Lit Bits

BLACK SAILS: Pirates on TV

Black Sails combat

One thing I particularly like about the age in which we live is that there are lots of great TV shows to watch. An astounding number, really, with gritty adult themes such as we never dreamed of back in the days of straight broadcast TV, well-written scripts with subtle, involved plots, and fantastic performances from actors and actresses who can now develop truly multi-dimensional characters over the course of protracted detailed story lines. It really is putting the film industry to shame, as cable TV shows (some of them, anyway) are now far superior to most of the pablum you see in cinemas. Another thing I really like is that digital special effects have made it possible to create quite convincing action scenes involving ships under sail (see, e.g., the image up top, from the TV series in question). Gone are the days, thankfully, of blatantly fake scenes staged with models in placid swimming pools.

Given these two serendipitous trends, it was only a matter of time before someone thought to put together a cable TV series involving pirates. Given the great success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, one might reasonably fear such a show would be just as goofy and frivolous. But the Starz Network, in its TV pirate series Black Sails, has instead steered a much more intriguing course, blending fictional characters from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale Treasure Island with historical characters from the golden age of piracy in the early 18th century. I just finished watching season one (now available on iTunes, as season two just started up on cable last month) and by the end was totally hooked.

The show as it opens is set in 1715, with most of the action taking place at Nassau in the Bahamas, which at the time, in true historical fact, was known as the Republic of Pirates and was an independent sanctuary and base for privateers, subject to the law of no nation. The primary plot premise is that this is a prequel to Treasure Island and tells the story of how Stevenson's fictional Captain Flint won the great hoard of gold later sought by Jim Hawkins and company. Flint's target is a Spanish treasure galleon, the Urca de Lima, which also existed in history and was wrecked with an entire fleet of treasure ships near Ft. Pierce, Florida, in 1715 no less. Flint's unwanted accomplice is none other than Long John Silver (complete with two legs), who scams his way into a position as cook aboard Flint's ship, the Walrus. Other real-life historical pirates with important roles in the story include Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Charles Vane.

I'm not going to ruin the story for you by giving anything away, but suffice it to say the plot involves lots of betrayal, unexpected twists and turns, a fair amount of intelligent character development, and enough violence and naked ladies to capture the attention of most over-stimulated adolescents. As in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the sets and costumes look quite realistic (except, interestingly, none of the characters in Black Sails have realistic bad teeth like they do in the Pirates franchise), with the added bonus that the story itself is fairly realistic.

As I now seem to have a reputation as an unforgiving sailing-film purist, after my scathing review of Robert Redford's All is Lost, I am happy to report that technical sailing details in this series are at least accurate enough to keep real sailors from laughing out loud. Admittedly, most of the story is character-driven and there isn't actually too much sailing involved, though issues of marine science do intrude on the plot from time to time, such as when Flint has the Walrus careened for a bottom-cleaning, with some unexpected consequences, prior to setting out in hot pursuit of the Urca.

Walrus careened

The Walrus careened, with Flint supervising on horseback

I will note nonetheless that the digital-effects crew does seem apt to get a bit carried away with themselves when depicting bad weather, but this, alas, is only to be expected (see, e.g., The Perfect Storm).

Big wave

The Walrus mounts an exaggerated cartoon wave during a storm at sea. It looks to me like she has way too much canvas up!

My favorite character so far is Jack Rackham, who in both history and in this tale was/is the paramour of Anne Bonny and an important associate of Charles Vane. As played by Toby Schmitz, Rackham is quite rakish, ultimately pragmatic, but also quick-witted, well spoken, with a chameleon-like adaptability. Thus far in his relationship with Bonny, who is mostly sullen and inarticulate, Rackham seems the weaker partner, an interesting twist, and is more often scrambling to keep up with her machinations than she is with his. The bond between them, however, seems very deep, for reasons that remain unclear.

