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Dead Man’s Chest

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Based on a song from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the subtitle of Gore Verbinski's newest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, “Dead Man’s Chest,” is actually a pun. Taken literally, it refers to the chest cavity of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the (un)dead captain of the Flying Dutchman. Jones’ torso is of interest here because it is actually empty — Jones having carved out his own heart due to loneliness (or heartbreak), locked it in an elaborate wooden chest, and then buried on a remote island. In this way, Jones was attempting to rid himself of a potential weakness, but in practice he succeeds only in displacing and externalizing that vulnerability. The heart, together with the (wooden) chest now containing it, therefore, become Jones’ Achilles heel, insofar as the destruction of the heart will cause Jones to lose his powers, and all of those (dead or undead) who have previously sold their souls to him would thereby be released from their debts.

Among those who had sold their souls to Davy Jones is the movie’s protagonist, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who previously made a Mephistophelean pact with Jones in order to acquire his ship, the Black Pearl. Now that his debt has come due (condemning Sparrow to spend a century working on Jones’ ghost ship), Sparrow’s only hope lies in finding the buried chest (and the heart it contains), and destroying it.

Although ostensibly a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski, 2003), Dead Man’s Chest can perhaps be more profitably viewed as an unorthodox sequel to Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animated feature, Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro). In particular, Castle, like Chest, revolves around a displaced heart — in this case, that of the sorcerer Howl (voiced by Takuya Kimura in the Japanese version, and by Christian Bale in the English), who dreams longingly of a fantastic moving castle. In an exquisite moment of wish-fulfillment, Howl’s own heart is then transferred to a falling star, which then becomes animated as the fire demon Calcifer — the soul and furnace of the gothic “moving castle” which Howl had dreamed of possessing. This displaced heart then comes to assume an unanticipated significance when Howl is joined by Sophie (Chieko Baisho/Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons) — a girl who has been transformed into an old lady by a curse, but who subsequently travels with Howl in the castle and and effectively "steals his heart."

In both movies, therefore, disembodied hearts function to distance their former owners from their own feelings and desires (and, arguably, moral centers), and in return help them to achieve an unprecedented mobility and autonomy (viz., Jones’ Flying Dutchman, Howl’s moving castle and, at one remove, Sparrow’s ship, the Black Pearl, which he will lose if he does not succeed in finding Jones’ heart). Equally importantly, just as these disembodied hearts are located at the periphery of the embodied subject, similarly the vehicles which they help to secure circulate at the margins of the national/imperial body politic. Both Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones, for instance, are pirates (albeit a ghostly one, in the case of Jones) operating on the margins of the seventeenth century British empire, and Howl, formerly the prized apprentice of the English king’s head sorceress, also moves pirate-like through the kingdom in his ambulatory castle, declining requests that he lend his formidable powers to the king to help win the war (based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the movie appears to be set in Britain during an unspecified war reminiscent of WWI).

Paralleling the liminal status of the disembodied hearts (which are simultaneously a source of strength and of weakness for their owners), the politically marginal status of  Sparrow and Howl is explicitly foregrounded in each film. Howl’s former teacher, the king’s head sorceress Madame Suliman (Haruko Kato/Blythe Danner), for instance, at one point summons Howl to the palace to convince to “vow to use his magic in the service of the kingdom.” Howl arrives at the palace disguised as the king himself, and informs Suliman that he (speaking as the king) has decided not to use magic to win the war, on account of the fact that when they did use Suliman’s magic to protect the palace, the bombs fell on innocent civilians instead. Howl’s disguise then falls apart when the real king enters the room, and Howl then reasserts his independence.

Suliman’s attempt to enlist Howl in the service of the king is paralleled, in Dead Man’s Chest, by the letters of marque which Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) forces the East India Trading Company’s Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) to sign in Sparrow’s name before she sets off in search of him. These letters of marque would have the effect of enlisting Sparrow as a privateer for the British empire, empowered to board enemy ships in the name of the king. This potential shift from pirate to privateer, furthermore, underscores the fundamentally marginal and indeterminate status of pirates (and quasi-pirates, like Howl) themselves. As Jon Beasley-Murray observes in a recent discussion:

At times, to be sure, pirates do and have functioned as a kind of absolute outside, a war machine opposed to and in contradistinction to a state which only arises (if perhaps not “all at once”) later. At other times, however, pirates were if anything the advance guard of the state, heralds of its imperial expansion. In a further irony, piracy equally called forth the state as a mode of regulation.

The pirate, therefore, represents both the antithesis of state authority, but also the anticipation of that authority itself (insofar as the attempt to supervise the pirates frequently led the state to extend its authority to areas and territories where it did not previously pertain).

These themes of displaced hearts and pirates/privateers on the empire’s margins in Dead Man’s Chest not only echo a similar constellation of themes in Howl’s Moving Castle two years earlier, but furthermore anticipate quite precisely a similar constellation of issues in the Supreme Court’s recent Hamdan v. Rumsfelddecision regarding the status of the Guantánamo Bay detainees, together with its ensuring political fall-out.

