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Why Cutthroat Island(TM) was a failure but Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse

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Why ‘Cutthroat Island’ was a failure but ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse

Of The Black Pearl’ was a success?

In this essay I will begin by discussing Cutthroat Island and the history and context behind it.

Cutthroat Island was released in December 1995, and given a MPAA rating of PG-13 because it includes strong pirate violence, and some sensuality, however when it was released in the United Kingdom it was rated as a 15 but it was meant for a family audience, so over a minute of the film was cut to give it a PG certificate. The director was Renny Harlin who is a Finnish American film director and a producer, and is mostly known for action films.

This film falls into many genres, the obvious are action and adventure with others like romance, fiction, and pirate.
The film is represented as an action film because it has continuous high energy, a few physical stunts, extended chase scenes, rescues and battles. It also includes destructive disasters with explosions and fires, there are several fights and escapes, it punctuates quite a fast rhythm and pace, and there are adventurous heroes.  
It has a resourceful hero (character Morgan Davis) struggling against incredible odds, life-threatening circumstances, and an evil villain (her uncle Doug), and they chase each other in various modes of transportation (ship, horseback, and on foot), with victory attained by the end after strenuous physical feats and violence (fist fights, and swordplay).

The main characters are; leading lady Morgan Adams, played by Geena Davis who is an Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated American actress, producer, writer, and former fashion model. This character is represented as powerful and clever this is because after she had slept with a male pirate who she knew wanted to kill her, she ordered her little monkey accomplice to take out his bullets from his gun and he didn’t expect this, he was stunned as he took the gun and got ready to shoot her to realise she had outwitted him. She is also portrayed as an attractive lady as she catches many male’s eyes; this relates to the theory of ‘Male Gaze’ which means women are objectified in relation to control the males’ attention. This lady is also represented as a wealthy woman and quite high upon the hierarchy status, because her father was the captain of the ship named ‘Morning Star’ and when he dies she then becomes the captain, with control of all those on this ship, and has 2 of 3 pieces of the treasure map which will locate them to all the treasure and fortune. Later I noticed that she is represented as a highly skilled swordswomen, and she defeats many opponent pirates, so she is not the average vulnerable, weak lady. When she fights her own uncle for the treasure the representation here is she is very determined and strong willed to get what she wants, she does not give up easily; well she does not give up at all.

Morgan Adams’ uncle, Douglas Brown also rephrased as ‘Dawg’ is played by Frank Langella who is a stage and screen actor of extreme ability, Frank Langella won acclaim on the New York stage in "Seascape" and followed it up with the title role in the Edward Gorey production of "Dracula." He repeated the role for the screen in Dracula (1979) and became an international star. This character is represented as a villainous, evil man. He put up a fight towards his own niece for the final piece of the treasure map but was defeated by Morgan and her crew.

Another important character in the film is Morgan’s slave named William Shaw who she won at an auction, she particularly wanted this man because he could speak and read Latin which is what the treasure map is written in so she needs him so that she can understand it. This character is represented as humorous, as he jokes with Morgan, and he doesn’t take himself or life seriously. This character is played by American actor Matthew Avery Modine, he was perhaps most famous for playing Private Joker in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and high school wrestler Louden Swain in ‘Vision Quest’.    

This film uses the stereotype of pirates to create their images, for example the males have long beards, tattoos, long to middle length hair, wear hoop earrings, some wore bandannas, the clothing overall was Victorian styled, and all the pirates have weapons (guns and swords). I noticed that a few of the pirate males were drinking whiskey and got drunk and this also very stereotypical.

The Governors in the film were represented as corrupt, and did not stick to the rules and regulations, all they wanted is part of the treasure so they later teamed up with the evil character Dawg which is the opposite of what they should have done, they should ideally have captured him and punished him, the Governors also spoke very good traditional English.

The little monkey who helped the character ‘Morgan Adams’ was firstly represented as innocent and cute, but really I as the audience find out the real personality of this monkey is sly and very clever.

Considering that this film was given a rating of PG-13, this suspects the audience to be of this age guideline, but I personally would expect the majority of the audience to be males, of middle-late aged. It also had a widened audience; these were in the United States and of course the United Kingdom.

