Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Television for Adults - Fiction
Sails on Starz and Crossbones
A Piratical Review of the Two New TV Series
By Irwin Bryan
1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episodes 1 & 2
As of this issue of the P&P Newsletter, only the first two episodes of Crossbones had aired. This first review installment covers the first two episodes of both shows.
It’s a “Piratical Review” because, let’s face it, if you’re on this website you aren’t as interested in cinematography, acting, or effects. Rather, you’d like to know which series does the best job of portraying pirates as we expect them to be.
Black Sails is a fictional story based on fictional characters. It’s a prequel to Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Crossbones is a fictional story loosely based on the factual account of the Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard. Although the plots are dissimilar, both main characters are on a quest to obtain something.
A pirate attack begins both series. Captain Flint (Black Sails) leads his crew to attack a merchant vessel. Some of the men are in scary costume or make-up. They bang on the ship and make other terrorizing sounds. The gun crews mostly aim at the rigging to disable, rather than sink, the vessel.
Once the hulls crash together the pirates board in an all-out attempt to kill the crew and end their resistance. The master of the ship is tied to the mainmast as both crews gather to watch him be tortured. Flint confines his attention to locating a logbook expected to hold the schedule of a rich treasure ship.
On Crossbones, the pirate crew attacks a naval vessel to steal the prototype of a chronometer (used to determine longitude), thus depriving the Royal Navy of a potential navigational tool that may seal the pirates’ doom and give any pirate equipped with the chronometer an edge in attacking rich ships and settlements.
The ships trade gunfire briefly before crashing together and the pirates board. Despite heavy resistance, they carry the ship. The chronometer is damaged by gunfire.
Following both attacks, Flint’s ships head to Nassau, the Pirate Kingdom in the Bahamas, while the other heads to a secret location.
Flint’s crew disembarks to join in the revelry on the island. There’s plenty of liquor and prostitutes, and the crew enjoys both.
Arrival at the island on Crossbones starts with the stolen plunder being assessed by a merchant. Subsequent scenes show a bald, clean-shaven Blackbeard in command of the island and his crew, who are a seemingly sober private army always at Blackbeard’s beck and call.
The second episode of each show mostly takes place on the islands, where some of the real pirates seen on Black Sails include Charles Vane, Calico Jack, and Anne Bonny. On Crossbones the islanders engage in pirate justice (regrettably off-camera) and condemn a man to hang.
All things considered, if you had to pick just one story to watch, I recommend Black Sails based on the first two episodes.
A historical note from Cindy
As Irwin points out, pirates did bang on ships, shout, curse, and make a variety of other loud noises. This was called “vaporing.” Crossbones asks viewers to forget that Lieutenant Robert Maynard and one of his men slew Blackbeard and cut off his head in 1718, eleven years before the television series takes place. (There has never been any doubt that it was Blackbeard’s severed head that was put on display. In a future installment of my Pirates and Death article, you’ll discover that such displays were common, whether the whole body or just part of it was exhibited. The reason for doing so was to warn others who might consider straying from the straight and narrow not to. They might well end their days this same way.
While John Malkovich plays an interesting Blackbeard, who can be as intimidating and mercurial as the real Edward Teach, it’s problematic to believe Blackbeard comes back from the dead since Maynard took Teach’s head back to Virginia while dumping his body into Ocracoke Inlet immediately after the battle.
As for the chronometer aspect of the story, this particular version is fictional, but the search for a chronometer was extremely important. The first successful one, though, wasn’t invented until the mid 18th century. Until then mariners had to guess as to where they were when it came to how far east or west of their destination they were. Conditions at sea made it difficult to maintain any precision on a clock, a necessary element in determining longitude. Not being able to accurately determine this meant ships could be far off course or they might run aground, which is what happened in 1707 off Scilly, when a British squadron sank and 2,000 lives were lost. England, France, Spain, and other European governments offered rich prizes to the person who could solve this problem.
