When Douglas Fairbanks set out to make a pirate movie, he deliberately created a story that embraced all of the genre’s beloved clichés and fun qualities, but was free from the shackles of being faithful to an original literary work (not that it would’ve been necessarily followed, but that’s besides the point).
Even though made in 1926, The Black Pirate is one of the granddaddies of the pirate genre, and it’s Fairbanks ridiculous zeal that influenced both the Errol Flynn actioners like Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940), as well as the Tyrone Power classic The Black Swan (1942) – all three in fact related to tales by author Rafael Sabbatini.
Fairbanks doesn’t run, he gallops; and when he ascends stairs, he leaps in chunks; when reaching for the wheel, he runs and propels himself a storey high – just enough to grab the railing, swing over, and give the enemy a boot-kick to the side.
As the titular hero, Fairbanks plays the classic wronged man out for revenge: when the ship is overrun and blown up by pirates, Fairbanks struggles to keep his father alive, but loses him just as they reach the nearest island. Soon after the pirates land and bury their treasure, the vengeful son decides to infiltrate the gang by becoming a member, and sets about destroying them from within. And yet, in order to become the Black Pirate, he must prove his mettle and loyalty by single-handedly taking over a merchant ship. Only when the deed is gleefully accomplished does he realize he’s doomed its crew to a familiar fate: to be blasted to bits by utter scoundrels.
For a zippy pirate tale, The Black Pirate is very brash in the way it mixes drama, black humour, romance, and some pretty grim violence. The film’s post-credit title cards tally the awful pirate behaviour we’re ultimately shown, and there’s no mercy given to the doomed men of the first ship as they’re rounded up and tied to the mast, and forced to watch the gunpowder sparkle past their immobile legs, until it reaches the powder room and goes kaboom.
Even more arresting is the intro of the pirate captain (Sam De Grasse), who’s seen balancing the sword of a captive, and tests out its practical qualities by lancing its owner, and being quite impressed with the blade’s efficiency.
For real thrills, there’s also a superb fencing duel between Fairbanks and the pirate’s top henchman on the treasure island. The sequence was choreographed by Fred Cavens, a professional fencing master who also worked on The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). For all of the efforts director Kevin Reynolds went to showing elaborate duels in his 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, they pale in comparison to the physical grace, zeal, and danger in the aforementioned classics, which were largely covered in master and medium shots to allow viewers to appreciate the choreography and danger of men wielding pairs of blades at each other. (Ridley Scotts’ The Duellists and Richard Lester’s Musketeers diptych, though, remain major benchmarks in screen fencing.)
The Black Pirate is also a tightly edited film that wastes little time on dialogue; there are few intertitles, and director Albert Parker captures plenty of nuances that build up the characters, as well as the various relationships. A fine example of small business has old time pirate MacTavish (an almost unrecognizable Donald Crisp) propping up swords and daggers around himself to ensure any sudden sleeping during a watch is interrupted by a sharp poke to the skin.
Even though Fairbanks’ also provides enough small moments that show a character quietly wrestling with multiple dilemmas: the obvious fun he’s having being a scoundrel when he’s supposed to be working on avenging his father; falling for a woman whose status as prisoner is all his fault; and the finale, where he dashingly commands a long ship to the pirate vessel, and fights the real villains to free his beloved, and finally kill the scumbag responsible for dad’s death.
A lot of money (reportedly up to $1.5 million) was spent on extravagant sets, a huge cast, excellent costumes, and what was then still a new filmic innovation - 2-strip Technicolor – which gave the film high production value, but boosted the budget far more than a straight black & white production.
As historian Rudy Behlmer explains in the DVD’s ongoing commentary track, Fairbanks had waited a few years until colour film was in a state where it could be commercially viable, and he commissioned extensive tests to ensure the new film wouldn’t just work, but create a specific visual style.
The Black Pirate has the limited colour scheme of the era, but it also looks like an old, found film with single-source lighting redolent of a Rembrandt painting – exactly what Fairbanks wanted. A specific colour design was worked into the production, and even though the night scenes have harsh lighting (one is readily aware of the carbon lamps’ close proximity), they still look grand – partly due to the detailed sets made of wood, glass, and rope.
There’s also some amazing visual tricks in the film that are still refreshing: Fairbanks’ stabbing a sail and sliding down as the blade cuts deep; Fairbanks being pulled up by a rope with a captive to the top mast in one fluid swoop; an underwater swarming of swimming pirates; and Fairbanks being pulled up the side of the ship by crewmen’s outreaching arms.
Equally engrossing is Mortimer Wilson’s original soundtrack – a rarity for the era – which periodically drew from old standards, but largely contained its own fine themes for action, tragedy, and romance. The score is the antithesis of the orchestral bombast and huge brassy sounds typical of the genre. Wilson emphasizes woodwinds, and uses a very modest symphony to perform the score, and it works beautifully. His theme variations aren’t monotonous, and their recurrence nails every important dramatic moment – quite a contrast to the repetitive music tracked throughout the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.
The production history of this technically and stylistically innovative film is finely chronicled by Behlmer, and he provides good background info on the cast, including Donald Crisp, who was at the time a noted actor and film director. Crisp directed Fairbanks in Don Q Son of Zorro (1925), but stopped directing after 1930, focusing entirely on acting in classics like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Behlmer also indulges in a great deal of technical info on the specifics of the 2-strip process employed by Technicolor that involved shooting duplicate protection frames in-camera for foreign release, and the marriage of two film layers, yielding a thicker film print for theatrical exhibition – a problematic format that led to further refinements (and thinner film) soon after.
Behlmer repeats some of the factoids almost verbatim in the separate commentary for the deleted and outtake scenes gallery, but this ranks as one of his most informative commentaries for a classic film, as well as an intro to the complexities in planning, shooting, and distributing a nascent colour film format.
The outtakes encompass Fairbanks’ fencing duel on the treasure isle, and false attempts at the downward sail-ripping and the swoop up to the crow’s nest. There are also some deleted scenes, as well as longer edits of a few moments in the ship battles among pirates.
Also given fair time on the feature film commentary is the film’s restoration, which began in the early seventies and was sourced from a British collection. The restored version was later given a theatrical release in its original 2-strip colour – the first time since the film’s original theatrical run – although for the home video release, efforts were made to restore the original intertitles dropped by distributor Raymond Rohauer.
Kino’s DVD essentially ports over the extras from the 1996 Image laserdisc (Behlmer refers to “Side Two” early into his commentary), but the main qualms with this DVD is the need for new digital transfer that exploits the storage capacity of (at least) a duel layer disc. This DVD compresses the whole lot onto a single layer, and while the details are relatively sharp, the blacks are globby; low-light scenes have no graduated points where details disappear into darkness, and the unlit portions are just chunky masses of black. The DVD is very much watchable, but this is an old transfer that needs a major upgrade so the nuances of the fine colour cinematography are given their full due.
This may be one of the best intros to Fairbanks’ work, given his prior films – The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Don Q Son of Zorro – were longer, and for those wary of silent films, shorter and zippier might be better. Thief was apparently a return to the shorter, tighter action films of early years, and that may be why it’s such a beloved gem. Even without all the production history, The Black Pirate is a wonderful actioner that would surely delight if release again to theatres.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan