How Films Portray Pirates and Piracy


By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University

From the continually renewed performances around Peter Pan and Treasure Island to the five Pirates of the Caribbean films to the Dread Pirate Roberts and The Princess Bride to the Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted video game franchises, the figures made famous by a General History of the Pyrates are still with us, inspiring dreams and making money.

Pirate weapons on a table alongside a skull
Contemporary pirate movies portray a contrasting image of the pirates as anti-domestic individuals. (Image: Popksr Studio/Shutterstock)

Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood

Pirate movies and games withstand the threat of being pirated, just as Penzance did, and the legal adaptation of pirate texts has been a cultural touchstone of the 20th century and beyond.

The best-selling novelist Raphael Sabatini is a good case in point, Sabatini was spinning historical adventure yarns about good men forced (temporarily) to become criminals or outcasts while ultimately affirming the goodness of a just and orderly society.

His Captain Blood series, which began in 1922 was filmed twice, most memorably in 1935 when it solidified the fame of newcomers Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The casting was inspired. Flynn’s grog-loving, buccaneering temperament is well documented, and de Havilland had a swashbuckling spirit of her own.

Warner Brothers had commissioned Captain Blood to compete with MGM Clark Gable vehicle Mutiny on the Bounty.

Popularity of Pirate Movies

At the time, Warner Brothers were better known for their gangster films. These were popular during the Great Depression when crime and adventure movies often showed at least a glancing interest in addressing systemic corruption.

Pirate films were attractive though because period pieces gave their producers a little more room to skirt the production code administration. Subversive levels of sex and violence could be lamp-shaded by the notion that they were historically accurate.

Peter Blood: An Unrealistic Image of Pirates

In blockbuster films like Captain Blood, American audiences could pretend that they, too, were a nation of pirates, but only the sanitized, freedom-loving, ultimately patriotic type that never actually existed in any pure form.

Peter Blood is a highly cleaned-up version of Henry Morgan. Sabatini used both the General History and The Buccaneers of America as his source material to inspire Blood’s exploits. But Blood’s character is nowhere to be found in those pages.

He is no disgruntled mariner but a physician, a war veteran, and a lover. He’s the kind of pirate who will risk everything to preserve the virtue of a captive lady and who strongly prefers to fight the Spanish, who are perpetually shown smashing and looting things.

Pirate on a ship
Pirates today largely have the image as the one portrayed by Jack Sparrow. (Image: Denis—S/Shutterstock)

He’s also an unusually snappy dresser. In an interesting passage of the panic Disney executives reportedly had over Johnny Depp’s, Captain Jack Sparrow, Warner Brothers were appalled by the way Flynn portrayed Blood as a gentlemanly rake with a grin and a sparkle in his eye.

Notes sent to the director Michael Curtiz fretted, “I want the man to look like a pirate, not a molly-coddle…Let him do a little swashbuckling.” Captain Blood does swash buckles, but he never descends to become hard-boiled.

Blood is very good at being a pirate, but it doesn’t make him happy. Once the tyrannical King James the II is deposed in favor of William and Mary, Blood eagerly leads his men back to the right side of law and order, particularly striking as he has kept insisting all along that he’s not English but Irish. He settles down and, for good measure, gets married to the spitfire Caribbean heiress Arabella.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Pirates in The Sea Hawk

A similar ending graces the other Sabatini-inspired pirate film belonging to Warner Brothers,1924’s The Sea Hawk about a Cornish nobleman who is briefly enslaved in a galley by Spaniards, then becomes a powerful corsair of the Maghreb, based in Algiers, and finally returns to England to retire into married Felicity with his true love, the fair Rosamund, whom he previously both imprisoned and then rescued.

The battle scenes in The Sea Hawk used full-sized models and were so impressive and expensive that Warner Brothers used some of them again in a different vehicle released in 1940 also called The Sea Hawk, starring Errol Flynn as a misunderstood privateer.

The Warner Brothers’ outlook on the causes and ends of piracy presented in these films is suspiciously tidy and oversimplified. Racism and slavery, in the peculiar manner of American adventure films, are carefully displaced.

No Black People in Pirate Movies?

Little sympathy is extended to Black characters in Blood’s universe. In the films, however, black people are almost erased entirely. Slavery is denounced as a brutal evil, but it’s an evil that only seems to happen to white political prisoners in Jamaica or captives taken by evil Spanish conquistadors.

But this was the way of most pirate films in the ’20s and ’30s. The pirate is a figure of fantasy but also an impossibility. Subversion could be flirted with, but not too far.

Later Pirate Movies

Around the 1950s, the cinematic reabsorption of the pirate into a whitewashed society becomes less common. The historian Neil Rennie suggests that what the later film pirates are really fighting for is the freedom not to come home, but to sail off into piracy forever and ever unattached to land, lady, or family legacy.

Sometimes pirates sail off for new adventures with their treasure, as in Cutthroat Island, The Crimson Pirate, or (although not recommended) The Ice Pirates.

There are other ways of ushering the pirate offscreen. The Princess Bride reveals that there is no Dread Pirate Roberts. He has been retired for 15 years and is living like a king in Patagonia. In Yellowbeard, Graham Chapman’s titular pirate, and his son Dan, finally team up to sail off a-pirating together. The end of Blackbeard’s Ghost is the release of the pirate ghost from limbo so that he can join his spectral crew in pirate heaven.

Often the pirate ends up assisting the matrimonial prospects of a non-pirate couple and then sailing away to unknown waters in the wake of their happiness. This is the case somewhat inadvertently in Against All Flags and Nate and Hayes and then at least some of the interminable Pirates of the Caribbean series.

To generalize in their current incarnation, pop culture pirates are anti-domestic, representing freedom from responsibilities and the strictures of social expectations more than the freedom to pillage and plunder.

Common Questions about How Films Portray Pirates and Piracy

Q: Whose novel on pirates was later adapted into a movie?

The novelist Raphael Sabatini’s Captain Blood was adapted into a pirate movie series by the Warner Brothers.

Q: What kind of a pirate is Peter Blood portrayed as?

Peter Blood is very good at being a pirate, but it doesn’t make him happy. He is no disgruntled mariner but a physician, a war veteran, and a lover. He’s the kind of pirate who will risk everything to preserve the virtue of a captive lady.

Q: How are the pirates in pop culture depicted?

In pop culture, pirates are anti-domestic, representing freedom from responsibilities and the strictures of social expectations more than the freedom to pillage and plunder.

Keep Reading
Theatre: Of Pirates, by Pirates, for Pirates
Ballads: Creative Amusements for Pirates
How European Powers Started and Ended the Era of Pirates