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So there are some interesting developments on Crossbones! In the third episode (spoiler alert), a merchant gets caught in a Royal Navy trap.
During a private conversation, the Post-Captain reveals to the merchant that he is the man credited with killing Blackbeard, William Jagger, but he knew at the time that it wasn’t really Blackbeard whose head was hung from the bowsprit. Now having acquired more rank and status, Governor Jagger has launched his vendetta to finally get Blackbeard, starting with learning which island he is on.
Let me just say that although this finally provides a way for Blackbeard to be alive at this time, I can’t stop thinking about the Code of a Gentleman that Navy officers lived by. When the smallest slight was made it was “swords or pistols at dawn!” Yet here’s a man whose very advancement in his career is partially or totally based on his own dishonesty!
Before learning what has happened to the merchant, a small crew is sent to Cuba to infiltrate a residence and copy a map without anyone knowing. Of course the English spy/island doctor, Tom Lowe, is chosen for his special skills.
On their successful return, Blackbeard’s ship and crew are being readied to go rescue the merchant. Success, however, depends on whether their mastery of trickery and murder can thwart the training and marksmanship of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.
For Crossbones, it’s more of the same – every effort is perfectly executed with skill and never a sign of a drunken pirate. The story is so land-bound there were no scenes aboard ship, although we briefly see a ship sailing. Intrigue, yes. Character development and plot twists, yes.
About Black Sails I have to say episodes 3 and 4 continue to show pirates being pirates! The story progresses as Flint tries to get a consort and crew, along with cannons able to shoot a heavier ball, to take the treasure galleon.
One great illustration of this comes when the owner of the tavern, a woman, catches one captain’s crew abusing one of her “girls.” Her anger carries such weight with the pirates – a threat to cut off their liquor and other entertainments – she persuades them to depose their captain on the spot and join with Flint by electing his mate as their captain!
Another proof is when we see Billy Bones aboard the ship, addressing the crew about the need to careen the ship. In an effort to speed the process, he tries to get the pirates to agree that if they get the expected barrel of rum and a pig roast, they’ll do without free girls in a tent nearby. The men, being the fun-loving pirates they are, flatly refuse!
Finally, when they have the ship heeled over, Billy sees crewmen have tied ropes to the wrong tree and need to move it. But an “officer’s” order is laughingly ignored. There’s really no pun intended, but this becomes the project’s undoing, which leads to danger and tragedy.
I enjoy watching both series and am getting more caught up in their stories. Each entertains in its own way and both have plenty to offer the pirate-loving fan.
A historical note from Cindy
William Jagger was not the man who slew Blackbeard. Lieutenant Robert Maynard and his men have that distinction. Irwin and I were both somewhat confused with the writers' portrayal of this character, since the governor isn't often referred to by name. (I actually had to cull through the NBC website to find his name.) The other problem with this character's identity is that Maynard never served as governor of Jamaica. I'm not certain why NBC and/or the writers felt it necessary to alter the historical facts, but doing so is another example of an historical inaccuracy relating to Blackbeard in Crossbones.
During the Age of Sail, there was definitely a distinction among a ship’s company as to whether a man was an officer or just one of the crew. In the Royal Navy, many officers felt themselves above those who worked aboard, and honor was a major concern, even though dueling was frowned upon and/or forbidden.
Women were owners of both brothels and publick houses or taverns. Oftentimes, they became proprietors when their husbands died. Whether she had sufficient power and influence to cut off pirates’ rum would depend on the amount of power, influence, and respect the pirates had for her and her precious commodity. Another factor that might influence this was where the location of the publick house and its proximity to government representatives (if any were present).