A summary of the narrative is about a Female pirate Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) and her learned slave, William Shaw (Matthew Modine) are on a quest to recover the three pieces of a treasure map. The treasure is hidden on a mysterious Cutthroat Island. Unfortunately, the final piece is held by her villainous uncle, Douglas ('Dawg') Brown (Frank Langella). Her crew is sceptical of her leadership abilities, so she must complete her quest before they mutiny against her. This is made more difficult by the efforts of the Royal Navy from Jamaica under the command of the self-serving Governor Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) to end her piratical career. On her ship, Morning Star, Morgan starts the voyage to Cutthroat Island. The introduction to the film includes an animated showing of maps, ships and compasses; these are the main and stereotypical objects in a ‘pirate’ film which sets the scene, and time period. At the beginning I identified two narrative threads, one is of the character Morgan Davis, whilst the other is on the character William Shaw, it was quite a clever technique to use by director Renny Harlin, and the way in which towards the middle of the film he brought these two narrative threads together. However the narrative seemed quite predictable and the heroes and villains could be easily identified, and the plot itself seemed predictable with a problem that needed to be solved and at the end will be solved, and the good character being Morgan Adams is predictable to survive at the end. There is humour throughout the film but most of it was dark humour and not very obvious and entirely funny. At the middle of the film, there is a narrative complication, because the treasure gets left and the missing map is needed to finally locate it. There is a use of tension used in parts of the narrative by Harlin, for example when Morgan and William jump from the cliffs into the deep, and dangerous sea it leaves part of the audience thinking are they both going to survive?.

The ending of the film is the very typical happy ending with the hero surviving and she and a loved one being William get romantically close and fall in love with each other.

In this film I did identify one ideology, this is that solving problems with a force and violence is shown to be an acceptable value and may influence aggression and violence in their younger audience. The film showed evidence to the old punishments of ‘hanging’; I believe this is to justify how the crime was wrong and to teach a moralistic value to their audience. The Hayes code is implied into this film because there is good vs. evil and the evil always pays. The female role is reversed, the female is the leading character and has a more dominant role where as the males usually has this part.

This film is produced by Renny Harlin, he convinced the other producer Mario Kassar that, despite being known for light-weight comedy roles, Davis was perfect for the female love interest in this action blockbuster. After Kassar agreed Harlin set about beefing up Davis’ role until Douglas left the production giving her the lead. The $92 million production where the total U.S. gross was approximately $10 million, in which Harlin cameos as a pirate, went on to be a major critical and commercial failure entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest loss of money for a studio ever. That studio, Carolco Pictures, went bankrupt as a result. As I previously mentioned earlier, the film became a PG certificate in the United Kingdom due to having to cut out over a minute of the film due to its previous violence. Nonetheless the film does contain some strong pirate violence/action, and brief sensuality.

The opening sequence contained animated images of maps, ships and a compass which are very typical objects of a pirate film, the music was quite spectacular, fast paced, and adventurous, theatrical and includes orchestra sounds the violin was used to slow the music down to the beginning of the film. This film mainly uses diagetic sounds for an example at the beginning we hear a loud call from men and when a male pulls out his gun to Morgan the noise is not natural it was louder than it would be in reality so it is non-diagetic sound. All the stunts carried out were real, due to CGI not being developed yet, as a result actor Matthew Modine had to have stitches in his head after being hit on the head with a wooden barrel during a filmed fight. The tracking shot of the area shows the scenery of the large Atlantic Ocean and the coastal view this sets the location and atmosphere to me as the audience. The lighting is generally dark and leaves me as the audience un-sure of what is going on, this is a negative point about the film; I do not believe it is like that purposely. The shot of the fierce waves and the noise of the crashing against the cliffs emphasises tension at certain points of the film. However the music is generally old fashioned and this film is not that old in terms of technology it was released in 1995, so ideally the music should have been far greater. The violence and wounds in the film are not very graphic there was very little blood and gore, some were quite un realistic, as an example Morgan was shot in the stomach which is typically known as a slow and painful death, but all she did was hold the wound and did not seem to be in any distress and she fights and lasts a while without paying any medical attention to it. The weather is significant to build tension in parts; it is stormy, raining, thundery, and dark. The theatrical music build ups are used too often and lose effect this is a negative point which may have lead them to be a fail. The explosions are very dramatic yet entertaining, without them it would make the film worse and dull.

To conclude together the reasons why this film was a box office failure are; the events and violence were un-realistic, the dialogue was poor, the scenes were too dark, and they spent way over the budgeted amount and only received back just over $10 million.

