Sunday, June 1, 2014

Crossbones on Crossbones

I talk about wizards on this blog.  I do this quite a bit.  I do this because it interests me.  Pirates interest me as well, but I don't seem to talk about pirates that often, especially not when compared to wizards and other game bullshit.  There is a good reason for this.  Despite what it may seem, all evidence available posted on this blog, I do like to wait until I have something reasonably intelligent or entertaining to say.  Or write.  As the case may be and most definitely is.
This is one of those times...

Having recently spent time enjoying Black Sails (thanks to a couple of pirate friends of mine who should probably remain nameless for legal reasons but we will call them Leo and Bobby) and the first episode of Crossbones, and being an avid reader and student of all things pirate, I have come to the decision that there are really two conceptions of pirates.  The first is the larger conception, or if you prefer the conception held by the larger portion of the population and thus the more popular one; let us call it the ideal of pirates.  This is typified by the Disney attraction The Pirates of the Caribbean and the films that were inspired by, and share the name of, that attraction.  This is the sort of swaggering, arrrr matey, Talk Like A Pirate Day bollocks that sells so well in the form of merchandise.  It is a mythical type of ideal, as so many are.  When you think about talking like a pirate you are thinking of talking like Robert Newton who "invented" the pirate speak by exaggerating his native Dorset accent when he played Long John Silver for Disney.  This is the sea food restaurant, drinks with umbrellas in, treasure hunting, plank walking, hook-hand-having, eye-patch-loving, raping, robbing, pillaging, freebooter lifestyle that inspires miniature golf courses and Halloween costumes and is typified today by Jack Sparrow.
Then there is the other conception, held by a very few (by comparison) and enjoyed fully by even fewer; let us call it the reality of pirates.  To the larger group, when asked about the reality of the pirates they so love to emulate, they will most likely sheepishly admit that pirates were bad, bad people who engaged in theft, murder and destruction.  Sadly that does not accurately or completely describe the reality and is akin to tarring all of a social group with the same brush for the rather public actions of a few.
Television and films, of course, are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience to garner the greatest possible market share.  This means that the overwhelming majority of piracy shown is of the first type.  When you do see more realistic piracy it is likely of the type seen in Captain Phillips, where Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama.  Desperate men taking desperate actions.  Yet this is not the same sort of thing as we would have seen during the age of Blackbeard.  To some degree it is, but the exact specifications are a bit different.  During the time of Blackbeard the vast majority of pirates were sailors, not just thieves and ruffians looking to make a buck.  Those were bandits and lived on land.  Ships at sea need skilled hands if they had any hope of staying at sea and those hands were accustomed to a certain amount of natural discipline.  Not the lash of the cat type of discipline, but the sort of routine that kept their ship afloat, which was the difference between life and death.  Piracy was, essentially, a business.  It was the livelihood of the men (and yes, occasionally women) who turned pirate.  If we look past the Hollywood and popular imagery and read the actual documents of the era we see a very different picture of piracy.  We see real people with varied attitudes and personalities banding together to achieve common goals of survival, revenge, and even political achievement.  Some of them, according to the documents of the era, where quite charming and intelligent even.
A pirate (no really, just ask the British)
So what, if anything, does this have to do with Crossbones?  Specifically this has to do with John Malkovich's portrayal of Blackbeard.  Malkovich is portraying a pirate lord, a self-styled commodore that is anything but Jack Sparrow.  Seafaring types tended to pick up odds and ends from across the globe.  Bits, baubles, interesting diseases, and customs were assimilated into an already alien (to a landsman) lifestyle.  A sash of fine silk from the Far East, a Mameluke sabre taken from a plundered enemy, or a fine hat obtained in some foreign port looking quite out of fashion to the homeland were the sorts of things a sailor could (and often did) obtain, along with strange habits gained from living in such close quarters as ships require.  The pirate lifestyle demanded election of leaders from among the crew, which meant that those who rose to such ranks tended (with varying degrees of success) to be cunning, charismatic, tough and skilled fellows.  Malkovich's Blackbeard does take something from Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates, although it seems more like the behavior of Benjamin Hornigold (who had been Teach's mentor as both a privateer and then a pirate).  In his decorating tastes, styles of clothing and habits there is a flair of the East.  He loves the silks and his outfits are often white and floral when not looking like a Han Emperor.  (Believe it or not fine gentlemen's coats were once very much in the pattern and style of your maiden aunt Sally's favorite sofa...the one in the living room, that she called the "parlor" where no one was allowed to sit unless they were a guest and there was no television and it always seemed  Just me?...carry on)  He seems to have a dangerous intelligence about him.  A desire, as far as we have seen, to maintain the sanctity of his fledgling republic seems to motivate him.  He speaks with a somewhat cultured air of topics outside of rum and wenching, but is also keenly aware that he has built a legend that must be maintained.  He makes threats that are far more effective than blustering boasts normally seen in such fare.  None of this, "I'll have yer guts for garters, you damned lubber" business.  You could imagine him as J.R. Ewing in Dallas, using his reputation and willingness to go to extreme measures to get what he wants.  Indeed this reminds us of Long John Silver as he was written by R.L. Stevenson in the novel Treasure Island.  Not physically imposing, Silver controlled men with his cunning and will.
We see this in Black Sails as well to a far larger degree.  In the persons of Captain Flint, John Silver, and Jack Rackham, among others (landsmen included).  With a show primarily about pirates each character must be a character, that is, must not be a simple stereotype, although plenty of extras will be.  It's only natural.  The swaggering, the "arrrs", the fannying about like a swishy gypsy rent boy (i.e. Jack Sparrow) are all absent.  This is not the ideal of piracy, nor is it, strictly speaking, the reality, but it lists far more to the reality, and that's a good thing.
Not a pirate.  Not even close.  Nancy the Swaggering Rent Boy, yes.  Pirate, not so much.
Of course the fact that these works are not engaging in the exploitation of the ideal of piracy is probably a sign of doom in terms of market share.  The vast majority expect the swagger and, sadly, want the swagger.  The swagger is fun.  I'll admit it.  It's an image that instantly says "Pirate!" and that visual shorthand is part of the nature of storytelling.  The audience doesn't want to be TOLD that Jack Tar is a pirate, they want to see Jack Tar and instantly KNOW he is a pirate.  So if it is a situation of image, of LEGEND, then perhaps the polyester pirate of Hollywood (and thousands of fan girls' disturbing fantasies...including the cross-dressing...oh Manga what have you wrought?) is what is needed to keep this sort of salty fare viable in the market today.
Even so, I confess that I do like Malkovich's portrayal thus far.  It is more cultured master villain than pirate, but to me it is far closer to the reality of the legend than all the Jack Sparrows combined.  In the hold.  Of a ship.  That is sinking.


  1. Although I could not bear to watch either 'Black Sails' or 'Crossbones' because of their simple soap opera natures, I do like the way ytou have explained pirates as a people. Without the hype and legend wrought by novels and Hollywood, it boils down to pirates being, essentially, men. Men living and working together. Some were wicked, no doubt, some were moralistic. But they were still men. I've always thought that anybody who has worked on a crew of construction workers, soldiers, or firefighters, would know how the pirate psyche worked. These were men who were trained to attack ships and take whatever valuables they could find. The Golden Age pirates in particular were brought up during the War of Spanish Succession to do exactly that, then when peace broke out ... sorry, we've no work for you any more. Take any of those crews previously mentioned, and take away their pay and benefits, and they would find a way to use what skills they had to survive. That is the world of pirates.

    1. Well said, sir. Thank you for dropping by and posting. Most appreciated.