Y’Arrrr, Me Mateys: How Disney Created The “Pirate Voice”

Originally published in the Disney special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2018.

Everyone knows how to talk like a pirate. How to walk like a pirate. How to gurn like a pirate. There’s even an internationally-celebrated “Talk Like A Pirate Day,” in which participants “y’arrr” and “me matey” their way through whatever they’re up to, either amusing or irritating those they interact with. But pirates probably didn’t (and definitely didn’t all) talk that way. Incredibly, the popular public image of piratical mannerisms can more or less be traced back to a single source: Disney’s 1950 production of Treasure Island, and specifically English actor Robert Newton’s performance therein.

Actual pirates, of course, had no specific way of behaving or speaking. In fact, they likely tended to be an exceptionally diverse bunch: pirate crews were often built up of sailors and vagabonds plucked from other ships or ports, meaning you could find a tapestry of different nationalities aboard any given ship. Accordingly, for the first half-century of cinema, there wasn’t really an accepted iconography for pirates. Often, they were depicted as dashing swashbucklers – as dashing, even, as Errol Flynn in Captain Blood or The Sea Hawk. Even character actor Charles Laughton was fairly well-spoken as the title character in Captain Kidd. The “pirate accent” didn’t exist, and neither did “pirate movies” as we’d call them today. Without a standardised look and feel and sound, there wasn’t that much to hang a genre on. That all changed – and pirates gained a new, apparently uniform place of origin – with Disney’s Treasure Island.

When Treasure Island sailed into theatres in 1950, it was Walt Disney Productions’ first-ever entirely live-action film. Byron Haskin’s gorgeously detailed, beautifully-shot adaptation was immensely popular, more than doubling its budget at the box office, but its legacy was even greater, cementing how people envisioned pirates. Obviously, seeing the original Robert Louis Stevenson novel dramatised in glorious Technicolour played a part in baking its iconography into the popular consciousness. But the book didn’t have Robert Newton’s swaggering performance as Long John Silver. Newton, originally a leading man in the Errol Flynn mould, suddenly saw his career transform thanks to that role – a role as iconic as any in screen history. His wild, squinting mannerisms – and more particularly, his thick and gravelly caricature of his own West Country accent – would come to define the “pirate voice” for half a century and beyond.

Haskin would go on to direct a number of popular Technicolour sci-fi and adventure films, but Newton instantly became typecast after Treasure Island. So popular was Newton’s performance as Silver that he was roped into doing more or less the same shtick just two years later, in RKO’s Blackbeard The Pirate, further cementing that this was simply how all pirates talked. Then, two years after that, he reprised his starmaking role in Long John Silver (directed by Haskin) and made 26 episodes of the television show The Adventures of Long John Silver. And after that, the characteristics of pirates were comfirmed – one of the few cases where typecasting resulted in the creation of an entire type.

Newton was also an inspiration in a different regard: noted for his hard-living lifestyle, he was later cited by similarly outrageous actor Oliver Reed – and The Who drummer Keith Moon, which will become notable later on – as a kind of role model for reckless behaviour. It’s fitting, then, that Newton – a raging alcoholic – died in 1956 at age 51, of a heart attack attributed to the abuse to which he subjected his body. The newly-canonical Long John Silver was no more – but his influence lived on.

Pirates quickly became a staple of the Disney experience, most notably with the 1967 opening of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. The final attraction personally overseen by Walt Disney himself, Pirates further expanded on the salty sea-dog, seeing updates every decade or so – but few changes to the pirate status quo. If anything, the ride’s status as a permanent fixture only served to entrench the “Disney pirate” into the minds of multiple generations.

Onscreen, Disney furthered its grip on the image of pirates with Captain Hook in its 1953 animated film Peter Pan (whose Peter was voiced by Bobby Driscoll, Treasure Island‘s Jim Hawkins). Ironic, then, that an animated character proved one of the few Disney pirates to be voiced without a ridiculously exaggerated accent. Disney would also later distribute the Henson Company’s Muppet Treasure Island, which saw Tim Curry chewing scenery alongside Kermit and company with his own take on Newton’s character. Ditto voice actor Brian Murray’s performance as “Silver” in Disney’s animated Treasure Planet, which transformed the character into a cyborg – but a cyborg still possessed of the Newton performance DNA.

Disney’s (specifically, Haskin’s and Newton’s) vision of piracy was instantly and enduringly iconic – but incredibly, the studio would go on to redefine pirate iconography again – fifty years later. Gore Verbinski’s 2003 action-adventure Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, improbably based upon the long-running Disneyland attraction, was a surprise hit (after several high-profile pirate films got scuttled at the box office) – and in apparent Disney tradition, it introduced a brand-new pirate paradigm, in the form of Captain Jack Sparrow.

As Sparrow, Johnny Depp reinvented the popular image of pirates – indeed, his performance played a significant role in the success of both Black Pearl and the ongoing franchise it spawned. Though surrounded onscreen by various degrees of Newtonian performances, Depp consciously played against expectations, painting his comic supporting role as a perpetually-drunk, sashaying dandy. In an astonishing case of historical happenstance, Depp’s performance was modeled on the mannerisms of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards – a rockstar from the same party-hard era that produced Robert Newton worshipper Keith Moon. Sparrow, of course, had no ties to Robert Louis Stevenson; he was created from whole cloth by Depp, Verbinski, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. But despite his relatively recent inception, Sparrow looms nearly as large – in Halloween costumes, pirate jokes, and subsequent media – as Long John Silver. 

Today, if you ask someone to imitate a pirate, chances are essentially 100 percent that they’ll actually be imitating a Disney character. Historical pirates have more or less vanished from the minds of the public, and even non-Disney efforts like the TV show Black Sails or video game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag (and the Pirates porn movies) inherited more than a taste of Disney’s versions. Rarely does one film utterly define a genre as Treasure Island: in that regard, it rubs shoulders with the likes of Halloween, Star Wars, and Dracula. That Disney did it again fifty years later is a testament to the immense power of the company to shape pop culture. 

Remember that, next time you put on a pirate voice. You’re not imitating pirates; you’re impersonating Robert Newton. Or maybe Johnny Depp. But either way: it’s gonna be a Disney character.