Careening was an essential aspect of the care and maintenance of a ship. If the wooden hull wasn’t scraped, burned, and repaired on a regular basis, the teredo worms would eat through the wood, which eventually lead to it leaking much like a sieve. They were particularly prevalent in warm waters, and eventually naval ships would put copper plating on their hulls to lessen the need for careening. This also included removing the seaweed that collected on the bottom of the ship, which would slow down the vessel. It needed to be done four to six times a year, and while pirates might not enjoy such work, they were mariners first and understood that if they didn’t take care of the ship, she might sink under them. This is what happened to Captain Kidd’s Adventure Galley. After a long day of work, the pirates might well party. When pirates careened their vessels, they were at their most vulnerable. A wise pirate captain made certain to protect the anchorage by positioning at least one ship’s gun somewhere on land in case an enemy happened upon them.
This is the third and final review of Crossbones and Black Sails Season 1. It is fitting to combine the final episodes into one review as these shows really dealt with bringing their treasure-getting plans to a conclusion.
Before Crossbones aired I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who questioned why John Malkovich was chosen to play Blackbeard. In hindsight, only a John MalKovich Blackbeard could have come up with such a grandiose scheme to possess the riches of a treasure fleet! There were actually seven separate parts to the plan, not to mention his leadership of the island and interpersonal dealings.
Having already stolen the chronometer and gotten a look at the fleet’s course, Blackbeard himself gets transported to Havana and sells the chronometer to the admiral in charge of the fleet. This is another missed opportunity for viewers to see any type of vessel travelling back and forth. Instead we’re treated to an affair between Blackbeard’s woman, Selima El Sharad, and his first mate, Charlie Rider.
Long before this takes place, Blackbeard meets with a hermit/inventor who lives away from the town. This individual is preparing floating mines to sink the treasure fleet and, of course, there is a contraption for breathing underwater so they can collect the sunken treasure. While the chronometer was being fixed and enough mines were made, there was a chance for the other characters to become better known. There’s a little mischief, a bit more romance, and even a brain surgery for an ailing Blackbeard.
It turns out the surgery presents an excuse for Tom Lowe, the spy, to go to Jamaica. There he meets with Governor Jaegger and is asked for the location of Blackbeard’s island. When Lowe can’t get any assurances that certain community members will be spared death or a trial as pirates, he assaults Jaegger and escapes death himself while being pursued by Royal Marines. Again someone leaves the island and later returns without even a ship’s boat shown to viewers!
The supposed purpose for stealing the chronometer is to hamper the Royal Navy. Selling it to the Spanish admiral seems a great way to acquire some quick cash. In reality, Blackbeard’s plan all along is for the admiral to have the device so that he will be so sure of his navigation that uses a narrow channel as a shortcut to Spain. Once the ships are in the channel, the pirates will sink the whole fleet with the mines.
As Blackbeard and his crew approach the treasure fleet, Jaegger’s ship approaches them. Seeing his nemesis puts Blackbeard in a panic. He orders his vessel to tack away from the treasure fleet. But in sight of all those rich ships Charlie argues they should stick to the plan. Aware of Charlie’s affair with Selima, Blackbeard stabs Charlie in the gut then throws him in the ocean.
At this point it becomes evident why there have been so few scenes aboard ship. The scriptwriters are not familiar with sailing ships or the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail. Some of the commands used are un-piratical, un-seamanlike, and anachronistic to the time period!
Now fully in command, Blackbeard orders the ship turned towards Jaegger’s vessel and then orders “Full Speed Ahead!” Jaegger sees this and orders his ship readied to fight by saying, “Sound General Quarters” and “Battle Stations”!
In case this needs explaining, only ships with engines can be set for Full Speed. In the Age of Sail a Marine drummer would “Beat to Quarters” to alert the crew to assemble at their assigned fighting spots. The “Watch, Station, & Quarter Bill” lists all the different evolutions done aboard ship, where each person on the ship should be at that time, which Mess one is assigned to, and where one sleeps. There is no entry on the form referred to as a “Battle Station.” If this story was about World War II, they would have been accurate commands!
