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 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) .