Maritime Culture as Depicted in Films of the Early Twentieth Century


One doesn't have to try hard to find films that feature maritime subject matter; the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Captain Phillips, Master and Commander, and Castaway come to mind. Piracy, naval warfare, and shipwrecks are all dramatic subjects that enthrall audiences. This has been the case nearly since the first black and white silent movies. How accurately these films portray past maritime cultures is another matter. A quick look at the nautical architecture depicted in the 1926 Douglas Fairbanks film, The Black Pirate, for instance demonstrates that the need for sets on which to stage sword fights trumped accuracy. So what can we learn, if anything, about the maritime past from watching Hollywood's maritime fantasies? Quite a lot actually - if we ask the right sort of questions. A comparison of how pirates are depicted in the aforementioned Black Pirate film with Disney's wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean shows that pirates weren't always depicted like the lovable rogue Jack Sparrow, but rather as a violent murdering thieves. In the Fairbanks film the pirate captain orders a crewman to take a knife and disembowel a prisoner who swallowed a ring in an effort to hide it from the pirates. It's hard to imagine THAT in a Disney film.

As historians we can look at maritime influences in film for several reasons then, to see how the entertainment industry has depicted maritime culture through the years, to spot actual historical data that was inadvertently captured on film such as in the 1933 In the Wake of the Bounty (a bizzare film that is half drama and half travel log), to see what maritime topics trend with the general public over time, and to just plain enjoy the movie (even historians, especially maritime historians, like to see a good swashbuckler).

This portion of the Maritime Cultural Resource Center will host maritime movies accompanied by commentary written by guest reviewers such as film and maritime historians as well as maritime archaeologists. In this way the viewer can benefit from our contributor's unique perspectives when viewing the film and hopefully enjoy it even more.

We kick off this project with two films: the 1926 silent movie The Black Pirate staring Douglas Fairbanks and the 1933 In the Wake of the Bounty staring Errol Flynn in his first major motion picture. Our guest reviewers include film historian Mr. Anthony Slide, Wright State University Maritime Historian Dr. Noeleen McIlvenna:, and Maryland State Underwater Archaeologist Dr. Susan Langley.

Check back with us from time to time as we add new films and commentary in the months ahead.

- Dr. T. Kurt Knoerl, Director, The Museum of Underwater Archaeology