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The Gospel according to Jack Sparrow

Published: Friday, July 8 2011 6:53 p.m. MDT

Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow) suggested the missionary character for "Pirates."

Disney Studios

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It was the most unusual thing in the movie.

Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" had a very strange thing — so strange one could almost imagine screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio pitching it to producer Jerry Bruckheimer:

Elliott: We have a great character to add to the Pirates franchise.

Bruckheimer: Lay it on me.

Rossio: A protestant missionary.

Bruckheimer: What's the twist?

Elliott and Rossio: He isn't a hypocrite!

Bruckheimer: No!

Elliott and Rossio: Yes!

Bruckheimer: A sincere religious person? Nobody would ever believe it. I love it.

Even though a pitch session like this probably never took place, there really is a sincerely good religious character in this huge Hollywood movie. And on top of that, the Pirates movie is full of religious themes and motivations. They aren't hidden symbolic themes; they are out in the open, making this movie unique.

But there was a time when religious figures in movies were always sincere and good.

How religion went bad

In early cinema religious figures — particularly Catholic priests — were heroic figures. The Production Code Administration in the 1930s, 40s and 50s mandated it.

"The clergy was portrayed in a very reverential light," says James V. D'Arc, curator of the BYU Motion Picture Archive, "not just because the culture supported it, but because the Production Code explicitly mandated to filmmakers that religion could not be ridiculed. They had to look at it in a positive light."

D'arc points to films and characters like Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan in "Boys Town," Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in "Going My Way" and Richard Todd as Reverend Peter Marshall in "A Man Called Peter."

But, D'arc says, the culture changed and pointing out hypocrisy was edgy and popular in a more secular society. Otto Preminger's 1963 film "The Cardinal" and Audrey Hepburn in "The Nun's Story" were important groundbreakers in this trend.

But as time went on, the edgy criticism became standard. Today, D'arc says, "religion is largely marginalized and made fun of."

A good example is "Footloose" where religious figures are depicted as mid-19th century Calvinists who have no fun, never smile and have no sense of humor.

Pirates get religion

The fourth installment of the Pirates movies was "suggested by" a book written by Catholic Tim Powers titled "On Stranger Tides." But the overt religious elements of the new movie appear to be absent in Power's book. For that matter, most of the new movie doesn't come from Power's book, except the title.

The movie follows Pirate Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) on a race to the Fountain of Youth. Why Sparrow wants to get there is weak: he wants to be a pirate longer. The other characters' motivations, however, are stronger.

The British want to get there before the Spanish get there. As Finnish film critic Kimmo Mustonenen put it in impeccable broken English: "The English crown is again the idea of an immortal Catholic monarchs not enthusiastic."

Sparrow is shanghaied by a former love named Angelica Malon (played by Penélope Cruz). Her name is a heavy hint of her role in the film (as long as her conduct and banter is ignored). Years ago, Sparrow wooed her out of a convent. Yet the fallen novice still has religion on her mind. She wants to get to the Fountain of Youth so her father, Blackbeard (played by Ian McShane) will have the time he needs to repent.

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