In comparison to the failure of Cutthroat Island, The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a success in the piratical genre. The director, Gore Verbinski is a successful American film director and writer. This is a 2003 adventure film, based on the  Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney theme parks. The story follows pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as they rescue Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from her kidnapping by the cursed crew of the Black Pearl, captained by Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

The film is an adventure and piratical genre although it falls into a few other genres such as comedy, action and fantasy. Its’ story is exciting with new experiences, provides an action-filled, energetic experience for the audience. This adventure film is intended to appeal mainly to children, families in particular, creating major male heroic stars. The courageous, patriotic, or altruistic hero character captain Jack Sparrow fought for his beliefs, struggled for freedom, and overcame injustice. It includes traditional treasure hunts and quests, set in an historical period of piracy.

The three major characters are; ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ acted by Johnny Depp an American actor known for films that have grossed over $2.2 billion at the United States box office and over $4.7 billion worldwide. He has been nominated for three Academy Awards and has won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards. This character is a pirate ahead of his time in many ways; Jack Sparrow likes to consider himself as the epitome of a free spirit. He swishes his way through life with a slightly odd, but strangely wise attitude. He is perhaps a bit crazy, but he still is smart enough to survive in a tough world without resorting to force to get what he wants which makes a good role model for children, in fact he said, "Why fight when you can negotiate?” He watches and reads people and gladly manipulates them for his own ingenious ends. He has a habit of picking things up as he goes along, like the rings he wears. His hat is probably his favourite article of clothing. A compass that shows him what he wants most in the world is another crucial possession. He also carries a silver-plated pistol and a short cutlass. Jack's a good swordfighter, but compared to the other characters in Pirates of the Caribbean he is not the most skilful. He probably wins in the creativity department though; he has used both an oar and a coconut as a weapon.
He is also represented as eccentric and offbeat. He has the stereotypical image of a pirate with Victorian clothing, tattoos and piercings. He is very disrupting, yet very hilarious and is the hero of the film and this character steals the limelight from the other characters.

‘Elizabeth Swann’ played by Keira Knightley who is a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Academy Award–nominated English film and television actress. As of 2008, Forbes claims Knightley to be the second highest paid actress in Hollywood (behind Cameron Diaz), having reportedly earned $32 million in 2007, making her the only non-American person on the list of highest paid actors or actresses. This character is represented to be strong-willed and very clever, she is very rich, and her family has a high status in the hierarchy because her father
(Jonathan Pryce) rules as colonial governor. However at the beginning of the film she as a little girl is represented as innocent, caring but slightly un-nerving, and this attracts the younger audience.

The blacksmith character Will Turner by Orlando Bloom who is an English actor. He has also won other awards, including European Film Awards, Hollywood Festival Award, Empire Awards and Teen Choice Awards, and has been nominated for many others. Most of Bloom's box office successes have been as part of an ensemble cast. This character travelled to the Caribbean at an early age after his mother died, looking for his father, whom he believes to be a respectable merchant sailor. His father sends him a gold medallion, one of the 882 identical pieces of cursed Aztec gold. Will is fiercely loyal to those close to him, and is not afraid to hurt anyone who harms his beautiful Elizabeth, he is the heroine he loves and saves her, he also makes fancy swords, and unknowingly has the blood the pirates need to remove the curse. This character is represented to have a good hand for sword fighting, which intimidates a few of the other pirates.

This film became the first Walt Disney Pictures release to earn a PG-13 rating due to action/adventure violence, by the MPAA ,all previous WDP releases were rated G or PG. The film includes many humorous events which would entertain their younger audience; the CGI which was used to turn the cursed pirates into skeletons will entertain typical little boys as they are amused by them. However this film will apply to a teenage audience because of the actors/actresses that star in it for example Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp will have the young teenage girls’ attention as they will find them both attractive, as well as Keira Knightley for the teenage boys for similar reasons.

