The Gospel according to Jack Sparrow

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 8:29 p.m. MDT

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

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.

The Spanish have their own religious reasons for racing to the Fountain as well.

The missionary

Along the way, Angelica collected a protestant missionary named Philip Swift (played by Sam Claflin). Angelica stopped her father from killing him because she was afraid his fate would be sealed if he killed a man of God. We first see Swift bound with cords on a mast, looking down upon the pirates very much like a Christ figure on the cross.

Steven D. Greydanus in the National Catholic Register noticed the oddness of Philip's character. "For once, a devout Christian character is positively depicted, if not in any depth, in a mainstream Hollywood film. What's more, the other characters generally respect his piety — even Blackbeard, whose soul (Philip) wants to save, though the missionary admits it's a long shot."

A pirate tries to convince Philip to join a mutiny by telling him he is either for them or against them. Philip responds, "I'm neither with you nor against you!" The pirate turns to Sparrow and asks him if Philip can do that. Sparrow replies, "He's religious. I think it's required."

Even Sparrow takes the clergyman as seriously as he ever gets in any of the movies, and, when he faces death, he seeks after his own redemption: "Clergyman, on the off chance that this does not go well for me … I am fully prepared to believe in whatever I must, to be welcomed into that place where all the goody-goodies want to go once they pop their clogs."

Religious themes

On top of the overt religious ideas are the underlying religious themes in the movie. There is conflict on multiple levels:

Protestant versus Catholic.

Religious versus magic.

Theology versus myth.

Eternal life promised by God versus eternal life promised by the Fountain.

Although there are many reviewers who saw no point of having the missionary character in the movie (one blogger called Philip the "random religious dude"), his character embodies the religious side of the equation.

On the other side is a fish.

The mermaid and the missionary

To make the Fountain work, you need a mermaid's tear. In this movie the mermaids are less Disney's Ariel and more out of The Odyssey. They are vampire-like man-eaters. But, as "Twilight" showed, vampires have feelings too. Blackbeard captures a mermaid (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and Philip shows compassion to her and gives her a name: Syrena. His love and self-sacrifice saves her and her love in return saves him.

So here you have in one corner a religious missionary. In the other corner a magical mermaid. And they fall in love and save each other: redemption?

By contrast, the Spanish came to the Fountain to destroy it as a blasphemous affront to real eternal life. Religion attacks mythology. The Spanish break everything in the place and shoot a few British as well. But, the fountain still works anyway.

Angelica is mortally wounded as is her father, Blackbeard. She tries to use the magic of the fountain to save her father's eternal soul. It doesn't work. She ends up saving herself instead.

Watching religion

When people look at religion in films, D'arc says they should be aware of the inherent problems of communicating faith in films. "When you are dealing with religious sentiment and with faith, that's a very tough thing to have in a two-dimensional picture on a screen, because faith embodies thoughts and emotions that are in someone's heart. Well, how do you picture it so that the emotion and feelings are conveyed the same way to the diverse audience that is viewing this? That is the Gordian knot that filmmakers have been trying to cut, and very few have been able to do that."

Whether this film does it well is up for debate. Putting deep religious themes in an otherwise swashbuckling comedic romp seems to many reviewers a strange juxtaposition. As a reviewer at Movie Cynics put it, "Since when did pirates ever start caring about redemption?"

D'arc, however is less cynical. "I was surprised at those inherently Christian themes of sin and redemption. I'm not sure how they got in there, but it was a welcome surprise."

The bearer of stranger tidings

And the seriousness of the themes — and the goodness of the missionary may not last long. Claflin, the actor who played Philip, told IGN his character was somebody who "goes through his journey of realizing that religion isn't everything — not that he loses his faith, but he realizes what the real world is all about."

Claflin also told ScreenRant.com he hopes in the next Pirates movie Philip will become a mercenary who kills a lot of people.

But Claflin's vision of what Philip the missionary's next moves will be may run counter to another actor's hopes for the character.

Producer Bruckheimer told Collider.com, Philip wasn't even in the original script. Screenwriters Elliott and Rossio also didn't pitch the character.

According to Bruckheimer, the person who came up with the grounded and sincere missionary character was Johnny Depp who plays the least grounded character, the pirate Jack Sparrow. Talk about redemption.

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