Friday, June 14, 2024

The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate is a 1926 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler so I was always going to enjoy this one.

Fairbanks conceived the idea, he wrote the story, he produced the movie and he starred and as in all his 1920s movies he was in every way the creative driving force here. His 1920s movies are totally Douglas Fairbanks movies.

A pirate movie was an obvious choice for Fairbanks. Rafael Sabatini’s classic pirate novel Captain Blood had been published in 1922 so the idea of a pirate who is actually a hero rather than a villain was very much an idea of the moment. It suited Fairbanks perfectly. Fairbanks however wanted a totally original story, so he wrote one.

Fairbanks felt that a pirate movie needed to be shot in colour. Colour had been around for a while. The very early colour technologies had huge problems and had given colour cinematography a bad name. By 1922 Technicolor had come up with a new process that seemed promising, and by 1926 Fairbanks felt that shooting his pirate movie using this process would be viable.

The movie begins with an exceptionally brutal act of piracy, with most of the crew of the captured merchantman being slaughtered. In fact not just slaughtered, but blown to smithereens. There is one survivor. We don’t really know who this guy is but his name is Michel and he’s played by Douglas Fairbanks and he wants revenge.

He figures the best way to achieve that aim is to get himself accepted as a member of this crew of bloodthirsty cutthroats. That proves to be easy. Firstly he demonstrated that he can take on the toughest of the pirates in a sword fight and win. Then he proves that he can capture a ship single-handed. Now he’s not merely a member of the crew, he might soon be in a position to put himself forward as their leader.

Among the booty captured in their latest coup is a woman. She’s a princess and she’s played by Billie Dove. The current captain and his crew draw lots for her. The captain wins. We can imagine what her fate is going to be. Fairbanks persuades the crew that since the woman is a princess it would be smarter to hold her for ransom rather than letting the captain satisfy his lusts on her. So the stage is set for a power struggle between the current captain and Fairbanks. The stage is also set for a romance. We know that Fairbanks and the princess will fall for each other.

Movies shot in early versions of Technicolor have a very distinctive look. It was a rather crude technology that was unable to reproduce all colours successfully. Earth tones and flesh tones look good, sombre reds look good, blue and green tones look somehow wrong and it really couldn’t do yellow at all. To get reasonably good results required enormous skill. Early Technicolor could work very well in horror movies such as Mystery of the Wax Museum. It gave such movies the right kind of weird other-worldly look. The Black Pirate has an interesting look but it is rather artificial. Since the movie is a kind of fantasy it works after a fashion but the effect can be a bit distracting until you get used to it.

Fairbanks ended up being disappointed by the results and decided not to make any more movies in colour.

On the other hand this is a truly spectacular movie. The budget was generous to say the least. The full-size ship sets look great. The miniature ships used for the ocean scenes look impressive. All the sets are great.

The action climax includes underwater scenes and is clever and crazy and great fun.

Fairbanks is of course excellent. When you watch his stunts, which would do credit to an Olympic athlete, bear in mind that he was a 43-year-old chain-smoker. And he really did do the stunts himself. He also has that distinctive Fairbanks mischievous charm.

Billie Dove doesn’t have to do much apart from looking frightened and looking like a princess but she does both those things successfully.

There’s a memorable evil scheming villain.

There are also some quite brutal moments, such as a pirate casually wandering up to a bound prisoner and running him through with a sword just for the the pleasure of killing. This was of course long before such horrors as the Production Code were even thought of. It’s also made crystal clear that, if Michel cannot intervene successfully, the princess is to become a sexual plaything for the pirates.

The Black Pirate
is a fine swashbuckler. It’s a genre that Fairbanks largely invented and it suited him perfectly. There were other good silent pirate movies and later sound films such as Captain Blood would surpass The Black Pirate but this was an important pioneering effort that is still hugely entertaining today. Highly recommended.

The Cohen Films Blu-Ray looks terrific. Don’t be put off by the colours - early Technicolor is supposed to look like this. The audio commentary offers some genuinely fascinating details not just about the production but also about cool stuff like the history of colour in early feature films and the evolution of movie sword-fighting. Other extras include outtakes. It’s an excellent Blu-Ray presentation.

1 comment:

  1. By the end of this review, I was practically drooling lol