Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Overlooked Films: THE BLACK PIRATE (1926)

I was really looking forward to this one, because the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks version of The Mark of Zorro is one of my all-time favorite films. So hey, Doug as a pirate? That should be every bit as good, no? Especially since it's in Technicolor, and the New York Times reportedly called it "Glorious!"

Well, I'd have to call it decent entertainment, but The Mark of Zorro, it ain't. The main problem is, this film has almost no joy, and damn little humor. Fairbanks had great screen presence, and one of the most engaging personalities of the silent era. But here, he's pretty much wasted. While The Mark of Zorro is all about character, this one is all about plot and spectacle, and Fairbanks (even though he's the star) is really just another actor doing his part to keep the story moving. His part could have been played equally well by Rudolph Valentino.

The New York Times also praised the film's "unrivalled beauty . . . mindful of the paintings of the old masters." Well, that's true enough, I suppose. The swordfight on the beach (like that in the later Captain Blood) was stage to invoke a Howard Pyle painting. And the merchantman ship captured and occupied by the pirates is a beautiful set. Trouble is, not much really happens on it. Yeah, there's a lot of climbing around, and a very little fighting, but mostly the story is a love/lust triangle between Fairbanks, his sleazy pirate rival, and the Princess who just happens to be captured along with the ship. Most of the "beauty" comes from the fact this was filmed in an early version of Technicolor, which makes the ship look great, but doesn't do so well on skin tones.

Here's the basic plot: The pirates capture a ship, killing most of it's crew and blowing up the rest, along with the ship. Two men survive and swim to a desert island. Unluckily for the pirates, one of those men is Fairbanks. The other is his father, who quickly dies, making Fairbanks even more determined to extract vengeance. After killing the pirate captain in a duel, Fairbanks starts calling himself The Black Pirate and leads the crew in the attack on the merchantman. He then proposes they ransom the Princess and all get rich. It's all a trick, of course. He really intends to free the Princess, saving her from a Fate Worse Than Death at the hands of the #2 pirate. Instead, Fairbanks falls for her himself.

There's an interesting scene near the end that looks like a 1926 version of Thunderball. Fairbanks has an army of identically-clad warriors who swim underwater for an impossible distance to swarm onto the pirate ship. The battle royale that follows is bloodless, because the Fairbanks guys' method of fighting is to bury their opponents in a rugby scrum.

In all, it's an okay film, but hardly the swashbuckler you'd expect from the title. It's biggest failing was the misuse of Douglas Fairbanks. When he had fun, his audience had fun with him. And when he didn't . . . they got a pedestrian drama like The Black Pirate instead.

Check out the rest of this week's Overlooked Films at Sweet Freedom.

1 comment:

Cap'n Bob said...

He's not even black.