Instead of dropping the mines to sink the treasure fleet, Blackbeard has the barrels holding them kept onboard. As they near Jaegger’s ship, he orders the barrels dropped overboard while they are still lashed together. At least one barrel strikes the navy ship’s hull and explodes in flames.
Blackbeard heads back to his island alive but empty-handed. His crew is angry and sullen over their lack of riches and Charlie’s murder. They confront Blackbeard at his home and tell him he must pay for his crimes. Suddenly cannon-shot whistles into the island, causing great destruction. (Somehow Jaegger and his men had put out the fire raging belowdecks, rescued Charlie from the sea, and learned where Blackbeard’s island could be found.)
The ship-of-the-line unleashes broadside after broadside. I suppose it’s an allowable effect to have solid round shot explode on impact, even though it’ll be more than 100 years before this really happens!
Next, Jaegger leads a contingent of Royal Marines onto the island and a great battle ensues with casualties heavy on both sides. Jaegger and Blackbeard exchange pistol shots. After Jaegger falls dead, the Marines retreat and the ship leaves the harbor.
After tending to the wounded and putting the island in order, Lowe challenges Blackbeard to a fight for the island. In the last scene of the season Blackbeard heads away from the community, empty-handed save for a small knapsack.
Black Sails is a bit of a different show, with more characters playing roles important to the story. Sure, there are plenty of actors in Crossbones, but they are only glimpsed through their interactions with Blackbeard or Tom Lowe. Black Sails characters include Eleanor (the proprietor of the “house”), her father, and her advisor. Captains Vane and Rackham, with Anne Bonny in tow, are prominent characters. Then there are also crew members, harlots, and Flint’s officers. This being the case Black Sails must needs a Piratical review!
Eleanor is the perfect merchant for a group of pirates. She keeps them drunk and well-entertained. She invests in different schemes the captains have, and is not afraid to keep them in check with her anger on more than one occasion. As business men, Eleanor’s father and her business advisor played those roles well.
One harlot greets John Silver, when he first arrives on the island, with her amorous skills. Later, she seduces Eleanor and does some scheming with Silver. She double-crosses him with Vane and Rackham, but all her plans fall through and she’s forced to pay a terrible price. However, by the end of the season she lands on her feet as the new Madam of the “house!”
Captain Vane is an angry pirate, constrained by his on/off romance with Eleanor and his own drinking habits. Rackham always looks for any way to become rich. As for his girl Anne Bonny, she is a dark person, evil in her manner and her dress, and a murderess. So far, good pirates all!
Joseph, the leading member of Vane’s crew, is a loudmouth brute. He leads the attack on the harlot. At different times he argues with Vane, Rackham, and Eleanor. He is always at odds with Anne. When Rackham tries a new scheme, Joseph causes problems that hamper its success. Anne lures him to the dunes where she stabs him to death.
Arrr, accurate pirates all! Plenty of rum, too.
Now we can pay attention to Flint and his crew, and their storyline: Flint spends time away from the crew at a house where a woman lives. Discontent with Flint and speculation about the woman begins among the crew. Some think Flint and the woman are married. Others say Flint lost crew members attacking a ship where the woman was the only prize.
Having successfully careened their ship, the pirates await the arrival of one of Eleanor’s father’s merchant ships. With Eleanor’s help, they expect to take some of the guns onboard that vessel to augment the smaller cannons already on the pirate ship. But Eleanor’s father is against conspiring with the pirates and sends the advisor to the master of the merchant ship with a sealed note.
After reading the note, the master has the advisor knocked out and then the ship is seen sailing away. Flint’s crew quickly makes sail in chase. After a volley of gunfire between the ships, Flint and his crew board the merchantman where they meet no opposition because the merchant crew is barricaded somewhere belowdecks, guarding the heavier cannons that the pirates need. The master, wary of even going to this island, informed a Royal Navy frigate captain where he could be found. He hopes to keep the pirates from the guns until help arrives.