Rackham

Calico Jack in action on TV, not fighting, but negotiating. Note the involved metro-male facial hair. The historical Jack Rackham, who gave up an official pardon to run away with Anne Bonny, was executed at Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1720, and his corpse was gibbeted (i.e., publicly displayed) on a small island near the harbor entrance that is now known as Rackham's Cay

My next favorite character is purely fictional--Mr. Dufresne, who serves under Flint on the Walrus, and evolves from a timid ship's clerk and accountant into a battle-hardened quartermaster (which is seemingly equivalent to a first mate in this particular nautical universe). He seems the most ethical pirate you could ever hope to meet and is married to the buccaneer's code of business and justice, which in fact was quite rigorous, fair, and rational.

Dufresne

Mr. Dufresne, played by Jannes Eiselen (in season one, but not season two unfortunately), in a climatic scene in the final episode of season one. The glasses give him away as a reformed clerk; the minimalist hairstyle was inflicted on him by his shipmates after he was promoted to quartermaster

One of my least favorite characters, ironically, is Long John Silver, played by Luke Arnold. If you read Treasure Island (which I urge you to do, if you haven't recently), you will be struck by the intensity of the original character as conceived by Stevenson. John Silver may well be the first truly sympathetic evil character in English literature. In the book he seems absolutely sincere as he befriends and earns the trust of young Jim Hawkins, becoming in effect his surrogate father. But of course he is ultimately only interested in winning Flint's treasure, and is perfectly willing to betray Jim to do this, but somehow you never really believe that his affection for Jim is not true.

I cannot imagine how the Silver we meet in this TV series will ever evolve into the Silver who drives all the action in the book. There is no complexity to him, only self interest, and so far, though he is somewhat likable, he seems ultimately one-dimensional.

Silver

Long John Silver, as seen on TV, groveling at gunpoint, as usual

I am also not very impressed with Eleanor Guthrie, played by Hannah New, who in fact is the most important central character in the series, after Flint (played by Toby Stephens). Eleanor, daughter of merchant Richard Guthrie, is supposed to be the putative ruler of Nassau, the seemingly reputable intermediary through whom the pirates must sell all their stolen goods. Plot-wise Eleanor's character is very complex--bisexual, ruthless, extremely ambitious, and presumably charismatic. But mostly she comes off as an overly attractive fashion model who is simply pretending to be all these things.

E. Guthrie

Ms. Guthrie, looking a bit befuddled, but beautiful, as she tries to assert herself

Admittedly, another important female character, Ann Bonny, played by Clara Paget, also looks a bit too much like a lost fashion model, but she manages to transcend her appearance and is more believable in her role. When she says "f*ck," as both a verb and an expletive, you really feel it as such. When Eleanor says it, it seems only a pose.

Anne Bonny

Ann Bonny telling Jack Rackham what he can do to himself. That raggedy hat certainly does help her seem more disreputable. The historical Bonny abandoned her husband to take up with Jack Rackham as a pirate. Together they had a child in Cuba. Bonny was captured with Rackham, but there is no record of her being executed

These are mere quibbles, however, and this was only season one, and overall the scripting of the show is strong enough that I will not be at all surprised if its one-dimensional characters grow more dimensions as the story progresses. To give an idea of the quality of the writing, I will throw one quote your way. I actually paused the show to write this down, as it is something any true sailor (or pirate) can relate to.

This is Mr. Gates, Flint's formerly loyal quartermaster, speaking to Flint during a storm at sea not long before something unfortunate happens to him:

There are no legacies in this life. No monuments, no history. Just the water. It pays us, and then it claims us. It swallows us whole, as if we had never been here at all.

POSTSCRIPT: If you are interested in reading more about historical pirates, I recommend you start with The Buccaneers of America, a first-person account by Alexander Exquemelin, who served with Henry Morgan, the most successful pirate of all time, in the late 17th century. Highlights include a good account of how buccaneering got started in the Caribbean and an eyewitness depiction of Morgan's famous sack of Panama.

I also recommend you read (or re-read) Treasure Island. Even for adults, it really is a fantastic story!

BONUS IMAGES

Silver by Wyeth

Long John Silver, as depicted by artist N.C. Wyeth, doing unkind things to young Jim Hawkins

Flint's bones

The bones of Captain Flint, guarding his vast treasure, as depicted in the Disney animated feature film Treasure Planet

OH, YEAH: I almost forgot. Here's a trailer for the series, to whet your appetite.

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