There is no mystery about his ethnicity. He is a WASP with a WASPy name and background (although Sean Connery, the most famous actor to portray Bond, looks not quite like a standard WASP, perhaps this interesting gap may be one of the appealing aspects of the early films where Connery was the lead.)
The message that Jack Sparrow implicitly sends is “scarcity” – no razor to shave, no change of clothes, no consumer products like shampoo or clothes detergent or new shoes. He makes do with what little he has. The plot line (Jack Sparrow is frequently dispossessed of his ship, the Black Pearl) also supports this notion of scarcity. He is not rich, though he is a pirate – or exactly because he is a pirate? (More on this later.) He may sing about plundering (he is never shown to plunder, in fact), and now and then he spends a few coins, but he is not securely, comfortably off as James Bond appears to be.
James Bond, with all his clothes, his cars, his gadgets, his hotel rooms and his ready access to expensive and luxurious items like watches, airplanes, skis, speedboats, scuba equipment and so on, on the other hand, supports the notion of material and economic abundance, reflecting the post-WWII ‘automobile’ and ‘oil’ boom economy as it spread and expanded throughout Europe, the United States, Japan and elsewhere.
In fact, though the James Bond villains routinely sought ‘world domination’ through their evil yet ridiculous comic-book style machinations, the joke on the film audiences is that it was, all along, James Bond himself, the hero of these movies, the global traveler, the secret agent – and what he stood for – who sought – and indeed, achieved, true world domination.
It amounts to world dominance for consumer values and the internal combustion engine, gadgetry, technology, capitalism, market economies, ‘economic growth’, the political hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon-based, male-oriented power classes in United States and Britain, and (last but not least) concomitant environmental destruction on a scale, we might note, very worthy of a Bond villain’s most heinous plans.
One clever technique of the Pirates of the Caribbean series is to set the stories in the 1700s, when, of course, the romantic but somewhat clichéd idea of pirates (in their three-cornered black hats and fighting with cool swords on a beautiful wooden ship flying the Jolly Roger in a lovely unpolluted ocean) easily wins out in cinematographic appeal over the modern image of pirates: armed warlords from developing countries in speedboats set on kidnapping the crews of oil tankers and ransoming the crews and cargo for millions of dollars.
But there was another virtue for the film makers in choosing this remote past: the unpleasant and messy oil economy and all of its ugliness – the cars, the speedboats, the oil tankers, the islands of floating plastic the size of Texas – could be effectively banished from the ocean scene.
Why would the filmmakers wish to effectively banish petroleum and all of its messy traces? I shall argue that the reasons are many. First, aesthetically, of course, in keeping with the environmental movement, now quite strong, scenes of the sky and the sun and the ocean are suddenly “in” while scenes of motors and engines and other carbon dioxide-emitting machinery is suddenly “out”. We can notice this too with the success of shows like Game of Thrones, or movie series like the Lord of the Rings. The internal combustion engine does not exist in these worlds.
Second, as economies started faltering in the lead-up to the global financial crisis of 2008, it became clear that secular high oil prices were having a negative impact on economic growth. Oil started, in the 2000s, and even before that, to be very clearly, and to many people, a ‘negative’ thing as well as a ‘positive’ thing. If its price was rising and making life more difficult materially speaking, then that could be interpreted, in the minds of many, as a sign of scarcity.
Art may have evolutionary roots. It would in fact be reasonable to assume this is so and many suggest it is so. Art has been with us for so long and across so many cultures that it is impossible to believe that it does not have any connection to our evolution. Thus artists, if they are good, may make a bargain with their audiences to provide, covertly or in a coded or allegorical way, some sort of information useful for cosmic survival – evolution. It is a tricky path, a whisper hurriedly caught in a passing moment, a shadow passing through the subconscious, a slight cough as a head turns. That is art.
On the one hand, in a time of seeming abundance, like the 1960s, it was an easy choice to present consumer values and the political hegemony that went with them in an entertaining way – elegant fashions, speedy cars, a casino, a hotel, the ear of the powerful in Westminster. But this sword has a double edge. In a time of growing underlying scarcity, the bleakness of the scene cannot be concealed either.