Some men are lost in various attempts to gain the gun deck. There is time for Billy Bones to tell Gates, Flint’s first mate, that he read a letter saying Flint will betray them. Then we learn there are slaves on a lower deck, and that the advisor is chained among them. The pirates sneak them a chisel and make noise while the slaves free themselves.
The slave uprising from below surprises the merchant master and his crew and keeps them busy long enough for Flint and his crew to attack the gun deck. Heading for a barrel of gunpowder he has rigged to explode, the master tries to blow up the ship but is shot.
While the pirates get the cannons to their ship and take anything of value, a glaring mistake is made on the show. I have never seen or heard of an instance where guns are loaded or unloaded with the gun trucks they rest (gun carriages) on attached. Guns weigh tons without the trucks and are much easier to maneuver alone. With so many ex-Royal Navy men that became pirates this would have never happened.
Before Flint’s men can remove all the guns, one of the scavenging pirate moves the rigged barrel and it explodes instantly. Flint calls the crew back to their ship and has them cut her loose to prevent the fire on the merchantman from reaching them. All is done in a very seaman-like way.
However, an explosion at sea can be seen and heard for miles, and the approaching Royal Navy frigate fires her bow-chase guns. One ball strikes the spritsail yard of Flint’s ship just below the bowsprit. Billy Bones and Flint go to the bow to cut loose the dangling yard. When Flint asks Billy why he’s upset, Billy confesses he knows about Flint’s intention to betray them.
The frigate continues firing her bow-chase guns. Flint heads back to the quarterdeck, shouting, “Man overboard.” He runs to the stern, seemingly hoping for a glimpse of Billy in the water. Gates tells him they can’t go back for him – not with a frigate chasing them. By the time the pirates lose the frigate and return to the island, more and more crew members suspect that Flint murdered Billy and is really up to no good.
After the stolen guns are positioned, the time comes to hunt for the Urca de Lima, which is loaded with treasure. The crew is shown rounding the capstan to raise the anchor and making sail.
Flint and his crew set sail accompanied by a consort ship, captained by Gates, with Vane’s former crew on board. When they arrive at the spot where they hope to capture the Urca, there is no sail in sight. In Flint’s quarters, he and Gates discuss their next step. Gates tells Flint he’s done with him after this venture and that the crew will probably kill him. Flint attacks Gates and breaks his neck, killing him instantly.
When the cry “Sail Ho” is heard from above, Flint joins the crew without Gates, which really riles the crew, especially after Gates’ body is discovered. A second ship is also spotted. As the pirates get closer they realize the Urca has an escort, a warship. Flint orders them out of harm’s way, but the crew’s discontentment is close to mutiny, and they do not heed his commands.
The warship brings her broadside to bear on the pirates. When she fires, three decks of heavy guns send round shot into Flint’s ship. There is destruction everywhere, and Flint, among others, is knocked into the sea. He awakens on a beach, wondering aloud why the crew hasn’t killed him yet. A few pirates lead him to a ridge. Looking down, he sees the wreckage of the Urca, which was driven ashore in a storm overnight. And that’s the end of the season.
So the actors portrayed the kind of pirates most of us have read about, the ships actually sailed, and, for the most part, everything was technically correct. I’ll be sure to tune in again next year for more of the same.
Crossbones always held my interest and had a complicated plot. Maybe over the summer they’ll learn how to sail, and I’ll really be happy with the next season. You can bet I’ll let you know.
A Historical Note of my own – The Urca de Lima was one of the ships in the 1715 Treasure Fleet that was wrecked in a hurricane. The Urca was the only ship driven onto the Florida coast that found a river inlet and was able to beach instead of wrecking. Ironically, she carried general cargo and only a few private chests of silver. These were the first items salvaged from the fleet before she was burned to the waterline to hide her location.
Review Copyrighted ©2014 Irwin Bryan
A special thank you to Starz and NBC for use of the cast photographs.
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