The introduction is animated which appeals to their young audience as they are typically known to like watching cartoons, and the opening of the film is quite mysterious as the audience wonder the significance of the gold medallion coin around the little boys’ neck, which we later discover his name as William.  This film contains a time shift from Elizabeth and William being young children of about the age of nine or ten then when it shifts to Elizabeth as a young woman, and William is a young man. There are two narrative threads; one of Captain Jack Sparrow and the other of William Turner and Elizabeth, this makes it more interesting. The story widens as the film goes on, for example I learn about Jack Sparrow’s past, and the way in which he was betrayed and abandoned on an Island, this is quite creative and makes it more enchanting. As the story unfolds, Verbinski gradually unveils the reason for this invulnerability: The crew has stolen the medallion and kidnapped the Elizabeth in an attempt to lift an Aztec hex that has left them in limbo between life and death. When any part of them passes into the moonlight, incredible transparency special effects reveal the pirates to be eerie living skeletons in various states of decay. According to the Wikipedia, it states that when filming all the pirates together on the ship they ordered them from left to right having the most attractive characters on the right and the not so attractive characters on the left because the theory behind was that the audience look at the screen as they read a book from left to right and if the attractive characters are on the right then at least the un-attractive characters will get looked at and not just overlooked. The narrative used in this film could apply to the theory of ‘Barthes code’ which is where a text is like a tangled ball of threads which needs unravelling so we can separate out the colours. Once we start to unravel a text, we encounter an absolute plurality of potential meanings. We can start by looking at a narrative in one way, from one viewpoint, bringing to bear one set of previous experience, and create one meaning for that text. You can continue by unravelling the narrative from a different angle, by pulling a different thread if you like, and create an entirely different meaning. The action sequence here is similar to the ‘Cutthroat Island’ in terms of the large explosions although the ones in this film are far better being created using modern technology of CGI.

The values of the film is that; violence is not the answer as Captain Jack Sparrow demonstrates, he had many opportunities to have used force but he did not he manipulated the situation/person instead. I also noticed that betrayal is seen as a sin, I think this because of the way in which the villain Hector Barbossa betrayed Captain Jack Sparrow for the Black Pearl ship, but revenge and justice caught up with him and he was punished. The ideology behind it is that those who do not use violence are the strongest and those who do are the weakest. Another ideology demonstrated is that if you truly love someone or want something as badly as William Turner does for Elizabeth, you will give up everything you have for them.

Walt Disney Pictures did take a big risk in allowing it to be the first PG-13 rated film by the studio, with one executive, noting that she found the film too intense for her five-year old child but it was still put ahead. The film did not contain any sex or unity unlike ‘Cutthroat Island’; it has moderate humor and violence. I identified the use of intertextuality, Elizabeth as a young girl sang the Disney song from the Disney Land ride called ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ however this song is modern but the time period is set here is in the 18th century.  The injuries were not graphic due to the rating, but some of the violence which was stabbings and shootings were shot outside the frame so that they were not shown. The death and injured occurred were turned around to be humorous.

The music in this film is very significant, it highlights dramatic scenes, increases tension, elements action, and at the end with the romantic kiss between William and Elizabeth, romance is emphasised by the music. Many tracking shots are used to make it more interesting, the lighting when fights begin is very dark and sinister. The weather is creatively used to set the mood, the weather emphasises tension with dark skies, and fierce storms. The explosions are more dramatic than in ‘Cutthroat Island’ with smoke, bursts of water, fire and fierce flames. The CGI has a huge influence on the success of the film, the way in which the skeletons appear makes it much more entertaining, especially to their target audience, however the only disadvantage of this is that when the skeletons climbed a roped ladder the skeletal feet were not even touching the ropes which obviously made is more unrealistic.

Before its release, many had expected Pirates of the Caribbean to be a flop. The pirate genre had not been successful for years, with Cutthroat Island (1995) a notable flop. The world premiere was held at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, on June 28, 2003. The Curse of the Black Pearl was an unexpected success, with mostly positive reviews and grossing over $654 million worldwide which is totally the opposite of the success that Cutthroat Island did not receive. The film became the first in a series, with two back-to-back sequels, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, released. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Depp. Director Gore Verbinski was attracted to the idea of using modern technology to resurrect a genre that had disappeared after the Golden Age of Hollywood, and recalled his childhood memories of the ride, feeling the film was an opportunity to pay tribute to the "scary and funny" tone of it. A big influence to the success and failure of these films is due to the celebrity status involved. Cutthroat Island had many stars refusing to play the parts; Michael Douglas was offered $15 million to play the lead role. When he withdrew, the same offer was made to Keanu Reeves (who was busy playing Hamlet in Canada) and Tom Cruise. When Daniel Day-Lewis turned the role down, the script was rewritten to make Davis' part bigger and the producers set their casting sights lower. The abject disaster of Cutthroat Island is also credited with significantly reducing the bankability and Hollywood production of piracy-themed films, which only recovered with the production of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003.

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