Released on June 29th, four days after Dead Man’s Chest’s world premier in Disneyland, Justice Stevens’ 5-3 majority opinion in Hamdan holds that the Guantánamo captives are subject to the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which guarantees that all captives be prosecuted only by a “regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” Therefore, the Court ruled that the “military commissions” ordered by President Bush in 2001 to try the captives were unconstitutional.

Consequently, on July 7th, the same day as the US nation-wide release of Dead Man’s Chest, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England sent a memo to all defense officials instructing them that “The Supreme Court has determined that Common Article 2 to the Geneva Concessions of 1949 applies as a matter of law to the conflict with Al Qaeda.” Then, four days later, on July 11th, the White House itself issued a statement explicitly reversing part of Bush’s infamous Feb. 7th executive order claiming that “None of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world.” In the July 11th reversal, the White House announced that, “As a result of the Supreme Court decision, that portion of the order [the portion claiming that Article 3 of the Geneva Convention did not apply to Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees] no longer applies.”

What is at stake in this unusual reversal of Bush administration policy? Ever since 2001, the Bush administration has attempted to justify its “war on terror” by claiming that its opponents are “enemy combatants,” and therefore not legally subject to any of the national or international protections put in place to safeguard the rights of citizens or foreign soldiers. In effect, therefore, the terrorists are treated as pirates, situated on the margins (or outside) the conventional legal structure.

At the same time, however, the administration has repeatedly attempted to “outsource”  its legally nebulous treatment of these prisoners, either by holding them in Guantánamo Bay (where the administration claims they are not subject to US laws because it is not US territory), or by using a super-secret practice known as “extraordinary rendition” to relocate them to other countries where they can be interrogated in ways that would be illegal in the US. In effect, this practice of rendition essentially amounts to empowering third party countries and territories to perform (or support) potentially illegal acts on the behalf of the US—empowering them, that is, to serve as “privateers” to help the US detain and interrogate those whom it has designated as terrorists (“pirates”).

At the heart of these legally and morally questionable practices lies a crucial paradox: the administration’s support of this treatment of its detainees (including denying them basic rights of habeas corpus, condoning actions which many regard as torture, etc.) is ostensibly done precisely in order to defend our own domestic freedoms and rights. In other words, to borrow the dominant metaphor from Verbinski and Miyazaki’s films, the US is extracting its heart precisely for the purpose (rhetorical or otherwise) of preserving and protecting those values which that heart symbolizes.

In both Chest and Castle, the relationship between the displaced hearts and the array of characters who rely on it in one way or another is mediated by a figure of a moral compass. In Chest, the latter element is an actual compass, which points in the direction of that which its possessor desires the most. While the compass is used by Sparrow and others to locate Jones’ chest (and heart), the movie at the same time gets a lot of mileage out of fact that often the possessor of the compass does not realize what she or he truly desires.

In Castle, similarly, Howl gives Sophie a ring which, he explains, is a homing beacon which will lead her to safety by emitting a laser-like beam of light. Just as Jack Sparrow’s compass usually (but not always) points toward to the chest with Jones’ heart, similarly the ring which Howl gives to Sophie usually (but not always) points in the direction of Howl’s moving castle — which literally embodies Howl’s own disembodied heart.

The interesting thing about this compass/homing ring is that it not only points to the displaced heart, but furthermore it mirrors the externalized function of that heart itself (by pointing to that which one desires the most). In the case of the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision, the role of this external moral compass is played by the Geneva Convention accords. That is to say, there is a poignant irony in the fact that the Supreme Court is appealing, in a crucial moment of a long a complex decision, to an international treaty precisely in order to reaffirm the constitutional rights and freedoms which it is sworn to uphold as its own (i.e., its “heart”).

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About Carlos Rojas

  • Thank you for this thought-provoking commentary. I held off on reading it because I did not get to see Dead Man’s Chest until just last night.

    There is one minor correction I should point out. The phrase used in the attempt to justify denying the rights of prisoners of war to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay is “illegal combatants.”

    If they were merely ordinary “enemy combatants,” the Geneva Conventions would unquestionably apply to them.

  • Excellent post. I can’t believe you managed to find a way to connect a summer blockbuster, a Japanese anime film, and current politics into a cohesive article. Amazing.

  • Sterfish–many thanks.

    Victor Plenty–there are many varients of the term which have been used in these discussions, but “enemy combatants” is actually the phrase used in the the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA), Pub. L. 109-148, 119 Stat. 2739, which the government cited in its argument to have the case dismissed. As the beginning of the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision itself notes, “Subsection (e) of §1005 [of the DTA], which is entitled “JUDICIAL REVIEW OF DETENTION OF ENEMY COMBATANTS” supplies the basis for the Government’s jurisdictional argument.”