Yet not to present honestly the reality is to opt out of successful art, especially the kind that garners popular and mass commercial success. But scarcity can hardly be entertaining, though abundance may certainly be dull (and the fact that abundance may be dull is why James Bond is always kept on his toes in his hotel rooms and in the casinos). Scarcity, poverty, hunger, people in ragged clothes and walking along the edge of a broken highway can hardly be the material for an entertaining blockbuster and escapist movie, the specialty of Disney (which owns and produces the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). So how to proceed?
Setting the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in the 1700s effectively allows scarcity to be broadcast implicitly to the audience. The ‘pirates’ become the mass of people (i.e. the mass of the target audience for the film), who work simply to get by, while the cruel British over-class, represented by Lord Cutler Beckett, becomes what is fashionably and popularly referred to these days as the “1%”.
The rift between the two is huge, unbridgeable, like the rift between the pirates and Lord Beckett. I don’t suggest that these modern people who belong to the “1%” (whatever that exactly means) are really cruel and merciless like Lord Beckett clearly is, but that the circumstances, which put the ordinary mass of people into their bleak economic situation by creating an endless need for economic growth which cannot be endless on a finite planet, is well portrayed by the image of rough rabble such as ‘pirates’.
But note, these pirates (and not just Jack Sparrow, but Elizabeth Swann, Will Turner and Hector Barbossa and the others) are clever. The court jester may be low, the fool, the trickster, the performing player in the town square may have no money. But their wit is ready to stand them service. And these types of figures -tricksters, clowns, fools – are old and time tested, older than James Bond and his now dated message of abundance (although Bond, as an entertaining ‘player’ of some sort even participates, somewhat on a weak or low level, in the trickster trope when he makes bad puns following the demise of one of his adversaries “He blew a fuse”, etc.)
Fairy tales bring up the point that the fools, those whom others assume to be too low to count—these are precisely the ones who figure out a way to manage pretty well in the end: “Gentlemen, you will always remember this as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Finally, I would like to address the issue of coloniality or the hegemonic power structure favoring the West, especially Britain and the United States, that is so in evidence in the James Bond series. First, this power structure may have had a temporary material basis (maybe only one of its bases) in the huge fossil fuel reserves of the two nations. Second, if so, the hegemony is temporary since fossil fuels are only economic to produce on a temporary basis, while the sun keeps shining.
Third, the Pirates of the Caribbean films reflect the global weakening of this hegemony in a few ways, but primarily by the way that Johnny Depp, who plays the role of Captain Jack Sparrow, is allowed to look other than a WASP. What he is, exactly, isn’t quite clear, nor does it have to be, but his kohl and his dreadlocks and his dark skin refer to ethnic groups other than WASPs. Secondarily, of course, the British Government is an icy, unpleasant, rigid and stupid enemy in the Pirates of the Caribbean, not a slightly bumbling but comforting force for good, as it is in the James Bond series.
Finally, similarly, I would like to add that the male dominance which has gone together with both the British/American political hegemony and which is so grotesquely and appallingly in evidence in the James Bond movies, where women are dehumanized, shown as objects of beauty and value primarily in order to indicate or affirm the man’s virility and desirability, does seem to be tempered as well in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Elizabeth Swann actually becomes one of the Nine Pirate Lords and successfully leads a battle against the British ship Endeavor in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The last line that Lord Becket mutters in a mad daze before his ship is blown to smithereens by the Black Pearl and by the ghost ship (the presence of the supernatural, a nature goddess who is to be spoken to as a lover, and similar such folkish plot elements also separates this film from the James Bond films, which utterly deny the presence of the supernatural) captained by Elizabeth’s dead lover, Will, is (so fittingly) “it’s just good business”. It’s the capitalist outlook that is actually killed off here, quite creatively.
This type of scene, like a nature goddess or a hero in dreadlocks or a beautiful heroine issuing the orders, is simply unimaginable in a James Bond movie, products of another age.
Marianne Kimura is a faculty member in English at Kyoto Women’s University in Japan. She writes Shakesepare-related fiction under the pen name Gemma Nishiyama and has a special interest in supernatural characters in her writing, particularly witches. She is the author under that pen name of The Hamlet Paradigm.